Mariners Take Aim at Autonomous Sailing “Buoy”

autonomous sailing boat
Image via Microtransat’s event page

Race organizers of the “Microtransat” apparently got the response they were looking for from the IMO and French Coastguard.  Their race across the Atlantic using autonomous, 4 meter-long sailboats allegedly does not have any conflicts with the International Rules for Prevention of Collisions at Sea (COLGREGs)  because these vessels would be classed as a buoys, not vessels.

Because there’s nobody on board and it’s floating in the ocean, it must be a buoy… or a piece of debris, as one of our Forum members described.

In the Microtransat’s Frequently Asked Questions page, they bring up the question:

Do the boats have to include any kind of autonomous collision-avoidance system to prevent collision with other floating objects?

In response, the race organizers say no, citing that these boats do not carry passengers or cargo and thus do not satisfy the definition of a vessel according to COLREGS.

Many gCaptain Forum members suggest such a “buoy” would be a menace on the high seas and should be targeted by ships and purposely run over, others say that salvage rights would apply if found.

It would be difficult to justify either of the above responses considering such an object would present zero danger to a merchant vessel, however if a collision occurred at sea with a private yacht causing damage, or injury, that’s when things begin to get complicated as there is very little if any legal precedence for such a situation.

In response to this article a gCaptain source involved with the Microtransat tells gCaptain that the U.S. Coast Guard was consulted as well.  “Their ‘unofficial’ view was that if the boat was under eight feet it was not a vessel. They went further and told us that if the boat collected data like an oceanographic data buoy and was listed in the Notice to Mariners, then that was sufficient.”

Our source goes on to say, “one of the behind the scenes activities going on is a move to lower the maximum length to 2.4 meters from 4. The purpose is to reduce the displacement to a point where the boats are not likely to hurt even a row boat.”

In addition, it seems the idea of a buoy may not be so far-fetched. NOAA’s Global Drifter Program consists of over 1200 buoys that are currently drifting around in the ocean collecting data.

gCaptain has reached out to the IMO and they are currently looking into this scenario.

Want to hear what some in the maritime industry has to say about this? Follow the rather colorful discussion in the gCaptain Forum HERE.