Dermot Tynan, Software Engineer and Sailor

I always had an interest in sailing, from my earliest memories. My original career aspirations involved working in the Merchant Navy as a radio officer, tapping out Morse code from many miles offshore. Luckily, my Mother talked me out of that career, as radio officers have gone the way of lift operators thanks to satellite communications. When I worked in British Telecom in the early nineties, a friend and co-worker of mine was a sailing instructor, and he took it upon himself to teach me. We spent many hours in the river Deben together. When I returned to Galway, I joined the Galway Bay Sailing Club, bought an old, wooden Fireball, and started racing.

Hi, my name is Dermot Tynan and I am a software engineer, filmmaker and robotic sailing nuisance. I originally started out working in hardware, raised on the smell of lead-based solder. Unfortunately, in those days, circuit boards were expensive, components were not easy to find, and the maker community did not exist. Even personal computers did not exist! In college (I studied Electronic Engineering), I discovered the DecSystem 20, which was a mainframe computer. After that, the soldering iron barely got a look-in. I got offered a job in Silicon Valley in California, and deserted my college-mates to go work at the centre of the software universe (it was back then, at least). Software allowed me to explore creating weird and wonderful things without the expense of having to build circuit boards, or long hours of soldering. I have always loved software which gets to the heart of things. Real-time systems, operating systems, networking, and so on.

I returned to Europe after eight wonderful years. I knew then, if I stayed in California any longer, I would never leave. Whether that was a good thing or a bad thing, is another story. I moved to London and worked as a computer contractor for a few years, ending up in Ipswich, working with British Telecom. An opportunity came up with Digital in Galway, and that seemed like a great opportunity to “close the circle.” I moved back to Galway in 1994, and apart from a two-year stint in California again in 2001/2002, I have been here ever since.

I have always loved the sea, and the idea that you can untie the lines and head off into the mystic, still has a huge draw. In 2009, six of us sailed a 40-foot boat from Galway to the British Virgin Islands in the Caribbean. We “legged” the boat from Galway to Las Palmas, and in November of that year, departed Las Palmas for Saint Lucia, where we arrived, 16 days later. After a short stay in Rodney Bay, we island-hopped up to the BVI’s before flying home, spending a few weeks indulging ourselves in Caribbean hospitality and sunshine.

The ocean crossing itself was an interesting experience for many reasons. At sea, main battery charge is pretty important, so we quickly entered into a routine of not turning on lights to read. Before we left, we thought we would sit in the cockpit at night until the wee hours, talking or reading. The reality turned out that we all snuck off to our respective bunks by 8PM. Except for the poor person on watch, of course! Between the amazing sunrises, sunsets and starry skies unhindered by street lights, we switched into a diurnal cycle more akin to our ancient past than modern-day society, where we reach for the light switch when it gets a bit dark, or close the curtains to avoid the early morning sun. Also, as it can take anywhere from days to weeks to cross the Atlantic, it is impossible to accurately predict when we might arrive. As a result, we tended not to think too much about the future, and yesterday seemed like a distant memory. For someone who spends a lot of time arranging my calendar, it was a welcome relief to be able to live “in the moment” with scant regard to future events. We had a satellite modem with us for day-to-day weather downloads, and sporadic email. At the time, we were hearing people mention banking issues, celebrity scandals, and other everyday occurrences, but without newspapers or web browsers, we had little or no interest. I have to say, being disconnected from schedules and 24-hour news was a welcome break.

Beyond all of that, arriving into a new harbour or cove is both thrilling and terrifying in equal measure. Searching for a safe anchorage, avoiding unknown hazards, and following cryptic instructions are coupled with the sense of euphoria at having sailed to somewhere new, exploring the shore, and of course that well-earned beer at the end of it all.

Fuel stop in the British Virgin Islands

Sailing is an amazing pastime. Most people associate it with the high-end of sailing, and either Olympic racing or the sailing equivalent of Formula One, known as the America’s Cup. To the untrained eye, a sailing race can seem like a confusing morass of boats, going in different directions. But the reality of sailing is that it is a pastime for far more people who are not Olympic athletes, or America’s Cup sailors. Nearly every large coastal town in Ireland has some sort of sailing club, and there are a variety of inland clubs as well. Weekly “round the cans” racing is a great excuse to leave the office on time, and there is nothing quite like the thrill of approaching a racing mark with a competitor or two either side of you. At the same time, I look forward to two weeks of sunshine and sailing every year in Greece. Far removed from the hustle of a start line, or a wet summer’s evening in Galway Bay, it offers the opportunity to retrace the steps of the ancient Greeks, and arrive into hidden coves, which feel like they have not changed in thousands of years.

Some years back, I finally took the plunge and went through the trial-by-fire known as the ISA Small Boat Scheme, and became a senior instructor. I never saw this as an opportunity to make money, and I definitely enjoyed teaching adult sailing in Galway. I am not convinced I would ever give up writing software to teach sailing, but it was certainly a different start to the “working” day, zipping up a wetsuit and heading for the club.

Like many sailors, I often think about the lifestyle it offers: the ability to “sell up and sail” as many have done before me. The firm decisions to sell all your land-based “stuff”, buy a sailboat, and move on board – either with a view to circumnavigating the world, or just moving from place to place with no schedule, and no long-term plan. When the winter storms drown my spirits in rainwater, I think back to the Royal Navy in their heyday, which said that the navigation route to the Caribbean was to “sail south until the butter melts and turn right.” I sometimes daydream about following those very instructions.

When I heard about the Microtransat Challenge, my first reaction was to declare it as madness, as an impossible feat. When we crossed the Atlantic, we spent an hour or two of every day, repairing odd items ranging from frayed lines, salt build-up, or a broken boom. The idea that a small boat, less than 10 feet long (the maximum length is 2.4 metres), without any outside assistance or even external remote control, could cross the same body of water, was laughable. It still is. My second reaction was that I wanted to get involved and to enter a boat of my own.

I built the first hull in 2013, starting with a design of my own. Initially, I was intimidated by the prospect of designing and building a hull, but like many things, once you get started at it, it turns out to be less challenging than you thought (unlike, say, the Microtransat itself!). Aligned with the Microtransat are the World Robotic and Sailing Conference and four-day sea trials, held each year across Europe. In 2014, the nation hosting the competition had to bow out, and I stepped in, with the help of my employer Hewlett Packard Enterprise, the Galway Bay Sailing Club, and the Port of Galway. We hosted the event in September of that year, with entries from Portugal, Wales, France, the US, and even a couple of Galway teams. I decided against participating as well as organizing the event.

Various other activities distracted me from working on my own entry, and it was last year (2017) before I managed to find time to get back to working on the boat. Since then, I decided to use a different hull design and a bigger boat. Professor Paul Miller of the US Naval Academy graciously modified his design, increasing the length from 1.2m to 2.4m and since then, I have been working on building a new hull. I have also revised the software and control systems.

I am often asked when I think I will launch an attempt at the Microtransat Challenge, and the answer is invariably, “soon!” In reality, I do have high hopes for a late-2018 entry but I suspect I will end up attempting the challenge in early 2019. The To-Do list does not get any shorter. If anything, it grows longer.

Dermot’s first hull built for The Mircotransat Challenge

In and of itself, I am not sure that sailing has much overlap with technology. Sailing is akin to the dark arts in many ways. Sail trim seems to defy science and it is all but impossible to be able to account for the wind, the weather, the tide, the waves, the boat and all of the other many parameters that constantly change as you encourage a sailboat to bob through the ocean. Libraries have been written about weather prediction, mainsail trimming, “how sails work” and all kinds of other aspects of sailing, but nothing replaces actually being out on the water, adjusting the sails and seeing what happens.

Conversely, the challenge of Robotic Sailing is trying to bring these two disparate worlds together. The largest challenge is trying to get a computer, which hates the water, and which is susceptible to corrosion in a salty environment, to function on its own for weeks and months on end, without difficulty. Getting the computer on my desk to do that is challenging enough. It is possible to teach someone to sail in only a short period of time. Give me someone who is not afraid of the sea, and I can teach them the basics to be able to sail their own boat in a sheltered bay on their own, in a weekend. They will spend the remaining years of their lives trying to figure out all of the nuances of sailing fast. But training a computer, which cannot see, and only has wind direction and a GPS to guide it, is much harder. An event like the Microtransat at least removes the hazards of hitting land by nature of the fact that it is an offshore race, but the challenges are not small and are numerous. In the ten or so years of the Microtransat Challenge, no boat has lasted more than a few days.

It is often helpful to be able to switch off from the more mundane aspects of writing software for a living, where the primary aim is usefulness rather than the complexity of the challenge. Driving home, thinking about how to code up an algorithm using a PID controller to automatically tack the boat, can take your mind off the mundane.

To newcomers: do not get too caught up in the technology or the techniques. Enjoy the experience. Also, sailing is such a wide sport, ranging from Olympic racing or professional sailing right through to living on board your own sailboat and charting a course to your next port. Pick the area of interest, from cruising and “gunk-holing” to racing. Do as many or as few as interest you. Try big keelboat racing and cruising, and then try towing a dinghy behind your car and spending a weekend sailing it around some near-deserted cove on the Irish coastline.

Check out Dermot’s boat he is building for The Microtransat Challenge here.

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