This Sunday (29th October 2023) the Transat Jacques Vabre will set sail from Le Havre in northern France with almost 100 doublehanded racing yachts ranging from giant 32m long Ultim trimarans to Class40s, bound for Martinique in the French Caribbean.
They must first face the busiest shipping lanes in the world in the English Channel/La Manche and its powerful tides, followed by crossing the Bay of Biscay. With this comes the threat of collisions not just from shipping, plus pleasure and fishing boats, but other objects in the water, both identified and unidentified. These are made all the harder to spot by crews on the race as they are only two on board.
Electronic aids to prevent collisions at sea are nothing new. Radar is the most established technology having been used on pleasure boats since the 1970s.
Over the last 20 years, AIS vessel tracking has become standard on yachts across the globe. This allows the position of vessels to be displayed visually, superimposed over a radar image or routing software or in stand-alone computer software, even a phone app.
However, both systems have weaknesses – AIS is not infallible, and some vessels still don’t carry it or have it switched on. Radar works well in the right conditions but assumes that the set is properly tuned and powerful enough. It is not good at spotting small objects nor objects that are only just above the surface.
Enter SEA.AI (formerly OSCAR) which uses additional technology to complement existing technology.
Conceived and developed by Raphaël Biancale, whose background is in intelligent car systems and automotive software, SEA.AI harnesses visual and thermal imaging from a lightweight, masthead-mounted camera array. This data is then compared via its algorithm with its giant database of ‘objects’, that since it began in 2018 has reached around 9 million objects and continues to grow and ‘learn’. Such ‘objects’ include logs, containers, buoys, small vessels such as local fishing boat and icebergs etc.
Visual and thermal images are compared with this database to identify floating object’s characteristics and then provide information on collision risk for the skipper to decide whether to take avoiding action or not. SEA.AI can also be highly valuable for use in man overboard incidents, especially at night.
Given the importance of collision avoidance, not just the potential severity or even the life-threatening nature of such incidents, but the potentially profound effects on a racing yacht’s performance, use of SEA.AI is seen as vital by short-handed skippers competing in the Transat Jacques Vabre, especially in the bigger classes. It is fitted on all of the Ultims and more than half of the IMOCA fleet. Some are relying on it so much that they won’t leave the dock without it being switched on.
As Clarisse Crémer, skipper of the IMOCA L’Occitane En Provence says: “I’ve been using SEA.AI since the 2020 Vendée Globe and I have it back on my new boat. I remember during my previous Vendee Globe when I was in the Indian Ocean, I came across a barrel of petrol – it wasn’t exactly in my way, but it was detected by SEA.AI even in quite big waves. I quickly came out to get a closer look. I could see passing by just next to the boat. I was relieved to see it wasn’t going to hit me, but also pleased that it had been spotted. Colliding with objects and other boats is one of the biggest dangers we face on these kinds of boats. And because they’re going so much faster than before and we’re in closed cockpits, it can get quite dangerous. So, SEA.AI is a valuable asset to enhance safety. I’m happy that it exists; it’s a great tool, and I hope it continues to improve in the months and years to come.”
Jack Bouttell agrees. Recently he won the Ocean Race as a crew member on 11th Hour Racing. This Saturday he will set off as co-skipper with Sam Davies on Initiatives Coeurs. He says of SEA.AI: “It’s a pretty important product for us. The speed at which these boats travel now, and the fact that the cockpit is fully enclosed are important factors for protection, but we don’t always have the best visibility. Any pre-warning we can get is a massive bonus. It seems there are more and more things floating in the ocean unfortunately, so anything to help us avoid that is a huge benefit.“
Alan Roura, skipper of the IMOCA Hublot adds: “I have used SEA.AI for two years. It was on my boat when I bought it from Alex Thompson. We had a really good experience with it on the Guyader Bermudes 1000 race miles at the beginning of the year: We were downwind, our AIS was not really working, and it started beeping 30m away from a big fishing boat. We just had time to change course and passed about ten meters away from it. If it hadn’t been on, we would have crashed into it. So, it works…”
Gérald Veniard, co-skipper to Arnaud Boissieres on the IMOCA La Mie Câline says: “The system is getting better and better. There’s a small alarm on the main screen in the cockpit that beeps softly, like a submarine echo. When it beeps, we check in front of the boat instantly because it could be anything- like a sailing boat or a fishing vessel – within 600-800m. It’s a helpful warning. We’re happy with any system that helps us avoid objects. We have multiple systems, including radar, AIS and SEA.AI at the top of the mast. The more systems and alarms we have, the less likely we are to collide with objects.”
Sébastien Marsset, skipper on the IMOCA Foussier confirms: “I have many memories of times when it was useful because it happens regularly. For example, when we come back from training with the Finistère ocean racing centre, we often sail past Le Guilvinec. There are a lot of fishing boats, boats of less than twelve metres. They don’t necessarily have an AIS. So we’ve sometimes seen boats thanks to SEA.AI. I still remember what Sam Davies told me along the African coast in the Jacques Vabre 2021, where they avoided a serious collision. Thanks to that, I’m very happy to have a boat equipped with it and to be able to rely on it.”
One of the most exciting developments of SEA.AI is the EXOS 2024 project. This collaboration between SEA.AI, Pixel sur Mer and ENSTA Bretagne has been set by the IMOCA class and is being organised by the Pole Mer Bretagne Atlantique with the aim of improving safety of competitors in the 2024 Vendée Globe. The EXOS project, partly financed by Brittany Region and BPI France will merge all of the available technologies– a multi-sensor fusion of electronics, data and AI, and harness this to a yacht’s autopilot, thereby creating the ‘holy grail’: an effective automatic collision avoidance system, that will even steer a yacht out of harm’s way.