An Orange Pixel flickers on the horizon, sandwiched between the inky azure of the mid-Pacific and the robin’s-egg pale of the Hawaiian sky. Richard Jenkins is the first to see it—a sailing robot, which has been blowing our way for a month. We’re in a small motorboat 7 miles out at sea, just north of Oahu’s windward shore. Dylan Owens gets the next good glimpse. “I see the wing,” he exclaims, “and the tail!”
Jenkins and Owens are the engineering duo behind Saildrone, which in the words of their website is “a wind-powered autonomous surface vehicle.” On October 1, the 19-foot craft was set loose in the San Francisco Bay with a simple command lodged in its electronic brain: Sail to Hawaii. For 2,248 nautical miles the boat did the rest. The path it chose happens to be identical to that of the annual Pacific Cup sailing race, and the fastest anyone has traversed this course is just over five days. The single-handed-sailing record is eight and a half days. As Jenkins and Owens look on, Saildrone is about to complete what might be called the first no-handed ocean sail: San Francisco to Hawaii in 34 days.