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Sailing: All contact lost as Roboboat develops mind of own

Roboboat has got away. So if you're taking the Bank Holiday break along the Atlantic coast and spot a weird-looking un-manned 10-foot sailing boat behaving in an erratic manner, don't imagine you're seeing things.

For, like something out of the better sci-fi films, it's a robotic boat that has committed the ultimate sin of developing a mind of its own.

The lucky finder may have to speak to the free-minded little craft in Welsh, as she is the creation of boffins at the University of Aberystwyth. We're assured it was all done in their spare time in the informal Microtransat contest with the University of Toulouse.

But when you see some of the academic projects that get buckets of official dosh, the Roboboat -- she's called Pinta after one of Columbus' ships -- is very good value, as the team did it themselves, spending £2,500 of their own money.

Launched from Ireland's west coast in September, gallant little Pinta sailed on her way into the gathering autumn gales in the Atlantic, with all systems -- they're solar-powered -- working a treat.

But two weeks ago, and 400 sea miles (650km) on her way, things started to go haywire.

She was soon heading in all directions except the one required. Then all contact was lost. So now, after a frantic fortnight of trying everything, the Pinta people have now gone public in case anyone happens upon their creation.

She may just come in on Ireland's west coast. But don't count on it. Any 10ft boat that has the capacity to get 400 miles out into the Atlantic in the weather of September and October will naturally develop a mind of her own.

Pinta has it all sussed out. She's clearly headed south for the warmer weather of the Azores, or maybe even the Canaries, and who can blame her?

Meanwhile, the cream of international off-shore racing are likewise indicating that the North Atlantic in late October is not for fun.

A fine fleet of 84 boats start today in the annual 606-mile Rolex Middle Sea Race from Malta. But any notions that the Mediterranean is a warm millpond have been knocked on the head on the last two outings, which have been decidedly rugged.

This added to the lustre of the 2009 overall victory of Andy Soreano's Mark Mills-designed 68-footer Alegre.

Soreano is on the line to defend this morning, and the competition this year is more intense, with its larger fleet, which includes Mike Slade's super-maxi Leopard, and top boats from the US, Italy, Spain, Russia, France, Switzerland, the UK, Malta and Ireland.

Ireland's entry is one and a half boats. The winner of the 2009 Dun Laoghaire-Dingle Race, the X41 Legally Brunette (Paul Egan & Cathal Drohan) is going again, while the Maltese-owned Grand Soleil 40 Aziza (Sandro Musa) has half her crew from Ireland, with Transatlantic Solo winner Barry Hurley on the strength, together with Andrew Boyle, Brian Flahive and Liam Coyne.

A date has been agreed for the sailing of the final flight of the All-Ireland Helmsman's Title, frustrated by total calm in late September. It's Saturday, November 20, at Crosshaven, with the following day kept in reserve.

Irish Independent