Crewless and abandoned, the small boat bobs uneasily in the growing swell. Violent winds lash at its deck while unsympathetic waves will it to capsize. To the casual observer this unassuming vessel appears to have broken its moorings and drifted, unnoticed out to sea. It is only a matter of time before nature takes its course and angry waters consume the boat.
Moments later the vessel’s secrets are dramatically revealed as a sail shoots to the top of the mast and the rudder snaps to one side. The boat heaves forward as the winds catch the fullness of the sheet. A jib sail suddenly comes into view and the boat embarks on a new course. All this is done in the blink of an eye and, as far as can be made out, without a scrap of human intervention. Incredibly, the boat is sailing itself.
Part art installation, part engineering test platform, this is Ghost Ship — a unique public art project by internationally renowned artist Chris Burden. A traditional 29ft sailing boat, known as a 'Sixareen', she has been fitted with technology and equipment to allow independent navigation by the University's School of Engineering Sciences.
Commissioned by visual arts agency Locus+ and funded by the Arts Council and other partners, Ghost Ship started life in February 2005. Dr David Labbe of the University of Southampton’s School of Engineering Sciences explains. ‘Chris Burden wanted to combine the old, in the form of traditional boat building, with contemporary engineering techniques. His vision was to build an autonomous craft capable of negotiating a course from the Shetland Islands, through the Orkneys to Gateshead in Newcastle in time for the Tall Ships event on 28 July.’