Pedal pushers: the trans-Atlantic pedalo

Two young engineers are hoping to break a record for an Atlantic crossing…in a craft powered by pedals. Stuart Nathan reports


Batman’s boat: The Torpedalo has very little in common with pedalos seen at the seaside

The craft is designed around the bodies of its crew and to cut through the roughest oceans. Its lines are sharp and sleek; the hull long, narrow and sharply pointed. Above the windscreen of the cabin area is a cluster of communication aerials; behind these, the smooth roof of the vessel houses a long solar panel. It’s a high-tech craft bred for a single purpose: to cross the Atlantic in record time. Its power source: one naked man, pedalling frantically.

The craft rejoices in the name Torpedalo and it’s the brainchild of two young engineers at Bentley Motors, Mark Byass and Mike Sayer. It’s in their interest to design the best boat they can, as they’re also its crew, taking it in turns to pedal the craft across the 3,000 miles separating La Gomera in the Canary Islands and Antigua. Byass and Sayer will be the first pedalo crew ever to take part in the Woodvale Challenge, a biennial trans-Atlantic rowing race; they aim to raise £250,000 for two charities as a result of their trip. They’ll also be only the second pedalo ever to cross the Atlantic, and hope to slash the crossing time of 111 days down to 38. ’That’s a very optimistic target,’ Byass told The Engineer. ’We’d need a calm sea and a following wind. But we’re carrying supplies for 90 days, and that’ll still break the record.’

It might seem like an act of lunacy but it’s the result of a long and fruitful collaboration between Byass and Sayer, both of whom also have a history of taking part in physical endurance events – ’cycling, relaying running, swimming silly distances or running marathons up the Jungfraü,’ Byass said. Stemming from a conversation in a pub, as many things do, the idea began as taking a standard pedalo across the English Channel, developing via Byass’s ambition to row the Atlantic and Sayer’s to do something pedal-powered, to designing and building a pedalo to cross the Atlantic as a dual engineering and physical challenge.

It’s fair to say that the Torpedalo has very little in common with any pedalo you’d see at the seaside or on a boating lake. It’s not the sort of craft a drunken cricketer would be tempted to take a spin in. Decked out in Bentley’s trademark glossy, pitch-black livery on Byass and Sayer’s 3D simulation, it spins in eerie silence, the computer-generated light playing off its streamlined virtual form. If Batman had a pedalo, it would look like this.

The Torpedalo is not the sort of craft a drunken cricketer would be tempted to take a spin in

The fact that nobody has ever competed in the Woodvale Challenge in a pedalo gave Byass and Sayer some design freedom. The rowing boats in the race have to conform to class rules – single, two or four-person crews, based on a standard design prioritising cheapness of materials and ease of construction, and a self-righting ability if the boat capsizes. The Torpedalo, however, only has to stick to the main rule of the race – it has to be self-sufficient for the entire voyage, powering all its electrical equipment such as communications and navigation, and holding all the food and water for the crew. As the necessary food will weigh 200kg at the start of the voyage, Byass and Sayer have opted to install seawater desalination equipment rather than carrying fresh water, while the solar panels will provide the necessary power.

The design of the boat is forming part of the final year project for Byass’s engineering degree, for which he is studying while at Bentley. ’The only problem,’ he said, ’is that the degree is technically in mechatronics, which is as useful to hydrodynamic analysis as a camel on rollerskates.’ He will therefore be advised by a collection of experts in hydrodynamics, ergonomics, boat design, and carbon-fibre usage.

The boat is a self-righting single-hull design, 8m long, 1.5m wide and 1.5m high, excluding the keel and propellor. The hull is a double-skin carbon-fibre construction with a foam core, supported on carbon ribs; the resin component of the composite is a soya-derived epoxy, and the power train, designed by Ivo Nikolov of McLaren, is a single-gear pedal crankset with a two-stage belt drive operating a custom-designed twin-blade slow-speed propellor. The first belt in the system boosts the revolutions of the pedals fourfold, and the second turns the rotation through 90º and transmits it to the prop.

The team used a tank at the University of Newcastle to optimise the shape of the main hull, drawing on the expertise of Prof Martin Downie, Peter Bowes and Peter Wright of the School of Marine Science and Technology. ’We started from the design of a rowing skiff, which was also the starting point for the established trans-Atlantic rowing boats,’ Byass said. The shape is designed to maximise stability while minimising water resistance, and the final design generates 40 per cent less drag than the rowing boats competing in the race.

Hull bound:the completed hull in the tank at Newcastle

Two solar panels will generate the power to run the GPS navigation system, VHF radio, satellite phone, radar transceiver, lighting, desalination and video system, as well as an iPod to help the pedalling hours slip by.

“We’re going to be pedalling for up to 90 days, 24 hours a day, on the open ocean. We must be a little bit nuts”

Mark Byass

The power source, of course, is human. Byass and Sayer will take it in turns to pedal in two-hour shifts, trying for a speed of 85rpm; this will propel the boat at an average of 3 knots (3.3km/hr), although it will reach a top speed of 15 knots when surfing down big waves. Energy requirements – a million calories in total for the six-week voyage – are such that a quarter of their food supply is chocolate, peanuts and energy bars.

Comfort is a major factor; it’s the main reason that the pair will be clothes-free throughout the voyage, as that eliminates the problem of chafing from clothing and reduces the chance of salt-water sores (plus, of course, meaning there’s no need for laundry). But it also led them to a great interest in their bottoms. ’Nobody has ever sat in a recumbent seat for that long, as far as we know,’ Byass said. ’We were lucky enough to have a 3D scanning system at Bentley, so we got our backsides scanned and worked with an ergonomicist, Alan Ramsay, to design a custom-made seat. We’ve tested it out and it’s a great improvement on what was available before.’

In search of space: space inside the boat will be highly constrained and the temperature inside the sleeping quarters will average around 30°

Space is constrained. Byass and Sayer will only be able to stand upright by sticking their heads out of the boat’s hatch, behind the cockpit, and the sleeping compartment’s temperature will average around 30ºC. There will be a solar shower on board, but the pair are expecting to be thoroughly repulsive by the time they reach Antigua.

The boat is now in the manufacturing phase, with Oxford-based Curvature Group making the patterns and Norco GRP of Poole doing the carbon-fibre layup, both working for free. The Woodvale Challenge departs from La Gomera on 4 December.

Byass is under no illusions about the task ahead. ’Fully loaded, the boat weighs a tonne,’ he said. ’That’s daunting. We’re going to be pedalling two hours on, two hours off, for 24 hours a day, up to 90 days, on the open ocean. We must be a little bit nuts.’

Mark Byass and Mike Sayer are raising money for the Motor Neurone Disease Association and Make-A-Wish. To help them reach their target of £250,000, please go to their website.

indepth -vital statistics

Pedalling, chocolate and iPod shuffles on the ocean waves

» Torpedalo dimensions
Length: 9m
Beam: 1.5m
Weight (shell): 200kg

» The voyage
Pedal revolutions: 4.5 million (estimated)
Pedal power generated: 130W
Average Atlantic wave height: 2.5m
Amount of chocolate on-board: 36kg
Number of songs on iPod: 40,000
Estimated volume of sweat over 40 days: 1,100 litres