Express reporter James Murray (Image: John McLellan)
IT IS enough to break a salty seadog's heart. There will be no shout of "land ahoy" or "aye, aye captain" on this modern-day Mary Celeste. The so-called robo-boat is a vessel controlled entirely by computers and the bridge is actually a small office on dry land. The £2million, 39-foot-long Sea-Kit merrily cruised around Tollesbury marina, near Maldon, Essex, without a soul on board and nobody at the helm - like a giant radio-controlled model boat.
And I joined the real "captain", Ashley Skett, at the control centre as he skilfully manoeuvred Sea-Kit from the comfort of his office half a mile from her berth.
Neither he nor I could physically see the vessel, but with its eight cameras feeding live images through a satellite system, we knew precisely where she was and what she was doing every second.
"I can't even smell the sea from here, never mind see it," says Ashley, 35. "I am the master of the vessel and I have complete control of her movements and her functions.
"To the outsider it might look like I'm playing a video game but the reality is I am responsible for this unmanned vessel on the open seas so I have to pay attention to everything.
"I might be the captain from afar but I am still in control. When she is at sea somebody always has to be at the control centre to comply with maritime regulations."
Last week Ashley and the team created seafaring history when they took a tray of oysters from Mersea Island, which lies off Tollesbury, loaded them on to Sea-Kit and sailed her to Ostend in Belgium.
Travelling at four knots it took her 18 hours to get there.Within minutes of docking the oysters were unloaded before 10 bottles of Belgian beer were put in the hold for the return trip. When the boat arrived safely back at her home berth, it wasn't long before the beer was drunk in celebration of a global first.
Sea-Kit creator Ben Simpson (Image: John McLellan)
No one has ever sent an uncrewed vessel loaded with cargo on such a long sea journey through busy shipping lanes. It may not have attracted as much publicity as the launch of the Titanic, but in global seafaring it was an historic moment.
And the fact that a British company has achieved the seemingly impossible has largely gone unnoticed. However, the trip proved that any ocean is Sea-Kit's oyster now.
Ben Simpson, managing director of Sea-Kit International, says: "Taking the oysters to Belgium was an important trial, and a bit of fun, because it showed what she is capable of and she passed with flying colours."
Sea-Kit has actually been designed for carrying out ocean surveys. With just seven per cent of the world's seas properly mapped, there is a massive demand for finding a cheaper way of doing the work rather than relying on ocean survey vessels, which need large crews and are slow and expensive to run. Ben, who grew up in the Norfolk Broads, says: "There's a huge environmental advantage to using an unmanned vessel for ocean surveys. Sea-Kit would use two tonnes of diesel compared to 300 tonnes for an ocean survey ship.
"She can send all the data back live through the satellite system so it can be assessed instantly by experts sitting in the comfort of an office. You also save a lot of money as you don't need a crew.'' As he shows me around his pride and joy, he speaks like someone who has just been given an Aston Martin for a weekend runabout.
"There is £300,000 worth of kit on that mast," he says. "At the