Brett Phaneuf, a Massachusetts expat living in Plymouth, England, happened to be meeting with local officials about a project when the talk turned to the 400th commemoration of the Mayflower sailing to the New World.
One of the embarkation ports for the Pilgrims, the Plymouth, England, side of the celebration will include a reenactment of the voyage to the other Plymouth with a replica Mayflower. An anthropologist and entrepreneur who runs a company that makes undersea research vessels, Phaneuf thought the anniversary version of the Mayflower lacked imagination.
“The problem with a 17th-century ship is when you’re done with it, you have a 17th-century ship,” Phaneuf said. “So I said, instead of thinking of the last 400 years, why not think about the next 400 years?”
So Phaneuf worked with designers to create a futuristic vessel that looks like a cross between a spaceship and catamaran — and that will sail itself. He dubbed it the Mayflower Autonomous Research Ship, or MARS, and has convinced the city to add the ship to the commemoration, which will include its own transatlantic voyage in September 2020.
“We could’ve built something mundane, but we wanted something evocative of the future,” said Phaneuf, 47, a University of Massachusetts graduate who traces his family history to the 1620s in Lynn.
His project has been adopted by Plymouth University in the UK, which has a leading marine research operation and will use the vessel as a floating laboratory to collect environmental data. Powered by wind and solar, the ship will be about 105 feet long and made primarily from carbon fiber.
Now Phaneuf and the university have to find $15 million to build it.
Unlike the lengthy crossing of the Mayflower, MARS is expected to make the trip in a few weeks. Once in Massachusetts, Plymouth expects to use MARS in its 400th anniversary educational programs, which include a $1.5 million marine center that will have a control room for the ship.
“Bringing this to the oldest town in New England makes it all the more cool and interesting; the newest technology in the oldest community,” said Michele Pecoraro, executive director of the Plymouth 400 organizing committee. “It’s a great juxtaposition; it’s a great promotion piece.”