There’s nothing unusual about Steven Roberts’ powerboat from the outside, minus a few antennas on the stern. Yet, step aboard the 50-foot vessel and you’ll find a lab equipped with a 3-D printer, weather station, virtual reality system, electronic piano, 10 ham radios, and more.
Basically, it’s 50,000 pounds of mostly electronics – many of which are voice-activated – docked at the Port of Friday Harbor.
“Ever since I was a kid, I loved having tools that extend my senses,” said Roberts. “It’s not a boat that has a bunch of gadgets, it feels like an expansion of my own mind.”
At 6 foot 4 inches, Roberts towers over his machine shop below, the assembly area on the bridge, and the computer lab a step above that, next to the galley. He admits he doesn’t know the difference between work and play — whether he’s digitizing film for one of his businesses or printing a 3-D model of his brain, using an MRI scan. For fun.
Roberts has been a self-described “technomad” since 1983 — before the ubiquity of the internet and just as personal computers had hit the market. It was then that he started an eight-year journey around the U.S. on a computerized, recumbent bicycle — the kind where riders recline, instead of sit up.
“The idea of nomadic connectivity, I kind of pioneered it in a way,” said Roberts. “Now a lot of people self-identify as technomads. It’s become a thing.”
At the time, it was Roberts’ escape from a 9-to-5 job, 30-year mortgage, and suburbia, which he attributes to a state of mind, not just location. What he wanted was freedom, while maintaining a steady paycheck as a freelance journalist.
So he loaded his bike with his four-pound laptop and set out for what would become a 17,000-mile ride.
“I ate an oyster omelet in North Carolina, almost got a speeding ticket in Georgia and fell in love in Key West,” wrote Roberts on his blog at microship.com, which chronicles the journey.
Using a network and dial-up internet, Roberts sent articles to his assistant in Ohio, to edit and submit to publications like Time magazine and Newsweek. The bike went through three phases, eventually incorporating a computer keyboard on the handlebars, receiving an Apple sponsorship and costing an estimated $1.2 million, including labor. In 2000, he donated it to the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley. He was featured in hundreds of national publications including the front page of the Wall Street Journal and he wrote a book chronicling the first part of the trip.
Once, while in rural Ohio, a local pulled his pickup over to look at the first model of his eight-foot-long computerized bike.
“Are you from NASA?” he asked.
Soon, the media attention overpowered his once solitary trek. So he traded the land for water and built a computerized catamaran, instead, with three hulls. It’s equipped with wheels for easy mobility and a tent and mattress for overnight stays. The electronics on his catamaran, like all his bikes, are solar powered. Yet, by the end of the 10-year construction, Roberts wasn’t up for another long voyage. So he eventually bought a sailboat, which he navigated to Friday Harbor, then his current powerboat last year. He added computer labs to both.
“Ever since I started the bike trip back in 83, I’ve been fascinated by putting all the tools of my life into something that moves,” said Roberts.
Most of his lab still needs to be mounted before he can take the powerboat off the dock. Yet, somehow, adventure still finds him. In May, he heard a distress call on a lesser-known radio signal from a Mount Baker hiker, whose two friends had fallen into a ravine. Roberts phoned Whidbey Search and Rescue officials, who located both hikers. They’re now safe, thanks to Roberts, who was listening to his labs’ radio scanner. For fun.
Today, Roberts is working on another book about the last part of his bike tour. He plans to use his mobile underwater drone, known as an ROV, this summer to view and record what he finds on his boat’s lab. And if tomorrow, he decides he wants to leave, he can do that too.
“I could obviously do all this in a house, and I have,” said Roberts. “But if things go wrong here, or if I just really want to do something else, or if the economy crashes and I want to go live and anchor for free, I can just cast off the lines.”