The World’s Coolest Floating DIY Lab

Steve Roberts turned his yacht into an ever-evolving electronics laboratory

One night in 1983, an eccentric-looking contraption pedaled its way up to a payphone in Christiansburg, Ohio. The rider hopped off and hooked up a pair of acoustic couplers between a Radio Shack Model 100 and the payphone’s receiver—and was immediately asked by a scowling, tobacco-spitting stranger, “Are you with NASA?”

“Yessir,” the rider replied, “This here's one of them Loooney Excursion Modules!” 

That lanky rider, Steve Roberts, will never forget his first night out on the Winnebiko, a computerized bicycle that he built to travel across America. The bike’s computer had only 300 or 1200 baud dial up and 32K of memory. Roberts would hook the computer up to payphones so that he could telecommute—a word that barely existed in an era when the Internet was only an idea.  

Unsatisfied with his desk job, Roberts had compiled a list of all the things that he was most passionate about: travel, adventure, computers, writing, romance, and interesting people. Then he came to his own obvious solution: sell his house, build and live on a computerized bicycle, and work as a freelance writer. Thus began a life of building technological tools for escape and adventure, all while making a living by educating and entertaining.

That computerized bicycle was only the very beginning of Roberts’ adventures. Later he took to the waves in the Microship, a computerized pedal-powered-solar-sail trimaran. But the Microship led to dreams of a bigger electronics-equipped boat. Now Roberts lives and works on his yacht Datawake, named for the, yes, data left in her wake. The boat combines all his passions into a lifestyle, Roberts says. It is an ever-evolving, floating, modular, DIY electronics laboratory.

Datawake is outfitted with endless gadgets, among them: a ham radio, a milling machine, a 3D printer, Raspberry Pi and Arduino based systems for data collection, and endless tools for tinkering. She even has a kitty litter box equipped with a carbon filter air cleaner and a security camera for wireless monitoring.

In the best tradition of DIY labs, Datawake will never be truly finished. There is always another project to build, another dream to fulfill, another addition or adjustment to make. The next evolution is to make her a hybrid boat, a sort of floating Prius.  

As a kid, Robots dreamed of tools for escape. As an adult, he builds them. Laughing, Roberts joked, “In a way, you could say I never outgrew science fairs.”