Whichever vessel comes storming into Hobart to take line honours in the iconic Rolex Sydney to Hobart yacht race that kicks off on Boxing Day this year, you can be sure they relied heavily on their IT systems.
Much like corporations utilise business intelligence solutions to get the upper hand on competitors by crunching data to inform the decision making process, the navigators and crew of the yachts use data captured prior to the big day and also throughout the race to plot their course from Sydney harbour down the east coast, across the often treacherous Bass Straight and onto Hobart.
For the crew on St Jude, a two-year old Sydney 47 crafted by Azzura Yachts and owned/skippered by Noel Cornish, taking part in its second race this year much of their game plan is dependent on the technology they have installed.
The IT set-up on board St Jude is not as advanced as some of the bigger vessels; the yacht is about half the size of the maxi-yachts, which can reach up to 100 foot-long, thus placing it around the middle range of the field.
However, that doesn’t mean technology isn’t important.
St Jude has a desktop (with no back up), large LCD display, wireless keyboard, a chart plotter, and several instruments located around the vessel – such as on the mast - to capture data like speed through the water, speed over the ground, wind speed, depth, current, and water temperature.
All data is downloaded from the instruments into the navigation software. There are also about seven instrument panels on desk that show the crew whatever data has been set to appear to assist them in making quick decisions.
They also have a GPS (and a backup hand held GPS), satellite phone, UHF and high-frequency radios, compasses, navigation lights and so forth.
“We use the brand B&G and that goes through a central hub and interacts with the GPS,” the yacht’s navigator Boudy De Haas told Computerworld.
There are several varieties of yachting IT solutions like this that can be bought off the shelf. You can get both cabled and wireless systems – St Jude employs the cabled version.
“With the navigation, obviously the goal is to get you safely to where you want to sail,” De Haas said. “But from a tactical point of view the technology certainly helps. On our system we can download from the manufacturer a six-day weather forecast. We can access the Internet on the boat as well. The data is downloaded on to what we call a GRIB file – which is just a series of tables and data. It translates to a picture for the navigation system to use.“
One of the biggest challenges though faces the crew before the starting gun even fires – collecting accurate data on the vessel’s capabilities.
“One of the biggest struggles is to get the instrument calibration right,” he said. “We have what is called a log book and I have been using it to record, when we have been racing, our data that we get out of the instruments.”
The navigator then builds up a set of polar tables, which shows the best performance of the yacht in different wind angles and speeds. The system will take any data given to it from these polar tables and analyse it against the weather data to provide the fastest route for the boat.
“I can do a run line course from one point to another and ask the computer to calculate over a period of time, say three days, the optimum course,” he explained.
The system can be set up to provide route updates as often as required – an update every 15 minutes for example, would provide the crew with a high-resolution plan and plenty of activity.
The navigator can see where the yacht should be at particular times and then make progressive decisions on where to head based on the data sets they have gathered.
At the extreme tactical end of these kinds of systems, a navigator could load all the data available on all boats in the race and based on the weather could see where they would all be likely to sail.
A lot of the different kind of yacht model polar files are already available through navigation software like the one St Jude uses; Max Sea.
But what happens if the system fails? For St Jude the PC and all its data has zero redundancy. In short, while they do have a battery back up for power, if the IT navigation system fails they have to revert to printed out charts with a hard copy of the strategy.
The navigator would then use a hand held GPS to plot out their position and use the radio for weather updates. Clearly though, the preference is to keep the IT systems up and running.
Could you sail a boat without it? Yes.
But could you win the Sydney to Hobart in this day and age without it? Unlikely.