Better Living Through Big Data

Nautical Navigation Tools and Big Data Steer Novice Sailing Team

sailboat from above

New technologies help smooth the seas for everyone from yacht-club competitors and weekend warriors to endurance racers and America’s Cup champions.

Many types of personal boats — powerboats, cruisers, yachts, houseboats — incorporate new technology to provide comfort and luxury out on the open water.

But sailing is still a sport for those who know their way around a compass and have a robust understanding of meteorological phenomenon. Novices can’t just jump in the boat, hoist the mainsail and let the trade winds propel the craft forward. Or can they?

The latest innovations in boating technology cannot actually sail the boat for you, nor would they help a newbie complete the Pacific Cup, a race spanning 2,070 nautical miles between San Francisco and Hawaii. But it can help sailors figure out faster and more accurate trajectories while also allowing smaller ships to compete with larger vessels.

That’s just what Intel’s Doug Schenk did in July. After decades of recreational sailing, Schenk and his team of five launched their 35-foot ark from the St. Francis Yacht Club on July 6, 2014, along with 55 other crafts, for a race across the world’s largest ocean.

Though they still relied heavily on muscle, experience and human intuition, they also replaced compasses and charts with a sophisticated Intel-powered mobile computer lab, which leveled the playing field for Schenk’s team, known as Free Bowl of Soup (a respectable Caddyshack reference).

Using an Iridium satellite phone, the team downloaded weather models from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and transferred the data to the ship’s solid-state drive (in this case, the Intel Pro 1500) and a ruggedized Getac tablet. The tablet was loaded with the classic Expedition navigation program, a kind of software that’s been around for over two decades but could not until very recently, thanks to Moore’s Law, make it onto the vessel during racing.

Nautical Navigation Tools

“We would also use the phone to report our positions, and the tablet to update our blog or Facebook page for family and friends following along,” Schenk said. “In addition to charts, and tracking weather and speed trends, we would run the weather models against our boats capabilities to determine optimal routes.”

The technology integration didn’t come without a cost, however. The PC drew almost half of the available power on the boat, well over all other instruments, lights and nautical radios. The team helped offset the high usage with a 38-watt solar panel, and created a firewall to download only the data they needed and nothing more while compressing the data between the server and tablet.

nautical navigation map

“All the boats had Yellowbrick trackers, which updated our GPS position over Iridium every 15 minutes,” Schenk said. “We couldn’t watch on the boat, but the race organizers and our family and friends back home loved watching our progress. The hosting was done in the cloud on Intel-based servers.”

The onboard setup helped Free Bowl of Soup sail their modest bateau to the north coast of Oahu in 13 days, all the while raising almost $4,000 for a local food bank. Though much of the technology wasn’t necessarily cutting edge, the real innovation came from the fact that all of the devices were small and light enough for a boat that needed to be lightweight and conserve power.

sailing race winning team

Much of the newest sailing technology comes from Oracle Team USA.

Before the last America’s Cup race in 2013, Oracle told Forbes: “More than 300 sensors throughout the boat collect a huge amount of performance data and transmit it to a server in the hull. We’ve got about 3,000 variables running about ten times a second when we’re sailing, from sensors that measure strain on the mast to angle sensors on the wing sail that monitor the effectiveness of each adjustment. We run several video feeds, and take still images of the sail wing every second. We pull about a gigabyte of raw data per boat per day as well as about 200 gigabytes of video per day.” With rich data analysis, Oracle defended the trophy again that year with their high-tech AC72 craft.

Other sailing innovations follow a familiar trend: wearable tech. Arriving this fall, Afterguard is a head-display control center, a nautical Google Glass of sorts. Afterguard’s system is designed to integrate with any boat’s onboard instrumentation. Using a proprietary drive called the Central Communications Unit, Afterguard pulls the raw data from the boat’s system and synthesizes it into a transmittable display on the team’s headsets.

Afterguard screenshot

Each crew member can see, via the lightweight glasses, all the vitals of the ship and its trajectory at a glance, giving them quick access to data such as boat speed, speed over ground, true and relative wind information, polar targets, heel angle and depth.

With a little ingenuity and creativity, smart setups like Free Bowl of Soup’s onboard system and retail products like Afterguard can help a casual hobbyist both compete and sail safer.


Feature (overhead) photo courtesy of Jaydee Reeves-Jordan; others courtesy of Doug Schenk; product photo courtesy of Afterguard.

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