Forget the fastest sail boat; next year's America's Cup could come down to who has the fastest computer.
The boats competing on the San Francisco Bay next year will be kitted out from bow to stern with high-tech gear, including sensors that measure variables like wind speed and the amount of stress on their hulls, and a server that analyzes the data and sends instructions to the crew.
High tech has long played a role in the America's Cup, but this year its impact could be more decisive than ever. That's because of the high-performance catamarans selected for use in the race, which are designed for speed rather than stability, and because the course covers only a small area of the bay.
"It's a monumental shift in terms of how we do things. Not only are the boats faster, but the course is more restricted so you're maneuvering almost every minute," said Asim Khan, the New Zealander in charge of IT for Oracle Team USA.
Preliminary events in the cup are already underway. Teams have been racing smaller, 45-foot catamarans to help them get a feel for the boats. The contest starts properly next summer, when they race the giant 72-foot craft known as AC72s.
It's hard to appreciate the scale of the AC72s without standing next to one. The main sail, known as the wing sail, is a towering 131 feet tall, or roughly 10 stories high, and each hull is as long as two city buses parked end to end.
The boats have a top speed of close to 40 knots, and the onboard computer helps the crew make split second decisions to maximize their speed and, hopefully, to prevent avoid their boat from capsizing or breaking apart under the strain. Video of the AC45s in practice have shown how easily they can flip over.
Oracle's boat has hundreds of sensors embedded throughout its hulls, in the underwater fins and up the length of the mast. They're connected by wire to a server in a waterproof box in one of the hulls. The server uses a single wireless access point to distribute data to computerized "wrist watches" and other devices worn by the crew. The others teams in the race are expected to employ a similar set-up.
The computer tells the crews the optimal moment to tack or jibe, or when to trim the sails to increase their speed. It does this by looking at measurements including the "bend, twist and rake" of the mast, which helps it to calculate the "true" wind from the apparent wind experienced on the moving boat.
On the mono hull boats used in previous America's Cups, crew members could gather on deck to study data on a fixed display at the base of the mast. A navigator figured out the optimal time to turn and gave the instruction to the crew. But on these catamarans there is no deck, only a tight net between the hulls that sailors scramble across constantly to "hike out" on either side of the boat. And the position of navigator has been eliminated to allow for an extra "grinder" -- the brawny crew members who operate the winches that make adjustments to the sail and other parts of the boat.
"There's no one person interpreting the data any more," Khan said. "Everyone's having information processed and given to them exactly how they need it, on their own personalized display."
Sailing purists have bemoaned the use of so much high tech gear, complaining it ruins the sport. But Erin Schanen, executive editor of Sailing Magazine, said the America's Cup has always been about using technology to build the fast boat possible. She doesn't frown on the use of computers, because they're required for the sailors to push the boats to their absolute limit, she said.
Each crew has only 11 members, she noted. "That's an incredibly small number for a boat that powerful. There are no hydraulic winches; these guys are physically going all out, and everything is happening so quickly. Certainly technology is important in those conditions."
Such is the exertion required on board that Schanen said she doesn't expect to see Oracle CEO Larry Ellison on the boat with Team Oracle USA in the finals.
The use of technology doesn't mean the sailors aren't skilled at what they do, Schanen said. "These guys have proven themselves in every kind of sailing there is. I guarantee there are no techies on these boats who are learning how to sail; these are all sailors learning about technology."
Still, the team that makes the best use of technology will likely be the one that wins the race, she said. "I think it will be the deciding factor," she said.
The technology helps with designing the boats as much as in the race itself. Teams make small changes and can then validate the crew's impression of them by looking at data. Sometimes the conditions can fool the crew into thinking a change was for the better when it actually harmed performance. The team does more testing until the gap in perception is explained or no longer exists.
Khan admits to his bias as the IT director, but contends that the use of computers will be "absolutely critical" to the outcome of the cup. The team that gathers the best measurements and makes the best use of its data, ruling out poor design choices quickly and zeroing in on the good ones, will end up with the fastest boat in the race, he says.
"If you can make those calls earlier, you're progressing the design faster and building a faster boat, and at the end of the day you're going to be faster than your competitor," he said.
Khan wouldn't provide many details about the equipment on Oracle's boat, citing competitive reasons. Last Friday, a reporter was not allowed to photograph the boat, which is being built in a warehouse at Pier 80 in San Francisco, although the team has released one photograph that can be seen online. All Khan would say about the server is that it "looks like a bunch of computer boards with microchips" and that it runs custom software.
The wireless network is essential, he said, because it allows the crew to consume data while moving constantly around the boat. But carbon fiber impedes Wi-Fi signals, he said, and in the last America's Cup the wireless network performed poorly, though Oracle managed to win the cup anyway.
This time, Team Oracle USA is using an 802.11n access point from Ruckus Wireless called the ZoneFlex 7982. Ruckus developed an adaptive antenna technology that provides a stronger signal and cuts down on interference, Khan said.
So how did Khan end up in such an interesting job? By accident, it turns out. He said he had "no interest in sailing whatsoever" when he applied to a company called OneWorld while studying computer science at Auckland University about 10 years ago. It turned out the company was a contender for the 2003 America's Cup.
"I think it's one of the things they liked about me, that I wasn't interested in boats," Khan said. A lot of people who apply to America's Cup teams are keen yachtsmen who want to be around the world's best sailors, he said, but that's never been a distraction for him.
"The fact that they're world famous sailors is really by-the-by to me," he said.