Oracle Team USA brings high tech to the high seas

Forget the fastest yacht; the outcome of next year's America's Cup sailing competition could come down to which boat has the fastest computer.

The boats competing on San Francisco Bay in 2013 will be kitted out bow to stern with high-tech gear, including sensors that measure variables like wind speed and the amount of stress on the craft's hull, and a server that analyzes data and sends instructions to the crew.

Technology has long played a role in the America's Cup races, but next year it could be a more decisive factor than ever. The boats are faster and the course is smaller, "so you're maneuvering almost every minute," said Asim Khan, a New Zealander who's in charge of IT for Oracle Team USA, which won the last America's Cup competition, in 2010.

Preliminary events are already under way. Teams have been racing 45-ft. catamarans to get a feel for the larger, 72-ft. vessels, called AC72s, that they will officially race next summer.

It's hard to appreciate the scale of an AC72 without standing next to one. The main sail is 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 the boat's speed and prevent the vessel from capsizing or breaking apart under the strain.

Oracle's boat has hundreds of sensors embedded throughout the hulls, in the underwater fins and up the mast. These devices are connected to a server that distributes data wirelessly to computerized "wristwatches" and other devices worn by the crew.

Some sailing purists have bemoaned the use of so much technology, saying it ruins the sport. But Erin Schanen, executive editor of Sailing Magazine, said she believes technology is essential in today's races, and argued that it will likely be "the deciding factor" in determining who wins.

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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