Sailing Into Uncharted Waters
It could have gone worse for the sailing coach Tom Burnham’s Team U.S.A. The British team in the SailGP professional series crashed its hydrofoiling catamaran into the Hudson, ripping the top off its wing sail. Wild 25-knot puffs tore across the river, and U.S.A.’s wing trimmer, Riley Gibbs, threw out his back as the team tried to control its 50-footer in practice.
Burnham wanted his team to shake off Friday’s result: fifth out of six international teams.
“I heard a lot of chatter about just getting the boat around the racecourse yesterday,” he said in Saturday’s team meeting before the final races of the new global series. “The concept today is you need to go out and really be in race mode. Slide our scale over. Yesterday was extreme.Let’s slide it over.”
The GP50 boats are identical, repurposed from the 2017 America’s Cup. And today the boats send out live data and video on every aspect of the boat and crew movements, including foil and wing angles, a new technological advance used for the first time in a professional series. It’s open-source information that teams are using to copy winning settings and improve.
Recovering from the first, rough day of racing, the Americans used a data analyst, a new role for a sailing team, on Saturday to crunch hundreds of data points, allowing Burnham to focus on crew movements and wing and foil settings between races. And the team won a race, ending up third over all in New York leading up to the September finals in Marseille, France.
The Japanese and Australian teams have the drivers with the most experience in GP50s and ended up first and second in this series.
The analyst Phil Crain has been the American team’s biggest asset, helping quickly solve boat speed and crew movement problems.
“Phil is watching live, and he can see the other boats’ data, too,” Burnham said before Saturday’s final races. “I’ll just send him a question through WhatsApp, and he’ll send me an answer. Yesterday he told me our wing twist was outside of normal parameters. I told the sailors, and they changed it.”
Crain was the first analyst hired by a SailGP team. Now half of the teams have analysts, and the American team, though ranked in the middle of the fleet, has shown dramatic improvement. It was the fastest team in a straight line at last month’s San Francisco series and often had the fastest tacks. Last week, the team recorded nearly an hour on the Hudson where the boat was flying free of the water, a result of the critical use of data on sailor skills and boat settings.
Crain and Burnham try to identify the most useful information to pass on to the sailors. If another team is faster in its turns, Crain compares colorful series plots that look like an electrocardiogram in a hospital and then digs deeper to identify the rudder and foil angle settings and the rate of turn.
Crain, a veteran of the last America’s Cup with Artemis Racing, also has help from software.
“We have algorithms that send live alerts when we’re out of our typical range or when other teams are sailing differently than us,” he said. “We are moving more and more that way to make this automated.”
Information overload is a problem for the SailGP teams. Burnham and other coaches say data is most useful when coaches select only a few useful bits of information and deliver them to the sailors.
The Australian coach Phillipe Presti, a French Olympian and Cup winner, said the human filtering of information made data most useful.
“People are afraid of how data changes relationships with people,” he said. “You’re not going to deliver a bunch of data to a sailor and expect them to pick through it. But when you see the sailor feel something that’s not reality, you need data the sailor can trust. Something nobody can deny.”
The fleet heads to Cowes, England, next month as part of the four-leg series that began last February in Sydney. The top two finishers in each event square off in a match race to determine the winner of that stage. Countries represented include Australia, China, France,Britain, Japan and the United States.
Half of each team must be citizens of the team’s country, but Japan and China have foreign drivers. Team Australia’s Tom Slingsby and Japan’s Nathan Outerridge, like Slingsby an Australian Olympic gold medalist, have dominated the competition, though the other teams took more races from the two in New York than they had in previous events.
Chang W. Lee is a staff photographer. He was a member of the staff that won two 2002 Pulitzer Prizes: one for Breaking News Photography and the other for Feature Photography. Follow him on Instagram @nytchangster.
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