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A short history of sailing instruments

Part 3: Faster and faster

The sailing instrument systems that had been developed by the end of the 1990s were highly effective pieces of equipment. The Sailmath WTP had led the way, achieving new levels of accuracy and responsiveness by using rate gyros to correct for errors in the wind speed and angle measurements coming from the yacht’s pitch and roll (see Part 2).

The developments kept coming though, the boats were getting faster, and there was always demand for improved speed and update rates; clearer, faster and higher resolution displays; increased flexibility for expansion; and greater accuracy through better sensors and calibration. As the new millennium began there was innovation across all these areas from established manufacturers, start-ups, hobbyists and professional sailing teams – just as there always had been.

The new high-performance systems that were developed in the 2000’s leaned heavily on progress in general computing. The hardware got more powerful, communications protocols improved, and the systems became much more flexible. More and different sensors could be attached, and users could develop bespoke algorithms for reading or calibrating the sensors and manipulating the data. This enabled the calculation of new data functions that were fully integrated into the system.

“A redevelopment of the WTP system was started in 2004 when the CPU was moved to the Windows CE operating system – this was the WTP2,” explained Sailmath’s Graeme Winn. “Sailmath was sold to B&G in 2004 and I joined BMW Oracle and carried on the development; a system with networking and DLLs became a very flexible platform for the bespoke development required for the AC [America’s Cup].” B&Gs ownership of the WTP2 also meant new hardware and improved integration with the company’s displays via their Fastnet communications bus.

There were always new players in the market though, and the people and businesses involved in sailing instruments over the past few decades have made for a complex family tree. Apart from the players already mentioned that are still going – like NKE, Ockam and Signet – there was TackTick, an innovative wireless system launched in 1997 by British developers Clive and Mark Johnson.

TackTick was sold to Suunto in 2009, and then onto Raymarine two years later – Raymarine was a 2006 management buy-out of Raytheon’s marine division (remember that Raytheon bought Kiwitech) and produce a wide range of marine electronics. And I shouldn’t ignore the US technology multinational Garmin, who acquired Nexus (which came from Silva’s marine electronics division) to enter the market.

In the high performance arena, it was the Spanish America’s Cup team that bought the very first WTP in 1995, and this interest eventually led to the Racing Bravo instrument system developed on similar hardware. Bravo Systems were used by Alinghi to win the America’s Cup in 2007, and then by Oracle in 2010. These days, FaRo Advanced Systems continues the Spanish tradition in sailing instruments, while in Denmark (previously home to DanaPlus), Kalle Coster started up Sailmon in 2014.

There were also continued developments in sensor technology, particularly in measurement of two of the four fundamental pieces of data essential to any racing boat; boat speed and heading (the other two are wind speed and angle).

Robert Hopkins installed a Nortek Doppler Velocity Log (DVL) aboard the TP52 Caixa Galicia at the end of the ‘oughts’, and then onto PUMA for the 2011-12 Volvo Ocean Race. This sophisticated sensor enabled measurement of water flow in three dimensions at different distances from the transducer – I believe this was the first-time leeway had been accurately measured in real-time. INEOS Team UK took it one step further in testing for the 2021 America’s Cup when they used a newer version of the same sensor on an AC75. It was the first time 3D water flow had been measured around the foils on these Cup boats.

The measurement of the yacht’s heading and spatial motion has continued to be revolutionised by the advances in accelerometers, rotation sensors, inertial navigation systems and of course GPS. These new sensors have enabled many of the dynamic errors in the instrument systems – the spikes seen in wind direction and speed during tacks and gybes – to be eliminated. Not to mention the remarkable improvement in the predictions and data from tactical and starting apps.

When you consider all this activity it’s perhaps surprising that the traditional cup and vane anemometer continues to be the go-to method for measuring wind. Solid state sensors do exist, not least those made by former B&G engineer Mike Gill’s company, Gill Instruments, but their lack of easy integration, weight and windage seem to have discouraged their take-up. It may take a change to the America’s Cup rule that forbids Lidar technology and wind direction ‘sensing from a distance’ to really inject innovation into this area.

Load sensing has become both more robust and now wireless, it is consequently used in a lot more places around the boat. Diverse were the prime movers in this arena way back in the 1980s, but there’s competition coming from businesses like fibre optic specialists Pixel sur Mer, and Cyclops Marine with their range of Bluetooth Smarttune and Smartlink load sensors. Digital rotary and linear encoders have also made it possible to measure sail and foil settings more accurately and reliably.

All this has created a much more detailed and accurate picture of boat performance. Unsurprisingly, data analysis packages have improved to take advantage of all this information. Cyrille Douillet’s SailingPerformance business began after the 2007 America’s Cup and now offers a comprehensive set of analysis tools, as well as specialist support to those that require it.

Automotive race engineering company Cosworth entered the market with the Pi data logger and Toolbox software, a performance analysis package that could be used (in different versions) on everything from America’s Cup boats to Olympic dinghies. Initially supported by engineer Alex Reid (who went on to the America’s Cup and Artemis Technologies), this was another very credible package.

The final element is the display technology, which has taken advantage of the immense progress that has occurred in screens generally. The latest generations of on-deck screens like B&G’s Zeus and more recently Nemesis displays take lightweight, waterproof, customisable, high-resolution and responsiveness to levels undreamt of by the pioneers of the 1970s and 1980s with their flickering green cursors and visible pixels.

Meanwhile, B&G’s WTP2 has become the WTP3; an impressively fast and dynamic, open-ended system with serial and analogue data acquisition modules that allow almost unlimited expansion. Interestingly, the developments in the America’s Cup – which is really where all this started with Dick McCurdy back in the 1970s – have meant that even this level of performance and flexibility can now fall short for Cup teams.

The boats have always got faster and more complex, but the 2010 America’s Cup Deed of Gift match (and subsequent transition to foiling boats) has escalated the requirements for America’s Cup competition. It’s now reached a point where even the top commercial instrument systems could be found wanting in some areas. Fortunately (or not, depending on your viewpoint) the budgets of the teams have been increasing at a rate to match the boat performance, and some of this resource has been poured into the production of dedicated instrument systems built from the ground up.

The changes in the wider world of computing have made this approach much more viable. The development of programming languages, the accessibility of open source routines and DLLs has meant that apps can be built much more quickly and easily than in the past. The consequence is that these days, it’s not unusual for a Cup team to start from a blank sheet of paper and build their own system to the specification required, for hardware and software – just like Dick McCurdy did in 1970.

So far, very little of this work has appeared back in the real world, but I can’t help feeling that this situation will change. In time we will see sailing instruments take further leaps forward as new innovations filter out from the Cup and other professional teams. There’s no shortage of fundamental problems still to be solved either, wind sheer and vertical profile remain largely unmeasurable, and no real-time sail vision system yet exists at a price point accessible to anything but very well-funded pro teams. There’s still plenty to do, and we can look forward to another exciting decade in the world of sailing instruments.