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RacePanel series with Mark Chisnell: Part 1

Not just a simple software upgrade, more like a whole new era – B&G brings America’s Cup-level tactical software to the not-so-humble chart plotter

Tactical software on your chartplotter

Every industry has it pioneers, and in the annals of marine electronics Dr Graeme Winn is one of them. Back in the 1980s, there were just a few brave souls prepared to wire up very expensive Apple personal computers to a bank of car batteries in the bowels of a racing yacht, and then (somewhat hopefully) push off from the dock.

Dr Winn was one of them and in time, his work with the Victory syndicate at the 1983 America’s Cup developed into the Sailmath Deckman – a custom built tactical racing computer weighing in at just… 6kgs. Ah, those were the days. Dr Winn was originally a statistician and a programmer, and the clever part of what he did was in the maths; the calculations that determined the answers to all the questions that navigators and tacticians might ask during a race.


He had some smart and original solutions in the way he approached the problems and answers and, by the 1990s, later generations of the Deckman and its sister WTP instrument processor had come to dominate much of the international yacht racing circuit. For a while, there was scarcely an America’s Cup, Whitbread, or Admiral’s Cup racer that didn’t carry one or more of Dr Winn’s Sailmath machines alongside a range of B&G sensors and displays.

The hardware that carried the computer code was largely incidental: it just had to be light, powerful and waterproof. Well, actually, ‘just’ is the wrong word. The first Deckman required a machine to be custom built, right down to the moulded, O-ring’d aluminium casing. Ironically, it made the clever part of the machine – the programming – much more expensive than it might have been if sold as software alone. And it made the product inaccessible to all but the very top of the sailboat racing world.

Dr Winn quickly realised that building custom hardware for such a small specialist area was not the way forward, and when viable third party products started to appear on the market they were quickly pressed into service. Over the next 25 years all sorts of hardware was co-opted to run what became Deckman for Windows – most notably laptops hooked up to the trusty Panasonic Toughbook screens – until we reach the present era of iPads and notebooks.

It's all about the software

Now, the era of bodging together hardware solutions to run tactical navigation software is at an end. And the reason is Navico. The Navico group is the world’s largest marine electronics company, and it is parent to B&G and other leading marine brands. By utilising the same core hardware across all its brands, Navico can make custom products for the marine user at a very affordable price – the efficiencies and savings of scale properly applied to the marine market.

The centralised provision of the design and manufacture of world class hardware for the individual Navico group brands, also means that the engineers and technical specialists at the individual companies can go back to their core skill sets – writing software and apps that precisely meet the needs of their customers. And as Dr Winn would tell you, 90% of it is about the software.

Dr Winn's legacy

When he moved onto other things early in the new millennium, Dr Winn had handed over responsibility for the Sailmath products to B&G. The leading edge of sailing had got more and more professional. America’s Cup teams had returned to custom-built and specified systems to meet their increasingly complex needs for arrays of sensors.

In the Sailmath portfolio, B&G saw the opportunity to bring the technology – in a more accessible form – to everyone else. So for the last decade, the complex Deckman calculations and computer code have been working their way into a widening product range. Now, Dr Winn’s maths – with its America’s Cup algorithms and formulations – is at the heart of every wind direction and wind speed presented by a B&G sailboat instrument system. What similar product range can boast a pedigree like that?

It’s the legacy of Dr Winn’s programming that is now at the heart of B&G’s Zeus and Vulcan sailing chartplotters. 

What's included?

Since 2015, the software in B&G's Zeus and Vulcan chartplotters has included several of the core tactical and navigational functions previously only available to customers of top of the range tactical packages like Deckman. It includes the Start Display with essential calculations like time and distance to the line, overlaid on a race area chart or a gridded, scaled start screen.

New course setting functionality is also available to make it much easier and faster to set all types of race courses into the plotter, but particularly windward/leeward courses, setting marks with a range and bearing. And finally, it contains the ‘What If?’ calculation capacity that is essential to top-flight tactics and navigation.

In the next three articles we will look at all these aspects in more detail, and see just how this software makes your Zeus or Vulcan series chart plotter much more than just a chart plotter.

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