Sailing Into Uncharted Waters

It could have gone worse for sailing coach Tom Burnham’s team USA. The British team in the SailGP professional sailing series crashed its hydrofoiling catamaran into the Hudson, ripping the top off its wing sail. Wild 25-knot puffs tore across the river and USA’s wing trimmer, Riley Gibbs, threw out his back as the team tried to control their 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 GP50s 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 American’s 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, wing and foil settings between races. And the team won a race, ending up third overall 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 the GP50s and ended up first and second respectively in this series.

Analyst Phil Crain has been the American team’s biggest asset, helping to 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 What’sApp 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 to be hired by a SailGP team. Now half the teams have an analyst and the American Team, though ranked in the middle of the fleet, has show dramatic improvement. They were 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.

Both Crain and Burnham try to identify the most useful information to pass on to the sailors. If another team is faster in their turns, Crain compares colorful series plots that look like an EKG in a hospital, then digs deeper to identify the rudder and foil angle settings, and 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 the usefulness of the data comes when coaches select only a few useful bits of information and deliver them to the sailors.

Australian coach Phillipe Presti, a French Olympian and Cup winner, said the human filter of information is what makes 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 each event square off in a match race to determine that stage winner. Countries represented include Australia, China, France, Great Britain, Japan and the United States.

Half of each team must be a citizen of that team’s country, but skippers for Japan and China have foreign drivers. Team Australia’s Tom Slingsby and Japan’s driver Nathan Outerridge, an Australian Olympic Gold medalist like Slingsby, have dominated the competition, though the other teams took more races from the two in New York than 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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