Whether crushing speed records, nailing ocean races, or pioneering new technology, Stan Honey knows his position precisely. (Parts of this interview appear in our May 2011 issue.)
Stan Honey served as navigator for Groupama 3’s successful Jules Verne record attempt.
The latest in native Californian Stan Honey’s numbingly long list of accomplishments is what earned him the 2010 Rolex Yachtsman of the Year Award: navigating the 105-foot trimaran Groupama 3 to a 48 day, seven hour record-setting non-stop circumnavigation and winning the Trophée Jules Verne in the process. Before that, ho hum, he merely won the Volvo Ocean Race (as navigator aboard ABN AMRO in 2005-06); knocked off a slew of Transpacific, 24-hour, and Transatlantic records (including PlayStation’s breakthrough 4-day, 17-hour run in 2001); and called the navigation shots in 22 Transpacs (winning 11 of them while setting the course record three times), among many, many other notable offshore deeds and victories.
Professionally, after earning undergraduate and graduate engineering degrees from Yale (where he sailed competitively with Steve Benjamin, Peter Isler, and Dave Perry) and Stanford, respectively, he spent some time as vice-president of technology for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and started a couple of companies: Etack, which pioneered in-vehicle map displays before GPS came online, and Sportvision, which introduced TV sports junkies to the now ubiquitous yellow first-down markers in football games and virtual strike zones in baseball telecasts, among other innovations.
Just for good measure, he’s married to another pretty excellent sailor, Sally Lindsey Honey, who’s won a pair of Rolex prizes herself.
**So who’s the best sailor in the Honey family?
**Sally, by far (laughing). I might have an edge navigating, but she’s definitely the better sailor. She points out that I’m never catching up to her (as far as Rolex awards).
**You’ve circled the planet as the lone American on basically an all-Kiwi boat (in the Volvo) and an all-French boat (Groupama 3). All things being equal, which would you choose if you were picking crew for a round-the-world race?
**I think it would be based on the kind of boat it was. If it was a multihull, you’d go with the French guys. As far as big offshore multihull sailing, there’s nobody better: the seamanship, the preparation, all of it. On a Volvo 70, you’d want the Kiwis. The V70 is just…pain. And endurance to pain. It’s just brutal. And there’s nobody better at that than the Kiwis. You know, grunt up, mate. And off you go. Sometimes, there’d be this heinous sail change, it’s only going to pay off for fifteen minutes, but you do it. You always sail the boat absolutely optimum, and you never go bow down for a change. The French can’t sail (the big multis) that way, you’d wreck the boat. They have to know when to back off and hide and when to let ‘er rip.
As a navigator, the dynamics onboard (the different boats) are interesting. Every French sailor is a navigator, because they all come up through shorthanded sailing. They all know how to navigate and are interested in it. So on Groupama, there was a reasonable amount of time when someone was looking over my shoulder and asking questions, and I actually enjoyed that part. On a Kiwi boat, the rules are you don’t hang around the nav station.
**How’s your French?
**Not very good is the short answer. I tried. I took courses. But once I was onboard with the crew, I couldn’t follow it at all, unless it was a one-to-one situation. They’d all talk at the same time. Though, by the end of the trip, I was able to tell whether they were talking about boats or women.
**How did you get hooked up with Groupama in the first place?
**It’s interesting, I asked (skipper) Franck Cammas the same question: “Why did you ask an American guy to navigate? Every sailor in France is a navigator, and they’re all fabulous.” And his answer was: He wanted a guy that was going to try and get it perfect. And that’s one thing about French navigators, which I understand having raced shorthanded myself, is that you can’t navigate the way you’d navigate a Volvo, where you process all the data. You try to adjust it all for risk, and figure out all the probabilities to have a perfect estimate of your own boat’s performance. And every single decision you try to get exactly right.
Whereas the French, and any shorthanded sailor knows, you have triage: You’ve got to navigate, you’ve got to do some steering, you have to change sails, you have to trim. So the way you navigate is you take a look at the data and then you have to jump by gestalt into the right answer because you don’t have the time to figure it out rigorously the way you’d do it in a Volvo. Franck knows that many of the French sailors will try to get a 95% solution, and then they’ll want do some trimming, they’ll want to do some steering.
Franck already had nine of the best multihull guys on the planet, and I was the only one on the boat whose full-time job was to focus all my energies on making sure we were in all the right places. With my limited ability to steer and trim, I wasn’t going to add much there. I think he wanted to do a round-the-world record attempt with a Volvo level of attention to the navigation decisions.
**You actually took two shots at the record aboard Groupama, correct?
**Well, the boat made three attempts, capsizing off New Zealand in 2008, but I was involved with Team Origin’s America’s Cup campaign and wasn’t on the boat. Once I came aboard, we had a start in November (2009), but we broke the boat in the South Atlantic and returned to France. We got a second start off on January 31st (2010), and that was the one where we ultimately succeeded (breaking the previous record, set by Bruno Peyron’s 121-foot catamaran, Orange II, by two days).
Unlike November, when the weather window was perfect, the January start wasn’t great. I’d say it was in the category of “acceptable” weather windows. But Franck had a commitment to do the Route du Rhum, so we needed to be back in France by a certain date. The January window was marginal, but in such a way that if it wasn’t going to work, we’d know early so we could turn around and get the boat back to France and on stand-by. So I was able to convince him to give it a run.
It’s a very complicated trip to the equator. There are five gates that we had to pass through, and if everything fell our way, we’d have a good time to the equator. And then the South Atlantic looked okay, not great. Franck agreed to go, but he also put in the threshold that we’d only continue past Cape Town if we were within a day of the record. I was good with that, so we sort of had a negotiated departure. And it worked out fine. On our November start, we had the fastest trip to the equator ever, but (the January) departure was the second faster ever, so we were delighted with that.
**So now you’re in the South Atlantic. What happened?
**Well, as I said, in November we timed it perfectly, and we had what looked like idea conditions in the South Atlantic. The ideal situation is to pick up one of the storms that are created over the mountains (in South America) and come firing out from the Rio de la Plata. If you get in front of one, you’ve got flat water and steady northwest breeze and you can take it halfway around the world. It’s typically not a problem staying ahead of it; the boats are fast enough. The only reason you lose it is that (the low) gets too far south. Then you get the terrible wind shift to the southwest, with horrible cross-seas, and the key is to reposition the boat for the next storm…but not be trying to make a lot of miles in it. Then, when the next storm comes, you get the beautiful northwesterly and flat water, and the idea is you take that all the way to the Horn. Unfortunately, in November, we got the storm we were hoping for, but there was a leftover swell from a previous storm that was right on the nose. It was small, only about 1.5 meters, and we were going into it at about 35 knots. But it was enough to crack the port ama, which is why we needed to stop for repairs.
In January, we had much worse luck, and our trip in the South Atlantic was very difficult. The high was split, and in that situation the safe move is to go west of the western low, because you know the western low is going to eventually merge. But I knew if we did that, we’d never get to Cape Town within Franck’s 24-hour threshold and that the trip would get called off. So I rolled the dice and went between the highs, and it only worked because Groupama is just magical in light air.
**How light are we talking about?
**Oh, six knots of breeze. And the boat would be making 12, 14 knots. So we managed to make it through the gap, the small trough between the highs, and eventually managed to get into the Southern Ocean. We got to Cape Town just a little over a day behind the record pace, so Franck was happy to keep going.
**Part of the irony in these Jules Verne record attempts is that everyone thinks you make or break them in the Southern Ocean. But the Atlantic legs are the key, right?
**Yeah. And that’s something that’s changed over time. People used to think the Southern Ocean was the key, and they’d build these big, strong Southern Ocean racing boats. Now what you do is build boats that are nimble, and do really well in the light, so you can do really well in the North and the South Atlantic, both going and coming. In the Southern Ocean, you presume that you’re going to be fast enough to stay ahead of the storms. And everyone goes the same speed. You go as fast as the storm. You can’t go faster than the storm. And then you have to just not break. And the not breaking is really important. The folks that fail to set a Jules Verne record almost always fail due to breakdown, not because they’re slow.
**What’s it like sailing a boat like Groupama day after day? Is there a pucker factor? Or do you just get used to it?
**The motions are very different than a monohull. On a Volvo 70, there’s a lot of slamming. And that’s true on all points of sail. But on a multihull going very fast—30 or 35 knots—there’s just a lot of very short accelerations. In all directions. They’re completely unpredictable, but you’re just constantly being jerked around, to the point where it becomes much harder to just do your work as a navigator. You can’t even use a mouse, you have to use a track ball, because the mouse is just jumping all around. So you use a trackball, and you kind of jam your fingers on the edge of the ball so you can kind of force it with heavy load to move the cursor.
In terms of the mental part, and it’s easy to do, you just have to convince yourself that the guys on deck are the best French multihull sailors in the world. And they’re paying 100-percent attention, and if they need to shorten sail, they’re going to call. And you just have to decide that everything is completely squared away on deck.
**Has that been a leap of faith?
**Actually, it’s not, and that’s been one of the most enjoyable parts of the recent sailing I’ve done in the last decade or so. I’ve had the pleasure to sail with really, really good crews. Whether it’s the Pyewacket guys, or Alfa Romeo, or ABM Amro, or the Groupama crew—and they really are the best guys in the world. And you really do have the confidence that if anyone on the planet is qualified to deal with that boat in those conditions, then those are the guys. Then I’ve got my job, and they’re dependent on me.
The other interesting thing that is fun for me as the navigator is that I’m always on stand-by, so whenever something is happening on deck, whether it’s a reef or a sail change or a tack or jibe or whatever, the stand-by guy goes up. So even if I’m asleep, I’m on standby. And I actually enjoy that part, because while I’m not on deck hour after hour standing a watch, it’s good to be part of every single maneuver, because it keeps you in touch, and you’re always there for the exciting bits.
**How much actual rest did you get?
**My normal pattern was I would get six forecasts a day. And I’d structure my life around the forecasts. So when a forecast would come in, I’d wake up, download the forecast, typically as a grib file, then I’d often edit it to correspond with what I observed. Because obviously you have 100-percent certainty to what you see in terms of sea state and sky and the weather. So sometimes you’d have to edit the file to speed up a front or slow it down a bit to correspond to what you have.
Then I would run the routes. And then you have to adjust the routes for risk. You have to tinker with the computer routes enough so you understand them…perfectly. And the way you know you understand it perfectly is if I can explain it to you as a sailor, which I would do with every watch change.
And that’s the classic mistake people make with computer routes. They see this route, and they think it’s optimum for some reason, and they think they should follow it. And then suddenly they’ll get a shift. They’re in a squall, they’re on a beam reach, they can go anywhere. Well, where should they go? And they think, well, this is the optimum route, we’ll stay on it. Well, that’s the optimum route assuming a set of conditions. What’s the objective of the exercise? And if you had the ability to move the boat in any direction 20 miles, which way would you move it? Often, it’s not the direction of the optimum route. And you have to understand that, and you have to explain it to the crew so they understand it, and only then will the crew do the right thing due to all the small changes that happen on deck.
So after walking the watch captains and skipper through the forecast, and getting their agreement on the plan, then briefing the crew, I’d try to get a half hour or 45-minute nap before the next forecast. So I try to get four hours of sleep during the day in the form of naps. And the naps take place just before each forecast. So my world is just forecast-to-forecast.
**A Volvo 70 and a Groupama are obviously very different animals. From a navigator’s point of view, is it a different game? I mean, a really different game?
**It’s really different. The differences are, you have this incredible speed, which is a huge tool, and you can consider things that you could never consider on a Cal 40 or a sled or even a V70. So you have this enormous tool kit. If you can get the boat sailing in 18 knots of wind—it doesn’t take much—and a flat sea—in other words, if you can stay in front of the front, you’re smokin’, and you have so much speed. Winds from 18 knots to the high 20s, that’s fine, you don’t need them but it’s fine. Winds over the high 20s, you’re not really looking for it. And then winds over the low 30s, you don’t want. Even if it’s flat sea state, you really don’t want that much wind. So my guidelines were to try to keep us below 35 knots of wind.
And then you have this incredible sensitivity to sea state, which is really important, but complicated. You look at the wind waves, which of course are created by the wind you’re in, and that’s a function of fetch, and the wind speed. Then you look at the swell, which may be caused by the wind you’re in, but those are the waves that are coming at you from a distance, based on what’s happened before. And then you look at the crossing angle between the two, because even if you’re running, and you have a favorable sea state, where you have wind waves from behind and swell from behind, but they have a crossing angle of 90 degrees, you still have a problem. Because that crossing angle will throw up mounds of water, and even though the swell or the wind waves by themselves would be fine, these piles of water they throw up are going to force you to slow down. So you obviously look at the wind, but you separately have to look at the wind waves and the swell and the crossing angle to decide where are those regions of water that are going to force you to slow down.
**You’re talking about the big tri. What about a Volvo boat?
**You get on a Volvo boat with a bunch of Kiwis, and it’s pretty much let ‘er rip. Occasionally, you’ll be slowed by the sea state, but mostly you just let her rip into it. Only very occasionally will you have a situation where you’re on a powered up reach into a head sea and you have to slow down to keep the rig in the boat. But you mostly don’t worry about the slamming loads. You just let her slam.
Whereas the multihull, you really have to nurse it and avoid the bad conditions, and if you do have to slow down, you slow way down. And the thresholds are very, very sharp. You can have a head sea that’s due to an old swell, and if the encounter frequency is low enough you can just porpoise through it. But if the encounter frequency gets a little bit faster, suddenly you’re crashing, and you have to slow way down. And the difference can be really small. And you’ve got to calibrate that accurately, because you don’t want to sail extra miles to avoid something you didn’t have to avoid, and vice versa. So then what you do is you take that speed, and you take the fact that the boat is incredibly fast if you find the flat water, so you use that speed to pick your weather. I think we spent a total of about four hours, in the entire trip, in winds over 36 knots.
**Wait, what? That’s unbelievable. Say that again…
**The goal was to sail in winds less than 35 knots. And we ended up with 12 hours over 34, 3.5 hours over 36, and an hour over 38 all the way around the world. That was the goal.
**That’s a credit to you having the boat precisely where you wanted it to be, right?
**Yeah, but it’s not untypical. Folks who focus on that are able to achieve it, because you have the speed. But that’s what’s different between when ENZA and Commodore Explorer were first doing it, is they weren’t as focused on that tactic, of using your speed to pick your weather. They were kind of in the Volvo mode: We’re sailing in the Southern Ocean, deal with it.
**How far south did you get?
**The Horn (56ºS) is almost always the farthest south. In the big boats, the multihulls don’t need to get really far south, and you don’t want to get down there, because you don’t need that much wind. The Volvo 60s had the property that, no matter how hard it blew, you’d go faster, so those guys had an incentive to go really far south. The V70s don’t have as big an incentive to go so far south—they don’t need as much wind, and they start to slow down over 40 knots. And the multihulls are more extreme in that respect. There’s just no bonus to being father down there. And you’re so fast in the flat water that you’re happy to sail the extra miles.
**Looking back, is there anything you would’ve done differently on the record run?
**I would’ve far preferred if we hadn’t broken down on our November departure, because you never know what’s going to happen in the future, but we would’ve been days ahead (of the record) at Kerguelen. So that would’ve been great if we could’ve continued that trip. On the trip we actually did, we were a day behind at Cape Town, so we had a tough time in the South Atlantic. But then we had a great trip across the Indian Ocean and set a world record from Cape Town to Tasmania. I didn’t expect to beat (Orange II’s time for that stretch), because Orange had a really good trip there. Then we had a really good trip across most of the Pacific, except that the jet stream went zonal near the end.
**What do you mean?
**Normally the jet stream has big waves in it. For example, in the Transpac, the jet stream has that big Omega block. Those blocks kind of steer the lows. So when the jet stream goes zonal, that means it’s going straight east to west, and the lows start to move really fast. So we had a low behind us as we approached the Horn that we couldn’t stay ahead of. It was behind us, we had great wind, but it was going 45 knots. So we had to move north and let it pass under us and then follow it around the Horn. So we were on pace to set a record to the Horn, but we couldn’t stay ahead of it because the jet stream went zonal. We didn’t want to do what Bruno (Peyron) did on Commodore Explorer in 1993, where they let a storm go right over them and they got pasted. You don’t do that anymore. You just get out of the way. But that probably cost us a day-and-a-half.
Then, coming back up the South Atlantic, we had very light air, and we were a couple of days behind Orange even as we got near the southeast trade winds. When Orange got to this stage on their record trip, they were about eight days ahead of the previous record (set by Steve Fossett’s PlayStation). So when Orange left the tradewinds and got into the westerlies on their final approach to England, their timing was near perfect. They were just ahead of a storm coming across from the U.S. But by being just ahead of it, they knew it would be relatively windy with a relatively rough sea state. But with an eight-day lead, they basically stopped, gave away three days to wait for the next storm. Then they pulled in way in front of the next storm and had a beautiful, flat water, medium-air trip in, and then still improved the record by four or five days. So that made perfect sense for them, they had the record absolutely crushed. All they had to do was not break down. But they gave away two or three days right there in the North Atlantic. So there was a little pot of gold there, and of course I knew it was there. All we had to do was have good timing in the North Atlantic, and we’d pick up that huge chunk of time.
So from the time we were at Montevideo after rounding the Horn, I was telling the guys, all we have to do is get to the North Atlantic before this storm and we’re golden. We’re in the hunt, we’re going to set the record, it’s really important we push through all this light stuff and sail really hard in the light, and then have a nice time through the tropics and not get trapped in the doldrums. And you almost never get trapped in the doldrums on the way back, the doldrums are easy—you’ve got the right season, and you’re way far west. And then we just have to get in front of that storm. And we did. We made it just in front of it.
**So you’re saying the weather patterns were set up precisely as they had been for Orange?
**Yes, exactly. So we pushed to get right in front of (the storm), and actually the cold front went over us. So we weren’t able to finish in the southwesterlies, we had to finish in the northwesterlies. And you don’t like to let the cold front pass over you, but we had no choice because of our course. So the cold front went over us, and we had to sail for a day in the half in the death zone, in the northwesterly. The death zone in a big multihull is a beam reach—if you bear off you get more heeling moment, and if you come up you get more heeling moment, so you don’t like sailing on that point of sail. But we had no choice. And the guys did a great job, and so we ended up beating Orange’s record by two days. It wasn’t great weather around the world, but the boat was terrific, and the crew was terrific, and we made it work.
**Looking back at your sailing career, is there any one campaign or event that really stands out?
**I’ve been really lucky in having all these opportunities. And I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been able to change the opportunities. Some guys—well, you really get well paid to do a Volvo—and some guys, because they’re so well compensated, it’s hard to resist. And that’s why you see these professional Volvo sailors who go from Volvo to Volvo to Volvo, because the pay is great and they’re really good at it. I was really lucky that I got asked by a really good crew to do my first Volvo. I’d had opportunities before, and I had to turn them down because I’d just started a company or just raised a round of venture capital and I couldn’t take off— it wouldn’t have been responsible. But when Moose (ABN AMRO skipper Mike Sanderson) asked me, I figured I was too old, so I was surprised and pleased to get asked. And it came at a good time for me in my career. And then I had the great luck that it was a terrific crew and a well-designed boat and we won the thing.
And then personally I was able to check that box and move on to other projects. So I sailed professionally part time up to 2004, and then in 2004 I started sailing professionally full time, but I wasn’t really forced financially to take the first job that was offered, and that’s really the difficulty a lot of the professional sailors have. If you don’t take a job, the worst thing that could happen is you don’t do the event. So guys are forced to take an early offer. But because I spent most of my sailing career with a normal job, I could kind of pick the offers I got. So I got some really good opportunities on Sayonara, Pyewacket, PlayStation, Speedboat, and so on. I’ve been able to do a wide variety of different things. And I think part of that is because early on I didn’t have to take the first offer.
**Okay, that addresses the sailing career. What about your “normal” one?
**I grew up in Southern California, and went to Yale, then afterwards I got a job at Stanford’s engineering research institute (SRI) in Menlo Park. They put me through graduate school, so I got my masters. I’d started sailing professionally basically since college…part-time projects. One of those early campaigns was navigating Nolan Bushnell’s boat, Charlie, in the Transpac. So I built an instrument system that would capture the polars and do routing and so forth. We won the Transpac, and I got to know Nolan well. He was the guy who started Atari and invented Pong and so forth.
Nolan was interested in consumer electronics, and we got to talking. One of the ideas that I ran past Nolan was a pre-GPS vehicle navigation system. So he provided the seed money, and we started Etack, which is the vehicle navigation company. The way that worked is we measured the headings and distances traveled, so you basically dead reckon the cars, but you take the measured path the vehicle has driven and cross correlate that to the digital road maps we created. We developed the first topographically structured accurate digital map database for the US and Europe, licensed that to UPS and FedEx. So that all worked, and we got a bunch of patents, and Rupert Murdoch bought it for a number of insightful reasons, particularly the map database.
Anyway, when Rupert bought Etack, I became a CEO of an operating division of News Corp—a little tiny one—but nevertheless at all the management conferences I’d give my presentation to the chief executives of the other divisions, the guys who were running Fox and Harper Collins and TV Guide. I was the only engineer that many of them knew, so I started to spend half my time getting dragged into meetings with guys like Bill Gates and Larry Ellison and getting asked questions like, “What is encryption?” and “What is digital?” and “What is the Internet?”
At News Corp I got involved in several projects, and I got to know David Hill, who was starting Fox Sports. He asked me to meet him about once a week and brief him on technologies that could affect sports broadcasts. That’s where the hockey puck idea came up. In one of those luncheons, I was briefing him on the fact that you could put in fake billboards. Nobody had done it yet, but it was possible to do. He didn’t want to do that but he said, my god, if you can put stuff into the video that corresponds to things in the real world, let’s do stuff that’s useful. Fox had just acquired the rights to the 1996 NHL All-Star game, which was a couple of years away.
So David asked me, “Can you track and highlight a puck?” And I said, “Oh yeah, we tracked and highlighted much harder things at SRI, but you can’t afford it. It costs too much.”
He said, “How much?”
I took a day or so and figured it out and sent him an email saying it would take two years and cost 2 million bucks to build that system. And not 15 minutes later I get a call from Rupert Murdoch, and he says, “I understand it would take two years and cost 2 million bucks to track and highlight a hockey puck.”
I said that was correct, and he said, “Do it.”
So I got the same bunch of guys from SRI that started Etack, and we built this system to track and highlight the puck, and it ended up costing 2.2 million and taking exactly 2 years and was introduced at the 1996 All-Star game. It was great for the ratings, though it wasn’t very popular among hockey fans.
So we had sort of stumbled on to this ability to measure things that were difficult to see at sporting events and make them easy to see. And in the process of building the puck system, we were coming up with countless ideas for football and baseball and motor sports. We were all eager to get into that. But News Corp was in a difficult time for the financing. So I did a great deal with Murdoch, he was really supportive, and in 1998 I left News Corp to start Sportsvision. And that’s where we introduced the virtual strike zone and yellow first-down marker.
**That changed the way people watch football.
**Unlike the puck, that one was uniformly popular. That was really fun to do that one.
**When you left Yale, did you ever imagine how sailing would change, from Pyewacket to PlayStation to Groupama? Can you talk about the evolution? What’s surprised you?
**Out of Yale, in those days we were still navigating with celestial. I remember doing my first Admiral’s Cup in 1981, aboard Bill Martin’s Stars & Stripes—Bruce Nelson and Dave Ullman and a bunch of us were doing our first Admirals’ Cup, and it was a great experience because we all had something to prove—and a huge part of the navigator’s job was figuring out where the hell you were, and how do you find the mark. And doing the Fastnet in the fog with celestial and RDF…it was frightening.
Then, of course, with time, electronics became legal to use for position determination, and later, computers became legal. And since then, it’s just been a continuous trend to more and more technology. For me, I just got lucky in that I was working in technology anyway, and then I had this other interest in navigation, but it was more in the art and the lore of it. You know, the dead reckoning and the celestial, but then as sailing evolved and navigation changed, it grew into an area where I was already pretty strong on the technical side.
In the early phases, I was actually writing my own software to do the routing and to learn the polars and to compare performance, but as time has gone on Graham Wynn and Nick White and so forth have done a better job than I had. So now I only occasionally use the programs I originally wrote. I almost entirely use the off-the-shelf tools from Expedition or Tactiq or Deckman for Windows.
**So much has happened in a relatively brief time.
**Yeah. So much is different. But it’s interesting in that I think a lot of people misuse the tools, because they don’t insist on tinkering with them. A lot of people sort of buy the software, get the grib files, download it, get a route, and say, okay, we just follow that path. And you’re exactly halfway across the creek.
You have to understand questions like, “Okay, that’s the optimum route, but how much less optimum is this other route?” Here’s an example. It’s a little contrived, but let’s say you’re crossing an ocean, and it’s a dead beat. Now of course it doesn’t matter where you go. Now let’s imagine there’s a 1-degree shift in the grib file. So now the router is going to take you all the way to the corner to take advantage of that 1-degree shift. Now if you didn’t understand what was going on, you’d say, “Okay, I’ve loaded the grib file, I’ve paid all this money for these great programs, and this is the optimum route, so we’ll follow it. But if you understand what’s going on, you’d say, “There’s very steady wind here, the router’s going all the way to the corner for a 1-degree shift, we know that there are 15-degree oscillations in the ocean, there always are, so we know that we’re much better off to hit the shifts up the middle. This is nuts to get yourself hung all the way out there for a 1-degree shift.” So no sensible sailor would do that. But unless you knew why it went out there, you wouldn’t realize that that’s crazy.
**In your approach to navigation, how much is art and how much is science?
**You know, it’s probably like a lot of crafts. You know, you get really good tools, and you know how to use them right. What goes wrong a lot in navigation is that people don’t understand the tool well enough to know what it’s good at and what it’s not good at and where the pitfalls are. You’ve got to ask common-sense sailing questions: What’s it doing, why is it doing it, how important is it? Okay, I understand that. Now how much slower is it if I go up the middle? Ten minutes. Suddenly you’re looking at it a different way.
There’s some Transpacs that work that way. Where for some boats there’s quite a big trade-off in the middle, where you can be further north, you have fewer miles, there’s lighter air…or further south, with more miles, but heavier air. Okay, where are the competitors, what are the risks? But you have to look at it from an uncertainly standpoint. It’s kind of like economics. What are the costs? What are the probabilities? It’s a really fun problem.
And the cool thing about a Volvo or a Jules Vern is that there’s a lot to do. Every forecast you’re trying to figure out: What’s important here? What do I know? What do I not know? What are the risks? That’s what’s really fun about navigating—you’re constantly tangling with interesting problems.
**Stan, talk about some of the most influential sailors in your career? Who are the guys who really stick out?
**I grew up in San Marino, and I first started sailing out of the Los Angeles YC in Guppies, then Lasers. But I was interested in navigation from the beginning, so from the time I was 14, I was navigating on Sumatra for Al Martin. My dad, Dave, was an avid offshore sailor, but he wasn’t very interested in racing. So we had a series of boats growing up, and my dad would tolerate me racing them. He did a nice job in a very subtle way of getting me interested in sailing. And he was the navigator on Kelpie and Utopia, the Friendship sloop. And my godfather was a B-17 navigator, so I think I probably picked up some interest from both of them.
I think early on, as I started to navigate myself, Ben Mitchell, Sr. was a great navigator, a great competitor, and just unfailingly supportive of nippers growing up in the sport. After every Transpac, we’d have a perpetual date to have breakfast after the second one of us got in to go over the whole race and compare notes. But he was terrific. And Mike Quilter is a legendary navigator. He was hugely supportive during the Volvo Race for me.
Then in terms of other sailors, in the early days, having the opportunity to race and navigate for Willard Bell and Al Martin and George Griffith, some of the Southern California ocean racing stalwarts, was fantastic. And those were the days in Southern California when all winter long there was the Whitney Series, and those were incredibly challenging ocean races…the Tri-Island race and the Channel Islands race, and so forth. They don’t do those races anymore, but there was just a community of guys where I learned seamanship and learned sailing. And they let me navigate, because I was interested, and it would save a body. By having the nipper navigate, they didn’t need to bring another guy. So that was a hugely formative period.
Then John Andron, he was a good friend from 5-0 sailing, but he got me my original ride on Drifter in the ’79 Transpac that we won overall and were first to finish. That was a key breakthrough for me in navigation, where I suddenly began to get good rides. And that was a real interesting race; it was the real slow Transpac where the high came way south. We figured it out, and jibed to the south. Merlin was much faster and had a much better crew, and we beat them by 24 hours because we jibed south and they didn’t. Peter Hogg was the guy who got me the opportunity to sail with Steve Fossett, and that was a great set of opportunities that came out of that.
And then of course, I’ve got to mention Robbie Haines and Pyewacket. The level of the professionalism in that program was terrific. And then Moose Sanderson from ABN AMRO—a fabulous seaman, a fabulous sailor, and a terrific leader—one of those charge-up-the-hill, Marine-type leaders. I loved working with Moose. I followed him to Team Origin, and then things got chaotic there as the America’s Cup went through various adventures.
**Speaking of the Cup, what’s your take on it coming to San Francisco?
**I think it could be terrific. It’s certainly a fabulous venue. It’s beautiful, the winds are great, it’s an interesting venue in terms of the tactical decisions and so forth. I think the boats will be very interesting. The evidence from the (prototype) 45-footer is that the tacking loss may be modest enough where the boats are pretty darn tactical. That was something people were wondering about and that people would be concerned about with the catamaran, but then the C-Class boats were certainly having some tactical races and the 45 seems to tack very efficiently, so I think that’s all real encouraging. I think it could be great.
I’m also doing some contract work for the America’s Cup Event Authority. I’m working to develop this new tracking and highlighting system so you can highlight the races with helicopter video. So we’re subcontracting with Sportvision—I left the company in 2004—but adding to the SV technology so that it will work with sailing and it will work from a helicopter. Up until now, the SV system has worked from tripod-mounted cameras. So it’s an extension to their system.
If I get the opportunity with the Cup, that would be a real interesting challenge to kind of bring together my sailing background, and my experience in technology and tracking and special effects for sports TV. And that’s the fascinating part; I didn’t think those two worlds would ever really come together. It’s not yet clear whether I’ll be able to do it for the Event Authority, but it would be really fun to kind of give back to the sport in that way, to make the sport more accessible to more people on TV, to make it easier to understand. I have a huge debt, of course, to this sport, and I try to pay that back by serving with US Sailing on the board and helping out in handicap areas. I’m on the WSSRC as a council member and so forth, and I’m a U.S. delegate to ISAF, which is one of the more painful things that somebody can do in the sport, but somebody’s got to do it. But this is an area that is more hands on for me. If we can come up with a set of tools that really does make the story easier to tell, I think that’s the kind of thing we’re working on. It’s kind of like the yellow line in football, but showing who’s ahead and who’s behind, showing the laylines, helping the commentator.
**Do you still have your Cal 40, Illusion?
**Yeah. We’ve been using it in the short term to test some of this AC stuff. So we’ve got electronics down below that are probably worth four times the value of the boat. And we’ve got a bunch of antennas on the masthead and on the stern, and we’re testing the AC tracking and helicopter image overlay stuff. So it’s probably been the only time in the history of the planet that people chartered a helicopter to take footage of a Cal 40.
**Anything left on the list that you still need to cross off?
**I’d like to finish a Sydney-Hobart. We were leading when we lost the rig on ABN AMRO before the Volvo. But I’d love to try and win a Hobart. I nearly got a chance on Alfa Romeo, but it conflicted with Groupama. So that’s still something I want to do. And Sally and I want to go cruising.
**Nope. We’re thinking we’d go through the Panama Canal and do a loop around the islands of the Atlantic: the Azores, Canaries, Madeira, Cape Verde, then through the Chilean canals and back.
**On your Cal 40?!
**Sure. That’s the boat we got. You know what they say about what makes the best cruising boat? Whatever you own.