Paging Through the History of Race Electronics

Race Electronics

June 10, 2002
Courtesy Dr. Ernie Mcvay

The year is 1962 and Sailing World is born under its original title, One-Design Yachtsman. John F. Kennedy is in the White House and has declared a race against the Russians to the moon. John Glenn is the first American to orbit the Earth in the Mercury 6 space capsule. In October, perhaps the most dangerous era of the Cold War begins with the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In the last 40 years of race electronics, we’ve seen exponential advances in all areas, especially tools that navigators and tacticians use. Sailing World decided to look at the evolution of electronic equipment, which has resulted in a world filled with computers and software linked to satellites that got their beginning from the likes of the 183-pound Sputnik.

A review of back issues of One-Design Yachtsman, Yacht Racing & Cruising, and Sailing World, to refresh our collective memory for what was available, revealed one thing; the early 1960s may have been a boon for the rocket industry, but not much was happening in racing electronics. In fact, in our entire 1962 back issue collection, there was only one advertisement for a piece of electronic gear. The device, a hand-held anemometer, required no batteries or electrical connection. This handheld generator emitted a low voltage pulse as its cups whirred away in the breeze. As wind velocity increased, the unit’s voltage output also increased and was interpolated into wind velocity on its small dial.


Dr. Ernie McVay helps us understand what it was like to be a navigator in those days. He sailed the 37-foot Pearson Invicta Burgoo into the record books in 1964. It was, and still is, the first and smallest fiberglass boat to win the Newport Bermuda Race. Dr. McVay, who won the Mixter Trophy that year for his navigational prowess aboard Burgoo, describes what he felt was the biggest electronic breakthrough of the time; the radio direction finder.

“At that time all we really had were sextants, good piloting skills, and a chronometer–maybe a speedometer and log for recording distance. I prepared for the 1964 race by getting as much Gulf Stream data as I could from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Once underway, constant dead reckoning was de rigeur, aided by electronic knot-log equipment. I used a sextant for position finding, and fortunately, got some breaks in the cloud cover to get enough sights to keep us on track. My own secret weapon was an RCA radio direction finder that I had an electronic engineer friend tune for the race.” McVay went on to describe his amazement (and relief) when he discovered that he could pick up radio signals from 150 miles out to guide Burgoo on its final approach to Bermuda.

The late 1960s brought some advances, and at least one event that became a turning point for our sport. Our February 1968 issue had an ad from Danforth/White for one of the first electronic masthead-mount wind machines. Suddenly we had the ability to not only confirm wind velocity, but also track apparent wind angle. The first reference to using a computer in a race also came in 1968. Twenty-five year-old Geoffrey Williams won the London Observer’s singlehanded transatlantic race on his 57-foot ketch Sir Thomas Lipton in a record-breaking run. He credited a computer for his success. Each day at 8 a.m. he would radio his course, speed, and weather data to English Electric Computers Ltd. in London. The company then fed the data into a computer, together with information on weather conditions. The following day, usually 27 hours later, Williams would receive a course advisory report from English Electric. Williams estimated that the information saved him roughly 30 hours and several hundred miles. One observer at the time couldn’t contain himself: “It’s ghastly, this is the last true test of man against the elements and now the computers are going to take over.”


Racing navigators in the early 1970s had to assimilate data from a collection of individual instruments such as boatspeed and windspeed to formulate tactics. By the end of the decade, however, instruments would integrate sensor information and calculate much of the decision-making information such as true windspeed and direction. George Cuthbertson of C&C; Yachts described a typical SORC boat’s equipment list from 1970 this way: “RDF, VHF, probably a Kenyon knot meter and apparent wind indicator, an echo sounder, and, oh yes, a sextant.” The echo sounder was certainly not new; Raytheon invented the first Fathometer Depth Sounder in 1923, but the technology made little headway into the recreational boating market until around 1971. An ad from our April 1971 issue for the British Seafarer Sounder tells how the “revolutionary” device could be used in coastal navigation by following contour lines.

The year 1974 saw the birth of what became Ockam Instruments when Richard McCurdy built the first “miniature” computer, which was used as a wind direction instrument processor for the successful 1974 Cup defender Courageous. Packed in a large aluminum suitcase and cooled by bilge water pumped through a system of internal finned pipes, the box weighed 60 pounds and needed 280 pounds of batteries to keep it running.

Brooks & Gatehouse announced one of the first integrated systems in its “Hornet” series in 1975. Boatspeed and log functions, combined with wind monitoring features, carried a retail price of $2,085. The price was significant, but this was also an era when company matriarch Mrs. Gatehouse would personally visit the docks before the Newport Bermuda Race to ensure that customers were satisfied with the company’s products.


Another breakthrough was the Light Emitting Diode (LED). This technology made its racing debut as part of the data display on the ubiquitous COMBI VI data center from International Marine Instruments. The COMBI provided boatspeed, windspeed (in digital display format), apparent wind angle, nautical mileage, and a point-of-sail indicator, all in one 11.5″ X 4.25″ display. Signet Scientific announced its new line of LED-equipped wind and speed instruments and touted the fact that, due to the advanced circuitry, electrical power consumption had been reduced by an astounding 70 percent, from about 1 amp/hour for their old instruments, down to about 0.3 amp/hour. Twelve-Meter yachts such as Courageous and Independence used Signet instruments. Another new device, the LED yacht countdown timer, began to make inroads, and Polaris Marine Electronics hailed its DT-1 Digital Timer as the device that would make the traditional stopwatch obsolete. On the offshore safety side of things, Narco Marine introduced the first FCC approved 121.5 / 243.0 MHz EPIRB (emergency position indicating radio beacon). This derivative from the aircraft industry, subsequently upgraded to 406 MHz, has saved many lives.

An examination of how some sailors felt about the constant push of technology is warranted. In the June 1975 issue of Yacht Racing we found an article titled “Navigators of Note.” One of the navigators interviewed was Al Dahms, a Coast Guard commander with offshore racing experience aboard such boats as Tara, Escapade, and Phantom. He sums up the thoughts of many navigators during that period: “My favorite race is the Newport Bermuda Race, and I hope they keep it pure, without electronics.”

The year 1975 was also a watershed year for the Loran position finding system. Loran A had been used by the military as early as the mid-’40s, but it was not all that accurate and quite difficult to use. Loran C would have a long run once the transmitters were in place and coverage was comprehensive enough to be a practical solution for the coastal and inland navigator, but in the mid-’70s it still had a way to go. Our September 1975 issue may help to explain why. ITT Decca Marine at the time was offering a pro-rated, cost-sharing program for users who purchased one of their DAL-222 Dual Automatic Loran A receivers. The deal was a guaranteed trade-in allowance toward the purchase of one of their new DL 91 Loran C receivers. So, this was obviously a transitional year for the Loran position-finding system. Another possible clue as to why these units weren’t as popular early on may have been the price. A Texas Instruments TI 9000 Loran C unit cost $2,100 in 1978. That equated to roughly a quarter of the cost of a typical 25- to 28-foot racer/cruiser at the time.


Tom Leweck, a respected navigator and veteran of more than 50 California to Mexico races, summed up the early Loran years. “Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Loran was pretty much useless to us as the coverage essentially stopped at the Mexican border.” He described the period as one where crew had genuine respect for the navigator; and one in which he would do his work and retire to his berth praying that he hadn’t blown the race with his predictions to the rest of the crew. Leweck’s secret weapon for these races was a VHF Omnidirectional Range Finder. OMNI is widely used as a homing device for aircraft as they navigate to an airport, even to this day, and offers an accuracy of plus or minus one degree. Leweck described using the OMNI unit to back up his own plot during a typical 400- to 1,000-mile race by homing in on Mexican airports along the Baja coast. “The trouble with this method was that it only gave you a single line of position,” he says. “Actual position was still based on dead reckoning and your best guess in taking into account what you knew about ocean currents and set due to wind and sea conditions. As a navigator, you couldn’t really rely on what the watch captain told you about the average boatspeed during a given watch. They’d always tell you what they thought you wanted to hear.” For Leweck, the big breakthrough was when SatNav came into the mix around 1981. “We used an early B&G; that took input from the electronic log and compass on board. The watch captains couldn’t lie to me anymore.”

The early ’80s were heady years in the world of yacht racing. This was the era of the maxiboat, and yachts such as Kialoa, Condor, Ondine, and Nirvana were making headlines. These were boats where the cutting edge of technology was continually being tested, not just in the size of their rigs, sails, and deck gear, but in the electronic equipment that was being installed as well. With seemingly limitless budgets, these boats were always equipped with the latest and greatest. Take Nirvana for example. The nav station is described in the winter 1982 issue of Nautical Quarterly this way: “At the center is the Apple II computer, whose thirst for knowledge is fed by the world’s largest assemblage of Brookes & Gatehouse instruments. To the right of the computer is a Philips telex machine. In another photo is shown the Nagrafax weather machine and the Skipper 406 recording depth sounder,” and that was only part of the story. Additionally, Nirvana had a Magnavox SatNav and two Loran C receivers, one from Trimble and another from Northstar, as well as an ICOM SSB radio for long-range communication, VHF, and Furuno Radar. The 1982 edition of the Newport Bermuda Race was the last time race organizers banned the use of electronic position-finding equipment, except RDF. Without using much of its electronic gadgetry, Nirvana went on to set a course record, preserving the purity Commander Dahms had hoped for seven years before.

In the mid-’80s we began to see the use of Liquid Crystal Displays on deck. LED displays were often difficult to see in sunlight, but they were great at night. LCDs were a significant improvement. Perhaps one of the best new LCD products was the KVH Sailcomp digital compass. Dan Dyer, a veteran of 12 Bermuda races and 1998 Mixter Trophy winner aboard Kodiak, a 64-foot Frers sloop, praises the Sailcomp: “The most important instrument on my own boat in the last 10 years has been the KVH Sailcomp on the mast. Keeping track of headers and lifts, upwind or down, is the easiest way to beat the competition.”

The mid-’80s also saw many more companies get into the gear game, which was a good thing. The price of a Loran unit dropped from $2,100 to less than $500, within reach of the average racer.

The beginning of the biggest change in the history of electronic navigation came in 1987. Trimble Navigation began advertising its 10X extended-range Loran C/GPS unit. At this point, the building of the Loran transmitter infra-structure had peaked and coverage included previously uncovered areas such as the Baja Peninsula, Bermuda, the Bahamas, and the Caribbean. Sextant die-hards were beginning to feel a sea change.

Peter Isler described his experience using one of these early GPS systems during the 1988 America’s Cup on board Stars & Stripes: “There were only a few satellites in the sky, so we only had periodic coverage, forcing us to revert to Loran C in the 20-mile windward-leeward courses.” He also described what might have been the first cockpit computer to control their Ockam instrument system, the HP 71b “calculator.” The HP 71b was a major breakthrough in that it was essentially hand-held, and although hard wired to the boat, brought major functionality on deck for the first time. The first handheld GPS, the Magellan Nav 1000 was introduced in 1989, and not only advanced navigation, it changed how we perceive the racing navigator. “Everybody that jumps on board now,” says Leweck, “has a GPS in their kit, and they all think they know how to navigate.”

The early ’90s saw more advances in hardware, but it wasn’t always easy being on the cutting edge. SatNav, which could only give position updates about every 90 minutes due to the relatively small number of satellites (six) in its system, was replaced by GPS, which gave updates measured in seconds. But after the Gulf War, GPS was “detuned” with selective availability reducing accuracy. For Joubert/Nivelt 42 Presto owner Peter Goltra, whose only goal was to win the 1992 SORC, this was not good news. GPS was the rage, so like other owners out to get the biggest advantage possible, he spent $7,500 for a state-of-the-art Trimble unit. The navigator suggested they also have a Loran on board. With a $350 Loran C as a backup, guess which unit got them to the Bahamas and back for the distance race that year? Since they hadn’t had time to interface the Loran with the rest of the onboard Ockam instruments, or the $3,000 Trimble deck repeater Goltra had also purchased, none of the position finding, or course-over-ground/speed-made-good data could be displayed on deck. Such was life on the cutting edge. At least the owner got his wish; Presto won the 1992 SORC in the A division, even without the $10,000 worth of GPS equipment fully operational.

Although not popular on raceboats at first, electronic charting began to make inroads into the grand prix circuit in the early ’90s. Raytheon started it all by integrating C-Map electronic charts into its radars and fish finders. DataMarine got a big piece of the market with its Video Chart system. Although the graphics were crude by today’s standards, these charts and their interface with accurate electronic position-finding equipment were the wave of the future.

Software was another area where a lot of development was occurring. Tactical software like Ockam Soft and KiwiTech, as well as custom proprietary software, became the norm. Tracking polar targets and determining exact laylines was getting easier and the ability to record data over time and look back at a history was a great aid when tuning a boat. The software, however, was only tracking the data it received from the various sensors mounted all over the boat and masthead. Calibration time was extensive, and at best you could only get tacking angles and apparent wind indications to within one or two degrees from port to starboard. The software provided tack-to-tack correction factors, but everything changed with wind velocity and, to some degree, each time somebody decided to re-tune the rig. Getting a perfect match from side to side was virtually impossible.
Meantime, charting software got better. Equipment became more reliable, and waterproof became a concept that actually had some meaning. In the mid-to-late ’90s, radar took a quantum leap forward when Raytheon introduced the first LCD radar screen. “Radar shall only be used as a means to avoid collision,” read most of the racing rules of the day, but it was tough to look at that screen in a pea soup fog, see all of your competitors, and not be tempted to play tactical games.

So what about electronics today? We talked to Stan Honey, who navigates Steve Fossett’s maxi-catamaran PlayStation and Roy Disney’s Pyewacket and has done some stints on Larry Ellison’s Sayonara. Honey’s electronic tools include a laptop and multiple software packages that are used to interpret weather data received from single-sideband long-range radio receiver, Inmarsat Mini-M, or Inmarsat C satellite equipment. The data is used in routing software such as Raytech or MaxSea, and the software then recommends a route based on a combination of the boat’s current position, destination, polar data, and the three- or four-day predicted wind and sea conditions.

Honey, who began his early years writing his own software for polar and race analysis says, “For electronic chart displays, I like Nobeltec. For distance races I use Raytech for strip-charting of conditions and for routing. I sometimes use MaxSea as an alternate for routing. For shortcourse races I use Deckman for Windows on a B&G; RaceVision deck display.” When we asked Honey to name the biggest breakthrough in recent years, he cited Graeham Winn’s development of the Deckman tactical software. The program offers a reliable and accurate combination of realtime tactical features, such as time to layline, and overlays them on a chart–giving sailors insights that only years of experience could otherwise provide.

Both Honey and Dan Dyer mentioned their fondness for KVH’s Satcom mini-M for voice communication, because of it’s reliability and support for voice and data communication. Dyer uses the mini-M system for downloading from and other weather sites. Dyer also noted the chart plotters of today as the navigational and economic breakthrough of the last several years. You can buy one now for less than $400.

Isler told us both Ockam and B&G; had great products. He agreed that the Deckman software is a mainstay for today’s racers, but complained about some of the other software he’s had to use. “Many performance programs and onboard PCs are still very complicated and hard to learn, not to mention difficult to set up properly to communicate with the instrument system. The tools that are used by a Volvo 60 or an America’s Cup crew are overkill for the average racer. I see a need for a ’lite’ version of these tools that’s easy for the everyday sailor to use.”

Dyer’s criticism was that software upgrades come too fast. “By the time you’re comfortable with any given software, there’s something newer.” On the other hand, he conceeded the advantage of one recent upgrade: “The new electronic strip charts available with RayTech or Deckman help navigators track performance, particularly on a long race–logging wind direction and strength adjacent to boat heading and speed. If you’re fast, you’re fast, if not, let someone else drive!” Like Leweck’s SatNav 10 years ago, the navigator can now use technology in yet another way to log the helmsman’s performance.

What will the next 40 years bring? Isler sees a trend toward on-deck tools that are cost effective. Relatively inexpensive Windows CE devices that are connected to the main PC below decks via a wireless network will become more common. Dyer feels that with the acceleration of integration between systems, we’re close to having most decisions, including routing, sail selection, and halyard tensions, determined electronically. Honey wants a pair of waterproof, wireless sunglasses that will display his computer screen on the inside of the lenses.

We’ve definitely broken the electronics barrier of the late 1960s and early 1970s. And electronics have evolved far beyond providing reliable navigation to helping the contemporary racer achieve optimal performance. We’re not alone against the wind anymore, and it’s hard to imagine racing without these tools. But it’s up to you to call it progress.


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