ETNZ Weatherman Tells Which Way the Wind Blows

Five-time New Zealand Olympic coach and ETNZ weather team member Grant Beck keeps the Kiwis on course


Derby Anderson

Grant Beck became New Zealand’s Olympic boardsailing coach after failing to make the 1984 national team. In those Olympics, Beck guided former rival Bruce Kendall to a bronze medal. He has coached four Olympic teams since, and in 2006, earned the Queen’s Honor for his contribution to the sport. For Emirates Team New Zealand’s 2003 Cup defense, Beck joined the syndicate’s six-member weather team, currently led by Roger “Clouds” Badham. In this interview with SW contributor Derby Anderson, the weatherman explains how his six-member crew keeps ETNZ’s 17-member sailing crew on top of the shifts.Both teams are working with the same Meteorological Data Service (MDS) data, so what else are you using?All of the teams who have paid to receive MDS data have identical data. Every one of those teams will run models or analysis of that in a different way. Teams use quite a lot of other inputs from around the Mediterranean and various models as well, which will be fairly uniform across all the teams. A very crude example of another input would be a broadcaster telling you a forecast; this is based on a mathematical model. Most or all of the weather teams here would be using similar but much more sophisticated models to predict out into the future as well, but we’re not just looking hour by hour. We’re also trying to inform the sailors, design team, and sailmakers how the wind is going to behave the following day, the day after that, and sometimes 2 weeks ahead. So it’s not just the MDS info out there that is of use.What makes your weather team better?I don’t know if ours is any better. I’m sure the analysis we have and tools we use are no better than Oracle, Alinghi and Prada, assuming those are the larger more sophisticated weather teams. Remember that it’s not just your weather team making the call: It’s the utilization by the design team, the sails team and then the guys on the boat itself. It would be fair to say the utilization of the info by guys on the boat is most critical. That’s where you really win and lose from the info from the weather team. If you look at the back of our boats, both A and B, we have pretty good guys. We are also fortunate to have Roger Badham, he would have to be the most experienced AC forecaster. If you went to any team doing the AC and said, ‘Who do you believe is the best weather person in the AC?’ I’m guessing the majority would say, ‘You have to say Roger Badham would be the best guy.’ He’s our chief meteorologist, plus he leads the weather team, plus he has very large input into anything that has to do with long range forecasting in terms of the design of the boats and sails and everything else. He is very valuable. It’s interesting to see that one of the first guys Grant [Dalton] went to when he was putting together the team was Roger Badham. Would it be ideal to have MDS weather buoys everywhere?That’s a two-edged sword. By having it all available, it becomes available to everybody else as well. So it’s game between how much info you need and how much info you don’t want other people to have. You can gather it in other ways.Like what? Just… other ways…Can you explain the Team New Zealand weather plan during the day? Who are you putting on the weather boats and where do you position them?Unlike a lot of other weather teams who pluck a B sailor and drop him in the weather boat, we’re the other way. Now, some of our weather guys are also sailors, whether it be on the reserve [boat] or 84 sailors, but they are primarily weather guys. We probably have more input into the overall understanding of the day than most other teams here because the weather guys have been involved from three years ago, so they’re not just plopped in at the end. And, Roger Badham chooses guys who are really gifted. He picked the young guys [Andrew and Dan McLean, and Kevin Burrows] because they were all top engineering students from Auckland University. They are scary bright– they write all our software. As for the positioning, the rules only allow us to have two boats inside the race line, so we have two boats inside, then one is outside. Roger Badham is usually inside the course with Tom Addis, but sometimes it switches around. We put them around course according to how we think course is going to behave that day. [They do not put a weather person on the race yacht before the start, as some teams do.] Most AC teams who are lucky enough to have that number of weather boats would be doing very much the same. Normally the third guy is upwind of mark, not that far upwind of it. Your best data is if you have been static for awhile, so you try not to move around too much. Then we add that data to our buoy data.So if most AC weather teams are doing the same thing on the water, do you do much jockeying for position?We try not to catch each other’s sea anchors! I think the whole thing here is civilized now as opposed to past Cups, where the teams were far more aggressive with their behavior on the course. Now people are fairly accepting: ‘Hey we’re out here, you’re out here.’ We’re not trying to get in each other’s way or catch each other out. I don’t really concentrate on them as long as they’re not affecting our wind and we’re getting good readings. Some of them you know, so you might have a little friendly wave, but that’s about the end of it.Team New Zealand has set up the weather team with a meteorological side, and also a sailor side that provides the gut instinct part of the weather call. How do you blend these together?That’s what Roger Badham does really well. He takes the meteorological side of it and is able to assess the sailor side and come up with a conclusion. That is probably his greatest strength. We [Grant Beck, Andrew and Dan McLean, and Kevin Burrows] are the sailor side and Clouds is meteorological side [along with meteorologist/accomplished sailor Tom Addis]. This is one of the most equal, level hierarchies I have ever worked in. So, there is to-and-fro-ing between these two groups, and then there’s the maestro at the end who comes up with his conclusion.


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