Racing in the Technology Age

Onboard computers and software can support our tactical decision-making on the fly, but there are times when we need to sail outside the mainframe.
sailing technology

Volvo Ocean Race 2014-15 – Leg 4 to Auckland

Powerful modern-day routing programs can help ocean-racing navigators and skippers with getting around the track faster, but what’s more important is how data is used by the crew. Matt Knighton

As our 12-Meter approached the windward mark, which included an offset mark, our navigator was looking at his tablet and said, “We are 15 seconds to the layline.” I glanced up, saw the mark, and felt we were easily laying it. I called for a tack. No sooner had the words left my lips did I realized that I’d looked at the offset mark, not the windward mark. We had to make two quick tacks to round the mark properly, and by the time we completed both rapid maneuvers, we were behind our nearest competitor. My bad. Actually, make that, my really bad. To make matters worse, we lost the eight-race regatta by a single point.

I spent a few months unable to mentally shake this mistake. “Why didn’t I listen to the navigator?” I’d ask myself. “Why didn’t I look around to see the full picture?”

The experience got me thinking about how sailors increasingly rely upon electronic aids for navigation and performance analysis. At the rate we are heading, we might as well be playing a video game where every decision will be driven by data. Because we risk losing our inherent sailing skills, we must strike a balance between using electronic aids and the seat of our pants.


To help me understand what the harmony should be, I reached out to two superstar sailors, Stan Honey and Anderson Reggio. Both are at the top of the game with regard to race electronics, and yet each still rely on their instincts. I found their comments helpful for sailors who race boats of all sizes. Honey told me that when he and his wife, Sally, race their Cal 40 double-handed, she immediately insists he put away his tablet and call tactics like he did racing when 505s with her for 20-plus years. “The software and a tablet are a big help, but in shorthanded racing,” says Honey, “it is more of a distraction than a benefit. It is better to call tactics by looking up the racecourse.”

Anderson adds: “It’s very easy to get lost in the numbers on a sailboat and forget that feel and gut are often more important than anything else. I see this with people who are not used to steering. It is easy to learn to steer to a number and not by feel. If you have a big board with numbers on instruments staring at you, the ability to sail by feel disappears.”

Electronics are simply a tool, he adds. “They are not the solution to finding the fastest way around the track, but when used correctly, they can certainly help find the solution.”


Years ago, when I was the tactician on Matador2, a high-tech maxi, there were two navigators aboard during a world championship in the Caribbean. One was Donald Street, who was a consummate seat-of-the-pants sailor and very familiar with Caribbean waters. The other was Dr. Jerry Milgram from MIT, who was the ultimate scientific mind on a boat. As you might expect, I got regularly confused by the overload of information I was receiving. After the first race, which we lost, I simply asked each adviser specific questions depending on the circumstances. Milgram was better for performance analysis, and Street knew about hidden currents and wind shifts. It was a good lesson in how to use the right personnel in different circumstances, and our results improved.

Honey explains how he likes to deliver strategic information to the deck crew during long-distance races: “I grab the ongoing watch captain and give a briefing on the computer, where it’s easier to visualize. The briefing includes the detailed expected weather over the next 12 hours, and then a weather overview for the next couple of days. The briefing also includes a tactical summary using sailing terminology. For example, ‘We’re sailing fast upwind angles until we get to the cold front, then we’ll tack on the header.’

“I let them know I will be watching the competitors, but we want to be first to the header so we need to put the bow down and sail with a tick more speed.”


Honey inspired Reggio to integrate performance and navigation for the tactician. “Stan once told me that modern navigators compete on preparation. This struck me as a mantra to live by. The modern electronics system is only as useful as the end user’s knowledge and the equipment’s state of calibration and accuracy. The navigator is the information manager who provides the right information to the right people at the correct time so everyone knows when a maneuver might occur. This is done by updating the tactician regarding position relative to laylines, a competitor’s position and wind shifts. Only when the navigator and tactician have worked together for quite some time can that communication become seamless.”

Anderson, by the way, was the navigator on the aforementioned 12-Meter, feeding me the correct information, which I ignored at my own risk. We got into a better groove after that moment. He points out that the relationship is a two-way street.

“The key as a navigator is knowing your tactician and when to give them the right bit of information to help them make good decisions. It can be very difficult when there’s rapidly changing information at your fingertips. I try to find that one nugget to insert in each sentence to help the team stay more focused.”


Honey is always working to maximize performance. “You need to constantly re-evaluate the miles you are investing based on the forecast for future weather,” he says. I asked if he ever used basic piloting, and he waxed nostalgic. “I miss the old days of celestial and dead reckoning alone for navigation,” he says. “It was harder then, but a better test of skill. When I make landfall, it’s still important to take bearings and do a quick plot, either on paper or a chart plotter, which gets your situational awareness locked in and avoids misinterpretation of landmarks.”

He always carries a chart for the race or leg, as well as detailed charts for the critical corners and the finish, and uses the same charts for races he’s done many times. They’re covered in notes that become valuable on future races. He also brings a plastic sextant on transoceanic races in the small chance that GPS is denied for military or national-security reasons.

I was curious about the instruments both Honey and Reggio like to use. Honey suggests Expedition as a good all-around solution as a chart plotter, routing and an inshore tool, as well as for its weather viewing and starting-line package. “If you add another package, then Adrena has additional powerful tools, particularly for boats that are sensitive to sea state,” he adds. “For a deck display, an iPad Pro mounted in a waterproof case is helpful. Tablet choices change every few months.” Anderson had three favorites, each with specific benefits: Deckman, Expedition and Adrena.

There are times when it is better to rely less on the instruments. For me, this is usually in very light wind. Whenever I start chasing numbers on instruments, I prefer to revert to the masthead fly and the feel of wind on my face as the most reliable wind indicators. Reggio agrees: “Another subtlety is knowing when all that time and effort in making the system work right needs to be thrown out the window in favor of sailing by feel. When all else fails, I go back to the basics and track heading, tack-to-tack and jibe-to-jibe, to give a base reference for noting headers and lifts.”

When racing offshore, real-time tracking like AIS makes racing safer and certainly more interesting for online viewing. However, many sailors don’t like giving away their position because they can’t hide from the competition. “Offshore races are becoming more like long inshore races with the fleet sailing around in a clump, covering one another,” says Honey. “Sic transit gloria mundi.”

I had to look up what that phrase meant: “Thus passes the glory of the world” or “Worldly things are fleeting.”

Change is certainly inevitable, and with all the new electronics available and improving, we should use them to help win races, but sometimes it pays to simply look around, like I should have done last summer while approaching that windward mark. I won’t make that mistake again. And, if I stray, I will listen to the navigator.