Setting sail in virtual waters

August 18, 2000

Yachtsmen are relying on a new nautical friend to plot and win races -the computer

Gone are the days when yacht design involved rough measurements and a drawing board. Today, designing the winning yacht or plotting a successful racing strategy is a high-tech affair. Auckland - the City of Sails and host to the recent America's Cup - boasts some of the world's most innovative yacht technologists.

Academics at the University of Auckland's Yacht Research Unit are taking some of the unpredictability out of racing by devising computer programs to help develop the ultimate craft.

Peter Jackson, professor in the unit, says designers can spend months attempting to develop boats with perfect dimensions for the local wind and sea conditions.

But now a simulator developed at the university under an associate professor, Andy Philpott, enables them to test their designs in a variety of potential wind and sea conditions before construction.

Another simulator allows two boat designs to be raced head to head. It includes realistic wind conditions for a course and takes into account factors such as boat shadow, where one craft is downwind of its competitor.

"Very often boats that are best up wind are not necessarily best down wind," Jackson says. "If the two boats are always in the same wind field as each other, you would expect the faster boat to win. But the boats may experience different fields. By adding a random component, the advantage of the faster boat is gradually diminished."

The Auckland University simulator races the boats thousands of times under differing, statistically realistic, weather conditions. At the end of the day, the designer can be presented with the probability that one boat will beat the other.

But it is not just short courses such as the America's Cup that are capturing academics' imaginations. They have also set their sights on helping sailors make better navigational decisions on longer hauls - such as round-the- world races.

Round-the-world yachtsmen and women are provided with regular forecasts to assist them planning their routes, but the weather can always change. A route that makes the most of today's weather may leave them stranded the next day.

Jackson says that optimum courses for a particular boat differ depending on which part of the ocean they are in, while the risks a sailor is prepared to take will vary according to where they are in the race.

"We have built a computer program that takes all these things on board; the risk you want to take, the likelihood of weather condition changes, and the effects they will have on the boat," he says.

The program was developed in collaboration with a local marine software company and will soon be on the market.

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