Hoping to break competitive yacht racing’s elusive “sound barrier” of 60 mph, sailing teams representing six countries will race their high-tech, data-enriched F50 catamarans on San Francisco Bay starting May 4 in the second round of the innovative new SailGP championship.
SailGP is a very different kind of sailing event from the hallowed America’s Cup. For starters, all of the SailGP teams’ catamarans are designed and engineered to be identical, so teams win based on their tactics and grit, not from a technology advantage.
The Australian team, with former world champion yachtsman Tom Slingsby at the helm, comes to San Francisco leading that global competition, with 48 points, after winning four of the five six-team races (as well as the match race final) during the Sydney leg in February. The Japanese team is in second place (45 points), followed by Great Britain (36 points), China (33), France (33), and the US (31).
As with the Sydney racecourse, the San Francisco Bay course’s on-water and on-shore vantage points will bring spectators close to the action—much closer than they were at the 2013 America’s Cup in San Francisco, famous for Oracle Team USA’s historic come-from-behind victory.
The San Francisco SailGP Race Village is situated on the Marina Yacht Club Peninsula, rendering remarkable views of the competition against backdrops of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island. In fact, all five venues for SailGP’s inaugural season—including New York in June, Cowes, England, in August, and Marseille, France, in September—feature fan-friendly, amphitheater-like settings. More than 26,000 spectators attended the first-ever SailGP event in Sydney.
“We are really excited to get on the water in San Francisco, one of the best sailing venues in the world,” said Rome Kirby, the US team helmsman, in a preview on the data-rich SailGP site. “San Francisco always delivers great sailing conditions, which will provide really exciting racing. We didn’t get the result we wanted in Sydney, but we learned a lot and have far more confidence going into this next event. With the support of the home crowd, we’ll be looking for some strong results.”
Identical, Blazing-Fast Boats
In the fledgling SailGP league, spearheaded by Oracle founder Larry Ellison and yacht racing legend Russell Coutts, not only are the teams’ catamarans identical, but all technology enhancements and performance data are shared across the fleet. It’s a setup that controls development costs and puts a premium on the skills of the five-man crews, which include former world champions, Olympic medalists, and America’s Cup winners.
But make no mistake, these F50 catamarans, engineered and built by Core Builders Composites Ltd., a New Zealand-based company owned by Ellison, are the most technologically advanced in the world. While the boats’ length (50 feet/15 meters), wing sail height (78 feet/24 meters), and other core parameters are the same as on the AC50 catamarans that raced at the 2017 America’s Cup in Bermuda, the boats have been improved in a number of key ways.
For example, the F50’s refined under-craft hydrofoils, combined with a first-ever battery-powered system for controlling the wing sail, foils, jib sail, and other parts of the craft, make it easier for the highly skilled crew members to “fly” their boats above water for the entirety of each race, increasing average speeds. Aided by San Francisco Bay’s brisk winds, one or more of those boats are expected to exceed 50 knots (60 mph) in the May leg of the championship for the first time in competitive yacht racing.
The F50 catamarans are also data-generating machines. During each race of approximately 16 minutes, 1,200 sensors attached to boat parts as well as crew members stream up to 45 megabits of data over a 100-mbps wireless LTE network to an Oracle Exadata machine onshore. From there the data is uploaded to the Oracle Cloud for further analysis and distribution, said Warren Jones, SailGP’s director of technology, in an interview.
That data is available for a variety of purposes: It gives fans a rich feed of information on the SailGP mobile app and on SailGP.com; it’s used in the TV broadcast’s on-screen graphics and analysis; and it lets teams monitor their athletes’ heart rates and track their movements on the boat.
Perhaps most important, each team has full and equal access to one another’s performance data for post-race analysis.
“We’ve been spending a great deal of time looking at the data from some of the other boats in our effort to improve,” said US team coach Tom Burnham in another San Francisco race preview on the SailGP site. “Recently we’ve been looking at the Japan SailGP team and studying their maneuvers in detail. We’ve isolated certain areas, such as the way in which we could improve crew movements. We hope that this will prove to be a big upgrade for us come San Francisco.”
Data streamed in real time to the SailGP app is also improving the fan experience. Users can watch a live feed of each race and hone in on a range of stats for individual teams: current speed, time to mark, ride height, and VMG (velocity made good, indicating velocity in an upwind or downwind direction). The “layout” portion of the app lets users isolate the stats of two teams during the six-team race. The app also explains common sailing terms—knots, the pitch and roll of the boat, etc.—and provides video footage of prior races.
“We’re immensely proud of our mobile application,” Jones says. “We think there’s no other sport that gives as much data as we’re collecting to the public in a live environment. We want to get as many people as possible to use the application.”
Video from two cameras on each of the boats is handled separately from all of the other data. It’s uploaded via a 2-gbps link to an overhead helicopter, sent to a local base station, and then transmitted via fiber optic link to a data center in London, where it’s processed and loaded into the Oracle Cloud for use by the London-based TV studio for live broadcast. “It’s not complicated at all,” Jones jokes.
Currently, there’s no race-time communications between each boat and the shore team, other than what’s publicly heard over the two microphones on each craft. But SailGP is looking to add what Jones calls a “pit lane experience,” whereby a coach could look at the data coming off the water to judge what the team is doing wrong and dictate corrective action. “We don’t want an open channel where the coaches could just talk to their teams any time,” he says. “Instead, it would be something like four 30-second intervals, so that every word that they say to the team matters.”
Another goal is to analyze the data from prior racing venues “to get to the point where we can say this boat was faster than that boat because of A, B, C, and D—and visualize that as well,” Jones says. Did the Australians win in Sydney mainly because they flew their boat above water for longer periods than their competitors did, for example, or was it for other tactical reasons?
To that end, Oracle is now helping SailGP apply machine learning to all of the data from the Sydney races, though there won’t be enough data to draw definitive conclusions for another two or three sets of races, he says.
Because SailGP is only in its first season, “there are plenty of things that are still in development,” Jones says. “It takes time to configure the technology, and we’re not making it easy on ourselves by doing everything on water. But having Oracle on board to help move us forward is key to our success.”
The six national teams in San Francisco will compete in a total of five short-format races on Saturday, May 4, and Sunday, May 5, with the top two teams facing off in a match race finale on Sunday afternoon to determine the San Francisco SailGP champion.