Calculated To Win: Supercomputers Power America's Cup
The 2013 America's Cup isn't just about using human muscle to race faster than the wind. This year, the international sailing competition is about supercomputing.
Tech teams are working behind the scenes to crunch numbers and model things like how a half-degree change in wing angle could add 5 knots in speed.
The computer giant Dell, for example, is running the supercomputers for Emirates Team New Zealand's boat. Bryan Jones, Dell's vice president of marketing, says teams are testing virtual models and studying each others' designs for advantages like never before.
"You would look at: Is there applicability to my boat?" he says. If so, "I'd go back and I'd potentially do that on my boat as well."
A few days ago, Emirates Team New Zealand nearly capsized in the San Francisco Bay. After near destruction, the Kiwis retooled their boat overnight, but still not enough to beat their rivals.
A radio broadcaster announced that Oracle Team USA won race No. 9 by 47 seconds, with "a completely different boat than what we've seen in the past."
In fact, it wasn't completely different, but it was modified. Kiwi spectator Dan Thompson says the Americans redesigned their boat, maybe to make it a little lighter. "Whatever they've done has made the difference. It's given them those extra couple of knots they were lacking the previous six or seven races," he says.
The America's Cup has always pushed the limits of technology, even from the first yachts in 1851. In 2013, they don't even have sails — they have oversized rigid wings and carbon fiber hulls that let them leap up out of the water to hydroplane on the surface.
Gilberto Nobili of Italy is the grinder for Oracle Team USA. His job is to move the ski-shaped foils on the bottom of the boat that make it fly.
Nobili huddles with a team of mathematicians and designers minutes before the race. When he's on the water, they record 3,000 variables, 10 times a second. Then they review the data for possible improvements.
"You collect the data, you get a kind of report, and then you go into a sailing team meeting, a design meeting, and you discuss which is the best way to move forward," he says.
He's not allowed to reveal exactly what the Americans changed, but he calls the process amazing. "We start the race one week ago, and the boat was different."
New Sailing Language
On the other side of this new computer-nerd/superathlete partnership is Nick Holroyd, the technical director for Emirates Team New Zealand.
A few tournaments ago, the Kiwis had about 30 sailors and 15 engineers. Now it's the other way around. "We've had to kind of sit down with the sailing team and almost invent a new language," Holroyd says.
During each race, Holroyd gets on a chase boat to monitor his team in real time. He says to move faster than the wind, the boats don't just glide on the water's surface.
"Now because we pick the boat up, you're really looking at a three-dimensional physics problem," he says. "So just the number of cases that we need to run to understand how a hull's going to behave has gone up exponentially."
Back at San Francisco's Pier 30, spectator Ricardo Romani says the end result of all of this is a leaner race, and he's a little nostalgic.
Romani likes the new boats but misses the old teamwork.
"We went from a gentleman's sport, good sailing, decent skippers, sometimes overweight — it didn't matter — to very high tech," he says. "I think this is going to [be the] start of a new era for sailing."
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