Technology and the ability to communicate from wherever you are, whenever you want or need, is becoming a part of everyday life for consumers around the world. We now rely on our mobiles to be always-on and use them for a wide range of daily tasks in our working lives, as well as contacting friends and family, getting from place-to-place, banking, shopping; the list goes on.
My reliance on communications technology was never as real to me as when I recently competed in a solo yacht race from New Plymouth to Mooloolaba on the Sunshine Coast. My mobile phone became my centre for navigational operations, as well as my means of communication, entertainment, recording my journey, and a range of other crucial functions such as my alarm clock to wake me up on the hour, every day for the duration of the race.
The Solo Tasman Yacht Challenge has been running for over 40 years, and up until recently the two key components for successful competitors were the quality and design of the boat, and the skills and ability of the skipper. To these factors we can now add ability to make use of communications technology.
Only a few years ago, the boats would cross the start line, point at 295 degrees on the compass, and keep going in a straight line (as the weather allowed). Forecasting was based on the rate and direction of the movement of the barometer. A sextant was an important navigation aid, and a single sideband radio (SSB) was used for communicating twice-daily position reports. This process meant sitting beside a squawking, squealing radio waiting for your turn to be called up to give your report, a process which could take anything from 30 minutes to an hour, and always happened about the same time that the sails needed to be reefed or changed.
Today, satellite connections have changed the race completely. Twice-daily position reports take less than a minute; an SMS message is sent to the race control email address and is done within a time window which suits the skipper. Commercial weather forecasting providers have models which are compressed to download quickly over satellite connections and are updated twice a day. The models are sophisticated, detailed and also provide routing advice based on individual yacht polars. The models can provide forecasts two weeks or more ahead. The connection also allows for phone calls, and a constant stream of SMS messages to friends and family, lessening the loneliness felt on a solo ocean voyage.
In addition, most yachts now have an Automatic Identification System (AIS) which receives information from other ships and provides early warning of their presence. At one point I was woken by the AIS alarm showing a container ship 12 miles ahead of me, bearing down at 20 knots (I was doing 8). I was able to call the ship on the VHF radio and the Captain kindly agreed to change course to avoid me. Running downwind under sail meant that it would potentially take me longer to change course than I had available, and I may have been unable to move out of the container ship’s path before it bore down on my 12 metre yacht.
Five different GPS receivers provide constant, accurate information about the yacht’s position, speed over the ground and heading. When combined with the weather forecasts, the skipper can start to build a picture of where they are, what the weather is likely to do, and therefore what direction they should be heading. As an example, about seven days into the race, one of the other yachts was 13 miles behind me. We were both heading North in the middle of the Tasman, trying to catch the strong westerly winds which would carry us speedily to Australia and the finish line.
When I saw my competitor turn towards the finish I had a choice; turn and cover him; or stay with my strategy of getting to the top of the high for the fastest wind speeds.I downloaded an updated forecast which suggested that turning at that point would lead me straight into lighter wind, so I kept heading north. I gybed left 12 hours later and ran into 35 knots of westerly wind, with which I speedily sailed to the finish line over the last four days; coming in over 100 miles ahead of the other boat. I was the fourth boat to finish, but first on handicap (or corrected time).
I was vaguely aware of the changes in capability of satellite communications and mobile applications, but I hadn’t appreciated the full impact of the changes until I found myself relying on the technology in a time-critical situation. Communications technology is changing rapidly, and these changes are having a major impact on our lives. Like winning a yacht race, making best use of technology still rests with the user, and it’s a tool that can be used as an enabler of success by anyone who uses it to is full capacity.
By Geoff Thorn, CEO NZ Telecommunications Forum
The last boat to finish took almost twice as long as everyone else. The skipper had completed the same race 30 years earlier and appeared to take the old approach of heading up the rhumb line and dealing with the weather as it arrived. Although he had access to the same technology as the rest of the fleet, he never appreciated that heading north to the top of the high would get him to the finish line much earlier. In contrast to previous races, the track of the majority of the fleet went North up the West Coast of the North Island towards Norfolk Island, before turning left towards Australia.
 Yacht polars are the data which track the expected boat speed under different wind directions (relative to the boat heading), and strength.