Setting Sail

Yacht racing has been a sport for many centuries, and sailing technology has been evolving for millennia. But the advent of GNSS and inertial technologies has brought a new level of precision to the sport. Those who watched the America's Cup race coverage in the fall of 2013 witnessed the state-of-the-art instrumentation used on board for navigation and by race monitors for tracking competitors' performance.

When NovAtel Aerospace Program Manager, Owen Thistle, decided to enter the 2013 Van Isle 360 International Yacht Race with a sailboat named Kerkyra, he knew it would be a challenge. Competitors typically encounter tight inside passages with swirling tidal currents and complex wind patterns, and frequently end up sailing overnight in high winds and rough seas on the outside shore of the island.

Undaunted, Thistle joined by two other NovAtel colleagues, CTO, Pat Fenton, and VP of Operations Mike McAloney-set out to undertake what Sail Magazine has characterized as “North America's toughest coastal race.”

Given their professional calling in precise positioning, the crew also took on a secondary mission in the race: to accurately record the boat's position, attitude, velocity, and acceleration. The trio of NovAtel engineers wanted to get a sense of how data from GNSS and inertial technologies would compare to the “gut feel” a sailor has when he makes an adjustment, and to see what insight this type of data would bring to the sailing experience. “We have a strong emphasis on innovation at NovAtel, and innovation has as much to do with understanding the problem as it does with creating a solution,” Thistle says. “Customers are very familiar with their tasks and challenges but they don't necessarily know what our technology is capable of doing. So, I thought it would be a good exercise to think about what my ideal yacht racing instrument would be and how we might approach that with our technology.”fig2

Conversely, the race offered the NovAtel team a chance to experience their company's products from a perspective more like a customer's. NovAtel creates products that customers integrate into end user solutions, making the team one layer removed from the end application, Thistle says. It's important for the team to actually use the technology, because it gives them a better feel for what the end user experiences and how that experience can be improved.

Thistle says, “This venture gave us a great opportunity to remember what it can be like to try to install and run equipment in environments that are not always easy. It's very different from working in a lab on horizontal surfaces with good power supplies. We were dealing with salt spray, boats moving, and people trampling over cables.”

This experience also helped the NovAtel team to appreciate the amount of data their equipment provides and how to extract and apply that data optimally for a specific application.