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Secret weapon will help Britannia rule

tom whipple | the times | 23 may 2015

What better way could there be to evoke Britain’s proud maritime history? A sail on the Solent, waves rippling in the breeze, and a Napoleonic fort on the hazy horizon. Oh, and hundreds of sensors continuously transmitting information from a hydrofoil catamaran to mission control on dry land where they can provide real-time analytics and update the parameters of a virtual reality simulator.

Sir Ben Ainslie is not looking to evoke maritime history. He is looking to make it. The America’s Cup is the oldest international sporting event in the world, and Britain, despite starting it, has never won. 

Over the next two years Ainslie hopes to change that, using technology more at home on the racetrack than the open waves.

Although his home country has always come up short in the famous contest, Ainslie has tasted America’s Cup success. He led the USA team to victory in 2013 in a dramatic last-race victory against New Zealand. 

Speaking of this British bid, the four-times Olympic gold medallist, said: “We don’t underestimate the challenge ahead of us. The America’s Cup is the oldest trophy in international sport and over 162 years and 34 contests Britain has never won it. 

“If we’re to bring the cup home then we need to explore any edge that technology can provide.”

Homepage image Ben Ainslie Racing

PA is helping bring the America's Cup to Britain

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Six teams begin the contest but by the final race there will be only two. To ensure that it is a fair test of skill, the design of the boats is heavily prescribed. All teams then are equal. 

Ainslie, 38, hopes that some, particularly those whose data collection and analysis owe more to Formula One than Hornblower, are more equal than others.

To this end, he has sought help far beyond maritime engineers. Bouncing at 35 knots (40mph) in the rigid inflatable boat behind his catamaran, the twin 220hp engines just about keeping up, are engineers from PA Consulting Group, a specialist technical consultancy who chair a committee of British industry experts commissioned to help Ainslie. Most are not normally involved in maritime work at all.

Phil White, a telecoms expert, checks that the data stream on the racing boat is working. He said much of the information’s use will be simply in letting the sailors know how well they are doing. “How do they know they are doing the best they can? If you are driving round a racetrack conditions don’t change much from run to run. The sea, though, is always changing,” he said. “Each time is different. There is wind speed and tide, but even that is not enough to know conditions.” 

Enough data can show whether a slow time in poor conditions was actually a better performance than a fast time in good conditions the day before.

Traditionally, teams solve this problem using “chase boats”. These work much like coaches; engineers on board watch the performance, while others make sure the crew is working efficiently. The problem with this is, it’s all done on a boat.

“It’s really difficult to do anything out here,” said Dr White. “It’s cold, wet, bouncing around — it’s hard enough to stand up, let alone calculate anything.” As his colleague put it: “You wouldn’t expect a bunch of F1 engineers to be in a van following the car, craning their necks to see what is happening.” 

Once the system is fully developed everything from the strain in the rudder to the skipper’s heartbeat will be collected for analysis on shore, away from wind and waves. 

This is not the only advantage. The details remain secret, but all this information also goes back to a simulator on land where, using virtual reality headsets and a tilting mock-up of a deck, the sailors can recreate real manoeuvres over and over again until they get them right.

In the meantime, the engineers are working on ways of getting crucial information about wind speed, heading and speed to the sailors in real time, possibly even by projecting it on to glasses to be worn by the team.

This training session is coming to an end. The boat rises on her foils as she pulls into a straight section, appearing to fly above the water. 

Beyond, a few less high-tech sailing boats are gently billowing past Ainslie out of Southampton water. With their sails that actually flap and hulls that touch the water they seem like emissaries from a different age.

“This is in some ways a long way from the romance of the sea,” Dr White said. “Still there is something quite, quite awesome about this amazing beast.” 

Britannia could yet rule the waves again.

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