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Calculated To Win: Supercomputers Power America's Cup

Sep 17, 2013

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."

Muscle And Brain Power

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."

Copyright 2013 KQED Public Media. To see more, visit http://www.kqed.org.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

The 2013 America's Cup is underway in San Francisco Bay. The international sailing competition is not just about maximizing winds to beat out the other boats. This year, it's also about super computing. Teams have gone hi-tech, making mall changes that turn into big difference in speed.

From member station KQED, Aarti Shahani reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPLASHING WATER)

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: The San Francisco Bay has been getting a lot of turbulence. A few days back, the Emirates Team New Zealand nearly capsized.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hydro, hydro, hydro. (Unintelligible)

SHAHANI: After near destruction, the Kiwis retooled their boat overnight, but still not enough to beat their rivals. A radio broadcaster announced Oracle Team USA took race number nine with a 47-second victory.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: A completely different boat than what we've seen in the past on this leg three.

SHAHANI: Not completely different, but modified. The rival team didn't swap out crew members. Kiwis' Dan Thompson explains the Americans redesigned their boat.

DAN THOMPSON: To make it a little lighter. And they've had some changes underneath the boat. And whatever they've done has made the difference.

SHAHANI: This year, the competition is as much about computing speed as it is human muscle. The computer giant Dell is really running the Kiwis' boat with supercomputers back in New Zealand. The company's vice president of marketing, Brian Jones, says each side is studying the other's design and testing virtual models like never before.

BRIAN JONES: See what advantages they're getting and why. You would look at, is there applicability to my boat? I'd go back and I'd potentially do that on my boat as well.

SHAHANI: The America's Cup has always pushed the limits of technology. The first yachts in 1851 didn't look like the Mayflower. And 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: There's been a big jump this cup because we fly.

SHAHANI: Gilberto Nobili of Italy is the grinder for Oracle Team USA. That means he has to move the ski-shaped foils on the bottom of the boat that make it fly.

NOBILI: I would say that it's amazing because we start the race one week ago and the boat was different.

SHAHANI: Nobili is not allowed to reveal what's changed exactly, for instance if they've modified things like the crossbeams connecting the two hulls. Nobili huddles with a team of mathematicians and designers minutes before the race. When he's on the water, they're recording 3,000 variables 10 times a second.

NOBILI: You collect the data, you get a kind of report, and then you go into a sailing team meeting, design meeting and you discuss which is the best way to move forward.

SHAHANI: On the other side of this new computer-nerd-super-athlete partnership is Nick Holroyd. Holroyd is the technical director for Emirates Team New Zealand.

NICK HOLROYD: We've had to kind of sit down with the sailing team and almost invent a new language.

SHAHANI: A few tournaments ago, the Kiwis had about 30 sailors and 15 engineers. Now, it's the other way around. They've got twice as many engineers as sailors. 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.

HOLROYD: Now, because we pick the boat up, you're really looking at a three-dimensional physics problem. And so just the number of cases that we need to run to understand how a hull's going to behave has gone up exponentially.

SHAHANI: Back at pier 30, spectator Ricardo Romani says the end effect of all this is a leaner race, and he's a little nostalgic.

RICARDO ROMANI: We went from a gentleman's sport, good sailing, decent skippers, sometimes overweight, it didn't matter, to very high tech.

SHAHANI: Romani says he likes the new boats, but he misses the old teamwork. For NPR News, I'm Aarti Shahani in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.