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Big data comes to the little boat, and its crew's phones

2015 August 17

Ten years ago we had an Excel-jockey crewmember; a numbers whiz-kid so proficient with a spreadsheet that he’s since left sailing for a high-powered banking gig.

While he sailed with us, he had a vision to confirm local sailing intuition with local facts. He was tired of being whipped by the old-guard who would instinctively go right on a southeaster and were right every time. The whiz kid wanted to see the reason that the codger’s right hunch was right.

He hatched a plan to tap into the data stream of our instruments, recording real-time observations wherever we went. Whether under motor, sail, knocking around or racing, he was going to log the conditions: time of day, the true wind speed and true wind direction and plug it all into a giant spreadsheet to make a local knowledge map. It would, in theory, give us instructions to go right, left or tack, based on a fine-resolution predictor of every bending zephyr on the bay, of course, with factors like hour of the day, week of the month, or weather patterns applied.

The plan was abruptly scrapped when we learned that the computers and equipment to get the data would weigh more and require more calories to run than two or three members of the old-guard sitting on our rail barking hunches.

Fast forward to spring 2015, when on a whim, we installed an inexpensive, low power, lightweight wireless transmitter on our boat that broadcasts all our instrument data to all of our crew’s devices, lighting up tablets and phones with an endless stream of sailing numbers. 

I can’t report that the purchase or installation were simple. This isn’t the kind of item you’ll find at a chandlery, and a fly-by-night e-commerce website sold us the wrong thing twice. Moreover, though our crew of pilots and scientists is fairly tech-savvy, we were flummoxed by unpublished incompatible protocol settings for a couple of weeks. The manual and the manufacturer’s website lacked vital instructions to make the gadget work with our instruments and the online dealer disappeared under a rock when we had questions. But once we got the correct model and applied the code-level hack, code flew all over the boat.

You can download an app that re-creates your entire instrument panel on your phone. Another app uses GPS to show your track on a digital chart, revealing lifts and knocks and places to avoid or go on the next leg. It can also help you judge and count down to your start perfectly, with a waypoint for the committee boat, another for the pin, and time and distance to the line. Or your phone-carrying crewmates can judge your start in real time, although an annoyed skipper might be inclined to send a smartphone overboard with a quick jibe. Another app combines wind models in GRIB files, and shows the forecast to the minute in amazing detail, and yet another tracks boats nearby that are broadcasting their location using AIS; collision avoidance for some, competitive intelligence for others. Of course, the data is captured in logs, and, to the would-be delight of my Excel-jockey friend, can be assembled into a database for deeper analytics. Wintering sailor geeks can look forward to warm nights by the screen reliving tardy starts and out-of-phase tacks.

But there’s more. It is safe to assume, although bugs remain, that soon your data will be combined with the streams from other boats with similar gear into a massive database—techies call it “big data”—and it will take on all new meaning. Imagine, for example, that observations of wind and water from your sailboat might feed into the super computers crunching weather models, making the models more precise with every added contributor. Weather scientists are clamoring for the dataset. They see it as a path to ultra-high resolution maps. 

In this scenario, sailors will gain insights into conditions outside their boats, but close-by and accurate enough to matter to their present sailing. This new perspective can only make sailing even more interesting.

But there will be trade-offs: Read the terms and conditions of every one of the apps, and you’ll likely find that your data is fair game to be used elsewhere, such as by said scientists, or, perhaps, by the U.S. Coast Guard. You decide if that makes you feel safer or a bit unsettled.

You’ll have to decide fast. While the bugs are big, they seem squashable in short order. Telemetry—that is, the communication between the boat’s network and the Internet—is often spotty where boats tend to go because most network coverage is land-based. Satellite is expensive. So in the immediate term, information collected by boats with wireless networks may not reliably reach the outside world, or, if it does, may not arrive quickly.

And the National Marine Electronics Association—the keeper of the code that formats the messages between sensors on boats, like your anemometer or GPS—has work to do to ensure that its protocol isn’t hackable, or doesn’t breach privacy regulations when data on a boat’s local network is published on the Internet. 

But here’s the kicker: The little wireless box and all the apps that tap into it cost less than half of one lowly instrument display, and every member of our crew is already carrying their own display in their pocket. 

The monopoly on complex combined weather models or data-driven sailing strategy appears to have been broken. Silicon Valley may have finally dropped the breakthrough technical grenade on sailing, but it’s not called foiling; it’s called “Big data comes to the little boat.”