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Racing in a sea of data, tweeting all the way

2009 September 1
We're shooting the breeze on Mackinac Island the day after finishing the race from Chicago. The subject turns to a boat that sailed the entire race hugging the west shore of Lake Michigan so doggedly that it went outside and over the top of Beaver Island. For readers not familiar with the geography of these waters, Beaver is a large island near the top of the lake. To go up the west shore and past Beaver before turning east toward Mackinac is to sail the longest imaginable course from start to finish. One of our group says he heard it was the first time since the 1937 race that a boat sailed outside of Beaver, and asks, can you believe that? Someone answers that it's easier to believe it happened in 1937 than in 2009. Those guys in 1937, he says, never knew where they were. The group agrees. This year, one boat's radical wind-seeking course was a flyer (that had middling success). Before the space-age gizmos that have taken the mystery out of navigation, it was probably an accident.

I'll take a flyer of my own here and venture that never before in a Mackinac Race have so many people known exactly where they were. Even after boats were routinely equipped with GPS receivers and plotters, the boat's position was often treated as privileged information. Some navigators instinctively guarded the intelligence gained from the GPS screen and shared it only on a need-to-know basis. The rail-sitters didn't need to know. Now the rail-sitters know before the navigator.

Races with courses mostly in range of microwave cell transmitters are sailed in a sea of data that can be accessed by anyone with one of the enhanced cell phones known as PDAs. A number of our crew brought their iPhones along. With a GPS application, they were able to see, on a small but brightly lit and perfectly legible electronic chart, everything the navigator could see on the big computer screen below: the boat's position, course and speed.

What's more, because Mac race boats were equipped with transponders that transmitted real-time positions to a Web site, crewmembers with PDAs could access the Internet to see exactly where our competitors were.

I welcome these amazing developments as much for their social ramifications as the technological ones. There's a new egalitarian spirit in crews. Sailors have their heads in the race more than ever. And when they have to have their butts in the race, meaning on the rail, they can pass the hours of their watch there playing with their PDAs. I learned after the race, however, that not all of the furious PDA thumbing I witnessed had to do with monitoring our position and tracking other boats. A good deal of it involved communication via Internet inventions called Facebook and Twitter.

I've heard a lot about them, though I can't say I'm really into these social networking sites. But I am proud to say (OK, part of me wants to be a little embarrassed to say it, but the other part is proud) that SAILING has its very own Twitter and Facebook pages. It wasn't my doing. I have a faint recollection of signing off on an editor's recommendation that we stay on the cutting edge of cyber-connectivity. At any rate, a steady stream of bits and bytes of info, most of it trivial, some of it amusing or even informative, was sent from and to our boat by means of Facebook postings and Twitter tweets (I promise I will do my best to limit the further use of that word, as either a noun or a verb describing Twitter messages, in this column).

Traffic was pretty heavy on the SAILING Twitter page. Several thousand readers had registered as users and the staff had recruited a number of sailors on various boats to send Twitter updates. Early in the race, for example, one of them tweeted (oops), "Lost our battery power, on the Wisconsin shore." This would have been disaster a few years ago. Now, with an iPhone or Blackberry kitted up with the right apps (note that I'm well versed in PDA lingo; for those of you who aren't, app is short for application, the software you can add to these mini-computers), a boat hardly needs an electrical system. Besides navigation programs, you can get an app to turn your iPhone into a wind instrument.

As the race wore on (and on and on-it was one of the slowest ever), the to and fro of cyber communication continued like an endless volley in a badminton game. A photo taken on our boat appeared on a crewmember's Facebook page seconds later. A compliment to the First Mate about our Saturday night meal of chicken tetrazzini posted on Facebook drew a quick riposte to the page from another crewmember pointing out that she, and not the First Mate, had made the dish. And so we had crewmembers sitting on the rail within easy talking distance of each other conversing by iPhone and Facebook as we sailed upwind through the night. Is this a brave new world, or what?

It is indeed, and I'm happy to be part of it. But permit me a whiff of nostalgia. What I used to love most about the Chicago-Mackinac Race was that it was a challenge in self-reliance. Finding the fastest way up the lake, dealing with weather that in the same race could produce doldrums, ferocious squalls, hot downwind sleigh rides and full-on freezing gales were responsibilities that fell only on my shoulders and those of my mates. It was our little world, and we dealt with it-no outside support, encouragement or information needed. Until a few years ago, the race's sailing instructions forbade any sort of assistance through outside communications. Now the Chicago YC, the sponsoring yacht club, maintains a Mac Race Twitter page.

If you would like to comment on this column, you can e-mail me or post something on the SAILING Facebook or Twitter pages. You can't send anything to my personal Facebook page, because I don't have one… yet.