How technology helped America’s Cup hit mainstream

When the 2017 America’s Cup final match gets under way on Saturday, sailing’s ultimate event will have hard job matching the drama and impact of the 2013 edition.

An incredible comeback from the Larry Ellison-backed Oracle Team USA to defeat Emirates Team New Zealand was as dramatic as anything in the long history of sport’s oldest trophy, and unlikely to be replicated when the two crews meet again on the waters of Bermuda to decide the destination of the Auld Mug.

The 2013 event also marked the competition’s coming of age, the moment it went from a race for sailing enthusiasts to an occasion that momentarily captured the attention of sport fans across the world.

That was due to Team USA’s unprecedented comeback as well as the awe-inspiring spectacle of these boats on the water.

TV technology

But television also played its part — a sometimes unfathomable race suddenly became a whole lot easier to understand thanks to onscreen graphics.

Lines were painted across the water to mark the start, likewise for the racing position between the two boats and the boundary they cannot cross.

Other technological twists included a boat’s “FlyTime” in a race, in effect how much time it spends gliding out of the water in a race. The target obviously being 100%.

As Mark Sheffield, the head of technology for the America’s Cup puts it in the days leading up to this year’s match, “What it’s done is make something hard to understand that much easier to understand.”

That the America’s Cup has got to this point is down to a conversation on board Syonara, the launching pad for Ellison’s foray into the sailing world, in 1995.

Stan Honey is a well revered navigator who helped win the Volvo Ocean Race and for a time boasted the speed record for sailing around the globe on board Groupama 3.

But Honey has also made an impact inside American homes with his work on graphics for sports broadcasts. Notably the onscreen line put into a hockey puck to better see its movement, to the first down line in the NFL.

Events such as NASCAR and the Olympics have benefited from Honey’s pioneering innovations.

‘Getting the band back together’

“I was a navigator for Larry on Syonara back in 1995, and at the time I was head of technology of Newscorp,” he explains having sold his first company Etak to Rupert Murdoch in 1989 for $35 million.

“And Larry said ‘what could you do for sailing?’ I explained it had more to gain than other sports in technology terms because it’s hard to understand and see.

“Translate the first-down line in NFL into sailing and you can see the boats’ position in a race. He understood it straight away.”

Ellison appeared to store the idea in his head for 15 years. Honey was sailing the Southern Ocean when he got a message from his wife Sally to tell him something could be in the offing.

He picks up the story: “She sent me this Fortune article after Larry had just won the 2010 America’s Cup and he name checked me.”

Ellison credited Honey’s work in the NFL and said he needed his computer technology to help transform the America’s Cup.

Honey warned the American billionaire the technology was probably too expensive but Ellison isn’t a man to take no for an answers. Neither Honey nor the America’s Cup will divulge the cost in question but it is likely to run into the millions of dollars.

Within months of hearing his name, Honey had “got the band back together.”

He reunited with his cohorts Ken Milnes, Time Heidmann, Graeme Winn and Alistair Green, as well as bringing in Sheffield, who would later replace him as head of technology for this year’s America’s Cup.

“This was dream come true stuff for me,” explains Honey. “My two passions are the engineering side of things and the sailing side of things and this brought them together as one.

“And since we were all older and wiser, this proved the perfect project. We were on budget, and on time. It worked like a dream.”

And the results have been truly eye catching, with tracking, telemetry and augmented reality systems all now developed.

Crazy ideas

Along came automatic tracking systems on the boat, computer controlled cameras on the helicopters, and measurements accurate to within two centimeters.

Honey and his team had helped turn the oldest sporting trophy in the world into arguably the most technologically advanced.

So every gibe is registered, the average speed collated and the flight time and the positioning of the boats measured. But in addition, such technology has enabled the umpires to make more accurate calls.

Honey has now taken a step back but he is almost childlike in his enthusiasm — especially when people initially fail to understand his work.

“You still get those conversations you overhear of people saying ‘they shouldn’t pollute the water like that painting on it’,” he says. “It’s always funny to hear those stories.

“The whole project is dream come true stuff as I said. Don’t tell Larry and the others but I expect we all would have done it for free!

“I remember when we did it thinking, this is going to make a huge difference for sailing and the audience, especially the Americans. Now a lot more people understand sailing.”

Honey’s successor Sheffield is continuing to innovate.

He and his team are housed in a temporary container on race day, with Sheffield admitting “the hairs on the back of my neck go up when I enter that container.”

“Of course, we sometimes have crazy ideas and there’s a bucket list of things I want to do,” he adds. “We just have to wait and see if that’s possible.”

For this year’s America’s Cup match, thermal imaging cameras on the sailors will be one of the new innovations.

For Sheffield, who describes the job as “perpetual plate spinning,” it is all about “trying for perfection, and there’s no reason not to try to be better.”

Like Honey, Sheffield comes from an engineering and sailing background having competed in the America’s Cup previously.

“The way the technology has changed in the America’s Cup reflects the way the world has changed, with its high pace,” he says.

“We’re all dialed into 11 now and people want that excitement, to be on the edge. That’s what we’re trying to provide with every broadcast.”