This continues the series of guest columns about how technology is reshaping people's hobbies and passions – fishing, basket weaving, community service – whatever.
This time it is good friend Bill Kutik, technology columnist for Human Resource Executive and co-chairman of the magazine’s 12th Annual HR Technology Conference & Exposition . The HR Software industry’s pre-eminent show – Bill’s signature event - is in Chicago this year from September 30 to October 2. Here he talks about his love of calm and rough seas.
“There’s a reason the opening chapter of Tracy Kidder’s seminal book about the computer industry, Soul of a New Machine, takes place on a sailboat during a race.
Despite the enormous physical effort of the usually young men in the front of the boat, for the middle-aged (and often older) farts in the back, sailboat racing is a totally intellectual sport, much like chess, but more dependent on a knowledge of geometry, simple vectors and quick data synthesis, in addition to strategy.
But you need a lot of brawn to move the chess pieces around the board, not to mention money to buy one.
So take a very competitive head game, add the flash of big bucks, and you’ve got something that has attracted a roster of computer industry luminaries for years: Philippe Kahn of Borland fame, Hasso Plattner from SAP, Larry Ellison (of course) and Jim Clarke of Netscape (though I would say he is more of a cruiser)
My favorite sailing story about those guys took place at SAPPHIRE (the annual SAP user conference) in 1998. At the analyst reception, the media person grabbed me, saying “You’re a sailor, too, go talk to Hasso” with a shove in his direction.
I started chatting him up and tried to establish my credentials by saying I had done 17 Block Island Races, a 180-mile, three day (two-overnight) race starting each Memorial Day weekend in Long Island Sound, going out into open ocean, around Block Island and back. (See nautical chart below from NOAA site)
“Did you ever win?” Hasso asked, nibbling at the sushi.
“No,” I replied, ever the Corinthian (an amateur who does it for love).
“HAH!” he bellowed. “You sailed it 17 times and never won. I sailed it ONCE and won.”
Did I mention “competitive” even in hobbies?
Being a skinny weakling myself, it only took me a few races to realize I had better join the old farts in the back of the boat or I wouldn’t last long. So I did -as the racing navigator. After years of backpacking using topographical maps, switching to nautical charts was an easy leap.
As you know, navigating a boat has been a problem for thousands of years. We hear stories of South Seas islanders doing it by the ripples on the water. And the Vikings using the stars. And who the hell knows how the Egyptians did it? Guess not much fog there. The famous sextant, pictured on right, with its margin of error of + or - 30 miles, is good only for navigating on the open ocean, not anywhere near land.
But starting more than 30 years ago, sophisticated electronics and then computers started becoming available to recreational boaters for coastal navigation, most originally developed for the Navy, which had them for years.
The first question a navigator must answer is “Where the hell are we?” The first direct electronic answer (other than radio beacons which needed triangulation) was Loran A, which required artful manipulation of two sine waves from radio towers on land to answer that question.
Loran C removed the art. It generated two sets of numbers, (actually Time Delays from four radio towers), an alternative latitude and longitude really, that became popular enough for the government to print the lines on charts. Where the two lines crossed, there you were.
The computer industry stepped in to answer the next question: “Where do we have to go and how do we get there?” The early favorite box came from Trimble Navigation in the Valley followed by many others from Raymarine (part of Raytheon) and specialty vendors.
These allowed you to input the two sets of numbers for your destination (taken off the chart) and told you how far away it was, the course to steer to get there (known as range and bearing) and even calculated your ETA at your constantly changing speed. It even translated those numbers into latitude and longitude, if you wanted.
That made the navigator a data processing manager, and doomed the job to automation.
GPS (Global Positioning System) was not the nail in the coffin. It really didn’t do more than Loran C, except by using satellites offered coverage near off-shore islands beyond the reach of antennas.
The death blow was dealt by chart plotters (as in the one from Raymarine on left) which integrated GPS data onto an LCD screen showing an actual chart and your boat moving across the water! Later, radar images could be overlaid on the chart and sophisticated racing software integrated. I was obsolete.
But back in the day, there was still that incredibly dangerous approach to Bermuda, where 200 or more boats race every year from Newport, RI, and Loran C was useless.
I helped deliver a boat to Bermuda during that time. As a present, I bought the owner a custom weather forecast from a firm in Bedford, MA, that worked for all the hottest racing boats. Off we went from Newport in October aboard a 65-footer that was happily built like a battleship.
To get to Bermuda, you have to cross the Gulf Stream, a river of warm water flowing in the cold ocean up from Florida. It takes a hard right at Cape Cod and heads for the UK, which is the only reason those islands are habitable being about 1,000 miles north of New York.
As we crossed it, the winds built, as did the seas. Soon we were in 55 knots of wind and rolling over 20-foot seas. The top six feet of each roller would break and crash into the boat, filling the cockpit like a swimming pool and nearly tossing me over the side once except for a safety harness.
My weather report had mentioned none of this. So I got on the SSB (Single-Sideband Radio that bounces signals off the atmosphere creating a range of 8,000 miles), patched into the telephone system in New Jersey, and got my weather forecaster on the horn.
Summoning up my best Chuck Yeager calm (since I was scared to death), I reported our current position and conditions. I could hear him tapping away on his computer.
“Bill, I have to tell you. I have no data anywhere that would indicate you should be experiencing such conditions.”
Great. They lasted almost two days with everyone sick except when they were steering.
Later, I interviewed him for a sailing magazine story. “You know racing navigators. They just have to have numbers to plug into their software. So I do the best I can, then multiply them by my belt size, and hand them over.”