Helen Fretter finds out how America’s cup surveillance tactics are used to find marginal gains in the TP52 fleet as they chase that final 1 per cent
As the TP52 fleet sweeps around the bottom mark off Palma, eyes turn to the sky. This isn’t a predictable day’s racing in Mallorca. The 2021 Rolex TP52 World Championships were – unusually – held in early November, and the summer sea breezes that crews are used to have been replaced by a shifty, chilly, offshore wind that is fluctuating from eight and 18 knots.
It’s a mentally taxing scenario for the tacticians, who rank among the best in the world: Francesco Bruni, Tom Slingsby, Terry Hutchinson. This is the most competitive inshore racing in the world, and place gains and losses are decided on margins of inches.
Fluffy clouds are forming over the Bay’s north-western shore, and the Quantum Racing team scan the course for clues. The decision on which headsail to use on the next beat is toss-a-coin marginal.
Numbers are called thick and fast, in clear specifics: “There’s 900kg on the mainsheet right now.” Load readings from the runners, diagonals and deflectors, along with angles, margins to competitors… It’s a constant stream of information that captures the stresses and speeds the carbon boat is undergoing in minute detail. But we’re not on the TP52, we’re on a hard-topped chase RIB a few hundred metres away.
All this data is streaming live from sensors all over the yacht to the RIB, where it is monitored by Quantum Racing’s performance team on laptops and iPads as we thunder around the short windward/leeward course.
It’s a set-up usually seen on America’s Cup chase boats tracking foiling test-runs, but here it’s deployed in a 52ft, conventional keeled, box rule fleet about to compete in its 17th year of European racing. These boats have raced each other hundreds of times – what secrets can possibly still be left to be discovered?
A TP52 coach boat
Running the RIB is Yorkshire-born James Lyne, widely regarded as one of the best performance sailing coaches in the world. Lyne grew up sailing a Mirror out of Whitby before moving into British Olympic squads for the Finn and Flying Dutchman, and the GBR Challenge Cup team.
He moved to the States, coaching the US Olympic Team before working in one-design keelboats classes like the Melges 32s and grand prix racing programs. Lyne was coach for the American Magic challenge in the last Cup and has worked closely with American Magic skipper, and Quantum Racing tactician, Terry Hutchinson for years.
Spy game skills
As the leaders sweep past us, Lyne reaches for his camera. It appears to be a standard SLR, not some tricksy James Bond Q-style adaptation. He takes quick shots of Quantum and some of their near rivals: full rig, sailing away. Despite the telephoto lens, we are too far away to see any numbers on the competitor boats’ 20:20 displays.
But the point of these images becomes clear the following morning. After breakfast the Quantum crew huddles in an ante-room of their Palma hotel. There are world champions, America’s Cup and Whitbread veterans, all weathered pros with decades of experience behind them.
Standing at the back, exuding leadership in a room full of alpha males, Terry Hutchinson is the only one I see making notes. Everyone else listens intently. Lyne has rigged up a large screen, and begins his morning briefing, sharing learnings from the data he captured during racing and analysed overnight.
First, they review their own performance. Lyne runs through figures from over the boat; mast jack tension, boom position, jib clew percentage, side bend… Drone footage of the start rolls alongside speed and sensor data, using a programme called Njord Analytics which pairs video and analytics.
Screen shots from Quantum’s onboard cameras illustrate a sail or rig setting being discussed. Then there’s analysis of two other Quantum Sails boats, Platoon and Interlodge. Their data is shared, so Lyne analyses performance using figures taken off the yachts, and members of those teams often attend the briefings (for 2022 Interlodge and Platoon have moved to Doyle Sails, while two other teams will join the Quantum programme).
But then discussion turns to Phoenix, a South African team which got off to a flying start at the Worlds. Phoenix is not a Quantum Sails boat, but the analysis scarcely seems any less detailed. This, Lyne explains to me later, is calculated from the photographs he takes on the water, to extraordinary degrees of accuracy.
“Coming off our boat, we’re probably going to collect two or three million points of data over five hours of sailing. But for all the competitor stuff, basically we have a system of taking photos. We straighten the photo to take the bend out of the lens and then we’ve got some measurement programmes, so it’s our way of seeing comparatives for the day – we can say such and such a boat have got 2-3 millimetres more mast bend than we have. So we can get into the nitty gritty of why a boat was fast or slow.”
Being able to judge sail settings to millimetre accuracy from a photograph taken from a RIB is a skill Lyne has honed over years. “We’ve spent a lot of years working with cameras! It’s getting more and more accurate. Obviously, when we first started the photos didn’t have great resolution, so our accuracy wasn’t great. But over the last five to ten years it’s got pretty good.”
While it’s well known that Quantum has been employing such techniques, that doesn’t mean others can easily adopt them. Every TP52 has a chase boat on the course to offer spare sails, sandwiches and support between races, and many also have coaches taking photographs, but the resources that Quantum has devoted to data crunching is unique.
“I think most of the fleet are doing this to a certain extent,” says Lyne, “but maybe not as sophisticated and not with the ability to measure as many photos in one day. It’s great taking photos, but if you can’t measure them accurately then it doesn’t really matter.”
Numbers don’t lie
Back in the briefing room, all these numbers give empirical proof of when Quantum Racing was performing well, or below par. Owner Doug DeVos explains: “It’s easy to say, oh, it’s bad luck. Sure, you missed a wind shift here, and we kind of know that on the water. But by documenting it, you can see how much did we miss it by? What should we be thinking about next time so we don’t miss it? How’s the boat going through the water? And the data doesn’t lie, it doesn’t have an opinion. It just is what it is.”
Repeatedly during the briefing, Hutchinson or a trimmer say, “It felt”. “It felt like we were going well.” “It felt like the boat was fast.” Lyne’s analysis can prove the truth of those opinions, but the sailors’ perception is still important. Lyne encourages it with open questions, asking at one point: “How did everybody feel about boat speed versus the fleet here?”.
He explains, “There are times where you see something in the data that really stands out and you’re like, guys, this was pretty significant. There are other times where you sit back and listen to the sailors as to what was good that day, and then you’re able to go into the log and see what they thought was good.
“Sailing’s like science but it’s also a bit of art. We have optimum shapes of what to achieve, but every single moment the breeze is up and down, or there’s another different type of wave. And that’s the art of the trimmers and the speed guys. So we can give them performance numbers, but the art of actually making a boat go fast in the dynamic real world, that’s on them.
“I think what the data does is it gives them a real feeling of ‘we are right’ when the data and the feeling match up, and it also poses a question when the data and the feeling don’t match up. So it gives us this ability to say: yes, we can reinforce that, that was good.”
Aiming for TP52 perfection
Quantum Racing’s no-stone-unturned approach has brought great success – they are four times TP52 Super Series champions, and were 2nd or 3rd every other year (Platoon, their long-standing stablemates, have a hat-trick of overall 2nds). Quantum also won six World Championships, and was 2nd in 2021. But in a class this highly optimised, how much more performance can be found?
“I think if you said at the start of a season we don’t need to develop, by the end of the second regatta, you’d already be behind the fleet,” says Lyne. “This whole game is a game of evolution and it’s who can do it faster through the season is going to win. Much of this team’s ethos has always been ‘how are we going to improve today?’”
Lyne estimates the potential performance gains made over the course of a whole season are less than 1%. But, he says, that can be all it takes. “The racing’s tight. You cross by inches, so maybe if you gain 10 inches in two minutes, that’s enough. You only need to be 0.1 faster. And if everything else is constant, you’ll win every race.”
These winning margins are even more remarkable when you remember that the TP52 fleet has an owner-driver. At the front of the fleet, amateur owners are helming with a level of accuracy many top professionals would be proud of, while near flawless crew work covers up any occasional mistakes in the pack. It’s all part of the attraction for owners like Quantum Racing’s Doug DeVos.
“If you’ve been sailing long enough, you want to sail against really good sailors and you really want to challenge yourself. And that means you don’t win all the time. But all the people here want to go against the absolute best,” he says.
The TP52 class is not only surprising in its longevity, but also the fact that it has continued to attract owners into it even as programmes like Quantum’s raise the standard required to win. There have been plenty of past examples where classes have folded as the bar to being competitive rises too high.
DeVos sees the razor-sharp competition as part of the attraction. “Even the newer boats joining are entering at a higher level than maybe in the past, because they see what it is and they really prepare themselves. Anybody can win a race, everybody has won a race and everyone’s competitive. But that’s what you want. You want everyone to feel like, hey, I’ve got a chance at this if I sail well.”
They are all looking for that extra advantage, even if it is less than 1%.
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