Crucial to growth of shorthanded sailing

Published on June 14th, 2021

As technology pushes the boundaries in the grand prix sector of the sport, sailing administrators need to recognize that all which occurs at that tier may have a negative implication when trickling down to the amateur level.

While sailing as a sport tends to let the wind blow freely, escalating costs to compete impact participation, and Frederic Berg discusses one of those issues in this report:

Most of the discussion about double handed racing has been about the fantastic growth due to its now temporary inclusion in the Olympics and the pandemic along with the benefits of not having to find rail meat and talented or professional crew.

But we also have to have the discussion about the use of autopilots in offshore doublehanded racing.

If unlimited use of autopilots in offshore doublehanded racing is allowed to go unchecked, doublehanded racing will be severely limited in its growth potential. The discussion needs to be led by the offshore doublehanded community, specifically those who participate in regattas.

Full disclosure …I am against the use of autopilots in offshore doublehanded racing. My boat partner Mike Bacon and I sailed our Antrim 27 Bacon Berger to second place in the doublehanded division of the 2018 Pacific Cup without an autopilot so it can be done successfully.

I also recognize that we are in the minority. Autopilots will be a part of our sport, but the question is how?

Should we define levels of autopilot responsiveness? Should we define when autopilots can be used? Should AI be allowed in the autopilot systems and if so to what extent? Should there be a limit on the inputs to the system such as limiting inputs to heading and apparent wind direction?

All this begs the question as to what purpose do we want the autopilot to serve. Is it to assist in maneuvers or to make the boat go faster than two humans can make it go, or is it to serve as an additional layer of safety?

Having this discussion now is crucial to the growth of our sport and to allow the general sailing public a better understanding of what it means to have an autopilot onboard. The discussion should inform events on how to include a doublehanded offshore division without devolving into messy disputes with the consequence of barring doublehanded participation.

I look to forward the leaders of the offshore doublehanded sport to facilitate the discussion and I am happy to help if needed.

Editor’s note: Prior to the 2020-21 Vendée Globe, we shared a story on how modern autopilot systems were in the process of delivering one of the biggest changes in a generation, and in particular how they had exceeded the skill of a human in steering a boat fast.

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