Considering use of AIS in offshore racing

Published on March 11th, 2023

Prior to the start of the 2023 Newport Beach to Cabo San Lucas, which had staggered starts on March 10 and 11, the question was asked of the Race Committee to change the Sailing Instructions to require AIS transponder systems to be active throughout the 800nm course to Cabo.

Per the Sailing Instructions, entrants were only required to activate their AIS units to transmit from the time they leave the dock until two hours after crossing the starting line, and then again within 25 nm from the finish until they are at the dock.

The Race Committee posted a Q&A in response to the request:

The Dencho/Kernan 68 Peligroso requests a change to the Sailing Instructions that would require all competitors to have their AIS on at all times during the race. As you are aware, the AIS is basic safety equipment that could potentially be lifesaving in a critical situation. A couple of the situations where the AIS is important are:

• Low visibility conditions, specifically when sailing at higher speeds in strong winds.
• During an emergency where one crew needs assistance from another.

Thank you for considering this request, Ernie Richau aboard Peligroso

Thank you, Ernie, for your question asking the Race Committee to change the NHYC 2023 Cabo Race Sailing Instructions (publ. 3/2/2023 at 1720) to require all boats, while Racing, to have their AIS transponder system on and transmitting. An ensuing inquiry of boats who have entered the Cabo Race and the deliberation that followed was limited to “whether the AIS System should be required to be powered-on and transmitting while Racing”.

With thoughtful consideration, and over a 3-day period, by telephone, we polled more than a third of the 2023 Cabo Race Fleet. Our outreach included owners, sailing masters and navigators, within Class A, Class B, Class C, Class D, Class E and ORR-MH, with crew that include several Rolex Yachtsmen of the Year, Olympic Medalists, World Champions and V70 Round the World Race veterans, and others who have an enviable racing resume’ over many decades worldwide.

This group of widely experienced and knowledgeable sailors considered the question carefully, with comments ranging from:

• AIS transmission may enhance safety with the nearly instant positioning, speed and heading data received from transmitting boats that are in proximity, particularly in low visibility conditions.
• AIS continually plots competitors, non-competitors, fishing fleets, commercial shipping, etc., but only if they are also transmitting.
• Consider the use of AIS transmission only when World Sailing’s RV Appendix is applicable.
• AIS, which transmits position, speed, heading as well as other performance and tactical data may adversely impact a boat’s race strategy and its tactics.
• Yellow Brick (“YB”) serves a usefulness like AIS and is already continuously transmitting the same data through a satellite network real time (no delay).
• YB data is not as granular and averages data over 10-minute periods (“satellite pings”),with regular and predictable updates.
• AIS exposes a competitors’ race strategy and their tactical dynamics on a real time basis.
• YB is useful during normal visibility, night and day for fleet positioning data, like AIS.
• Use of AIS should be a personal choice while Racing.
• Discretionary use of AIS should be based on sea state, visibility and a boat’s seaworthiness.
• Every boat is already required to have AIS transmit at the beginning and end of the race.
• Every boat already has the option to immediately broadcast its AIS position information at the flip of a switch.
• Whether a boat is transmitting its AIS position or not, VHF Digital Selective Calling is available and emergencies are broadcast immediately over that network to boats in the proximity of the VHF-DSC alert, and includes position, speed and heading data.

A boat’s visibility while Racing can be manipulated by the boat’s person-in-charge by flipping the AIS switch to transmit or to cloak. The consensus is that this moment-to-moment, real-time capability to switch AIS on or off is more conducive to racing situations than a requirement to be visible at-all-times. In fact, each boat, based on the issues and conditions it is experiencing, can decide to cloak or transmit its AIS data at any time it so chooses. Mandating AIS transmission while Racing will suppress race-strategy dynamics and exposes a boat’s tactics to all viewers.

AIS is particularly useful in watching the boat speed and heading of boats that are further along the course. This data is highly useful in order to determine if a current course routing is optimal at a very granular level in considering “over the horizon” weather and course conditions ahead. That said, having the latest weather gribs imported into Expedition provides a much better routing potential.

The discussion above aggregates the range of fleet opinion from the safety capabilities of AIS to the clear exposure of competitors’ performance data, tricks and tactics. The non-time-delayed YB positioning database provides critical information just like AIS, but somewhat cumbersomely to the navigator.

Fleet opinion and consensus was significantly biased to make no change to the Sailing Instructions as published. As the result of our inquiry and the consensus encountered, we have concluded that there will be no change to the Sailing Instructions relative to the AIS provisions already published.

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