Navigating the Future
Years ago, Stan Honey described how he could transform sailing on television by making racing tactics easier to “see” and understand—if he had the budget. It would be, as they say in the NFL, a “difference-maker,” just like the technology Honey’s company Sportvision created to electronically paint a yellow first-down line on a football fan’s television screen.
Now the man is working for America’s Cup 34.
Now he has the budget.
SETTING THE SCENE Let’s roll back the clock a bit, to early 2010, and picture our most recent Rolex Yachtsman of the Year all fleeced-up at the nav station of the 105-foot trimaran Groupama 3, blasting through the frigid Southern Ocean. Groupama 3 was on its way to a record circumnavigation, 48 days, but at the time that was merely a prospect. Honey—arguably the world’s greatest living ocean navigator—had been brought aboard, as the only American in a French crew, to replicate his success in navigating a win in the 2005-06 Volvo Ocean Race. As he describes it: “To come up with the best plan in the presence of data with known limitations, computing routes, then risk-adjusting those routes.”
“Competing offshore,” Honey says, “the navigator is challenged every minute. You’re never sitting on the rail, bored. You’re in a state of triage where there is always more that you would do, if you had time. But you don’t have time. You have to make a decision, then get a nap and be thinking straight when the next forecast data comes along in a couple of hours. The Groupama guys were generous about inviting me to steer, but I couldn’t stand at the helm very long without thinking, ‘Geez, I’m not adding to the speed of the boat. I’m the navigator. I might be missing something.’”
This is a man who navigated a thousand-mile race from Los Angeles to Mazatln, Mexico, at the age of 14, a man who has navigated 22 transpacific races and won 11 of them, with three course records. And he’s got plenty of Atlantic and Caribbean records, too. Honey grew up fascinated by the science and art of navigation. Early on it set him apart and served him well: “It got me a lot of good rides on relatively small, fast boats because I was young, able to do the foredeck, trim, steer and navigate. They’d save a body.”
Not that he’s slowed down particularly. As the navigator aboard Groupama 3 he did not stand watch, but was always on standby. “I was on deck for every maneuver,” Honey says, “all the way around the world.” Around the world, we should note, at an average speed through the water of 24.74 knots over 28,692 miles, with the traveler and gennaker sheet handheld all the way.
So there was Stan Honey in the far wastes of the Southern Ocean, and in comes an e-mail from Stan’s wife, Sally. Think of Sally as your average two-time Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year who founded a spinnaker-sewing company that also makes specialty fabrics for NASA and has a graduate degree in English lit from Stanford. Attached to Sally’s e-mail was a Fortune magazine article. Stan recalls: “The article was an interview with Larry Ellison. Years ago I navigated Larry’s maxi, Sayonara, but I hadn’t talked to him since, and here is this reporter asking him what he’s going to do with the America’s Cup now that he’s won it. And here is Larry saying that he’s going to try to turn sailing into a viable media sport, and he’s going to get in touch with his old friend Stan Honey to insert graphics on the water along with the raceboats. I read that and thought, OK, I guess that’s what I’m doing next.”
Sailors know Stan Honey and tend to give him all the credit for his technical achievements, but Honey’s long-time business partner, Ken Milnes, has been equally important. Early on, Honey and Milnes worked together at the Stanford Research Institute. Then in 1983 they left to co-found ETAK and produce the progenitors of today’s automotive navigational systems and digital mapping. Later, they founded Sportvision, which not only created the aforementioned first-down lines, but also “paints” the path of the pitch in Major League Baseball and tracks cars for NASCAR.
Honey left Sportvision a few years ago and Milnes recently retired as well, but both are now hard at it again, working with the America’s Cup Event Authority, which has partnered with Sportvision, to pursue their role in the grand scheme—leveraging America’s Cup 34 to reposition sailing in the world of sports.
Think about it: not so long ago it was leading-edge stuff to cut from a TV broadcast of a match race to a computer-generated environment where the boats were represented graphically along with laylines, ahead/behind lines, wind direction, etcetera. And when you cut back to the TV camera’s real-race view, unless the boats were rounding a mark, it was generally impossible for anyone, even a seasoned sailor, to “read” a developing situation. You’d see two boats (if you were lucky) or maybe one, just sailing along.
The goal now is to insert informative, intuitive, computer-generated graphics into actual racing footage, so you never have to take the viewer out of the race. “If we make it perfect,” Honey says, “people will wonder, how did they draw those lines on the water? They won’t be there all the time, but when they’re needed you will be able to see who is ahead and why. Where’s the layline? What’s the current doing? Think of this as a toolbox for the commentators. They’re the storytellers, and this gives them a story to tell.”
Honey’s seeing a lot of lab time now, but 2010 was all about his circumnavigation record with Groupama 3 skipper Franck Cammas, which held up against another record attempt last winter by the even bigger maxi trimaran Banque Populaire. Both of these extraordinary giant multihulls can outrun weather systems and thumb a nose at Mother Nature—until something goes wrong. It was a nighttime collision with an unknown object off Cape Town, South Africa that sent Banque Populaire limping back home to France in failure.
“The boats are fragile,” Honey says. “The premise is to build a china cup that is extraordinarily fast in flat water and 25 knots of breeze. You use the boat’s speed to seek out those conditions and sail in those conditions. You dodge north, you dodge south. When you have to deal with difficult weather, the object is to not break the boat. The trickiest part of a circumnavigation is Cape Horn, because you can’t skip north to dodge storms, and you probably won’t skip south. No matter what, you gotta go to Cape Horn. Your only option is to slow down.”
Another critical element to a successful record attempt is to catch a two-storm ride through the Southern Ocean. Honey explains: “Outbound, once you get down the Atlantic to the Southern Ocean, the only reason these boats can’t ride a single storm all the way around, all the way to the Horn, is that eventually the storm sinks too far south. Then you have to unhook and catch the next storm. And when the next storm arrives, you can feel it, a new breeze coming up rapidly in beautiful flat-water conditions—the waves haven’t built up yet—and every bone, every nerve in your body, every hair on the back of your neck is telling you that you’re about to get creamed. But the boat can sail as fast as the storm. You stay right there, going fast in flat water ahead of the storm, and your body keeps warning you that you’re about to get creamed, and it goes on for days.”
It’s too much to list everything Stan Honey has done, including transpacific wins singlehanded and (with Sally) doublehanded, his service on the board of the Transpacific Yacht Club, his mentoring of young sailors for Roy Disney’s movie, Morning Light, his reputation far and wide as the smartest guy in the room and his unassuming, unquenchable generosity. This is no prima donna. He’s tall and fit and he looks you in the eye. He did his junior sailing at the Los Angeles Yacht Club, and somebody got something right. Stan and Sally own a Cal 40, Illusion, and it’s a good bet they could own something more exotic, if they chose. But the Cal 40, Stan says, “has no bad habits.” If you press these two on whether or not they might upgrade, you get the idea there is no upgrade: “This is our boat.”
In fact, the first test of the new AC graphics system was conducted in February on San Francisco Bay, with data relayed between a helicopter and a handful of volunteer Cal 40s. “It’s no issue that the AC cats will be going faster than Cal 40s,” Stan says. “Remember, we do NASCAR.”
FLOATING FIRST DOWNS
The surprising thing about creating real-time video graphics for the America’s Cup isn’t that it’s complex, but that it’s so incredibly complex. “The yellow first-down line in football is a good illustration of the difficulties of augmenting reality on video,” Honey says. “For the illusion to succeed, the electronic line that we insert has to lie absolutely parallel to the white yard lines that actually exist on the grass. But a football field is crowned, so the real lines are not ‘straight’ when they appear on television. We have to duplicate exactly that curvature.
“Television cameras also have terrific lenses, very sharp, but with lots of distortion. They vary from 10 percent pincushion distortion to 10 percent barrel distortion as you zoom in and out. Viewers are conditioned to accept that. So we have to draw the yellow line in a curve to correspond to the distortion of the lens while simultaneously correcting for the crown of the field. Then there are the college stadiums where they hang camera baskets from the bleachers, and the students jump along with the cheerleaders and the stands bounce. We use inertial sensors to measure the bounce of the stands and therefore the bounce of the camera. That allows us to ‘bounce’ the yellow line in synch, so it appears to never move.”
And you probably thought the big problem was to not paint over the players.
Football stadiums and NASCAR tracks are fixed, predictable environments with cameras in fixed positions. A sailing race has a larger and less predictable field of play, and the camera is on the move, in a helicopter. It is necessary to correct for the curvature of the earth, and it is necessary to know the positions of raceboats and helicopter to within two centimeters. Yep, two centimeters. It is also necessary to know the attitude of the helicopter to 1/20th of a degree and the attitude of the camera relative to the attitude of the helicopter to 1/20th of a degree. To accomplish this, Honey says, “We integrate an RTK or carrier-phase GPS receiver with a fiber optic gyro-based inertial navigation system—standard marine GPS would never get the job done—with a sampling rate of 50 times per second.”
With that level of accuracy, the system will do more than serve the viewing public. America’s Cup PRO John Craig will use the technology to resolve close calls at the start and finish. The umpires will use it to judge zone entry and overlaps. Race committees have been longing for these tools for years. Maybe, just maybe, Stan Honey is part of the biggest trickle-down in the history of America’s Cup.