Simon Fisher: Improving Your Inshore Racing Navigation
Volvo Ocean Race-winning navigator Simon Fisher explains the role of the inshore racing navigator and shares some tips and tricks for getting the most out your yacht’s navigation system.
One of the best things about raceboat navigation, in my opinion at least, is that it affects so many elements of the yacht’s performance. The racing navigator’s role has an impact on tactics, strategy, performance and crew work. It also involves all sorts of interesting technology and information that, when used properly, can really enhance the overall performance of the boat and crew.
As a navigator there is always plenty to keep you busy and typically your work starts well before you get on board the boat in the morning, and if you so choose, can continue well after the race has finished!
There’s a lot to the navigator’s job. You need to manage the instruments, look after the navigation software and calibration, be responsible for the weather forecasting and tides, work closely with the tactician and crew to provide the right information at the right point on the race course, as well as being able to log all the data and analyse the boat’s performance.
All of this, on top of getting the boat around the course in the right direction and without hitting the bottom!
Knowledge, good preparation, attention to detail and good communication skills are what often give the best navigators the edge in what is now an increasingly data-driven role.
Let’s start by trying to get a little insight into what makes up the role of the navigator, find out what tools and technology are available to help you and identify how, as a sailor, you can get the best out of them, both on and off the race course.
Mastering your instruments, navigation software and calibration
Race boat navigation these days revolves around instrumentation and computers, so having a good head for technology, data and being comfortable with numbers definitely helps.
Typically, on a decent race boat you will find a good quality instrument system linked to an on board computer and deck screen that will run a navigation software package such as Expedition, Deckman or Adrena.
The software takes the boat’s position, speed and wind information from the instruments, combines it with your boat’s specific polars and the course mark data and displays all of this on a digital chart. This means that, suddenly, there is an enormous wealth of information at the racing navigator’s fingertips.
The responsibility for managing all this equipment and information falls to the navigator and in order to get the most out of it, as with many areas in navigation, preparation is the key.
Getting familiar with your boat’s navigation system and instrumentation is all important, so when stepping onto a new boat it is well worth spending the time at the beginning of the season getting to know exactly how it all works.
When they are well setup, the instruments make the navigator’s job a lot easier and much more enjoyable. Equally true though is that a badly setup bunch of instruments can easily make you look very average, as well as being distraction for the entire crew.
To do your job properly as a navigator you need the guys on board to be able to trust and rely on you and your instruments are telling them. That is why it is important to put the time in to getting them correct before you go racing.
At the beginning of the season you should spend the necessary time getting all the displays on board setup so they show the relevant information to the people looking at them. The same goes for the way your navigation software is set up. With most good navigation packages you can customise the menus and the number bars so it is simple to make the most important information the easiest to see.
It’s well worth taking the time to do this, so you won’t need to waste crucial time digging around to find the information you need when asked a question by the tactician or one of the crew.
I think it’s important that a racing navigator has a good understanding of how the instruments and software calculate the information they churn out, as this will enable you to appreciate the limitations of the system. Once you have a good grasp of that, it will help you identify when you can fully rely on the data from the system and when your own judgement is probably the better option to trust.
Accurate calibration is the absolute key element in getting meaningful information out of the instrument and as such is a very important part of the navigator’s role. You might be surprised to hear however, that in my experience, the importance of calibration is something that’s commonly either vastly underestimated or simply completely overlooked.
Simply put, bad information in will give bad information out, and even the best instruments in the world can lead you up the garden path if they are not properly calibrated.
I’m constantly amazed by the number of teams that continue to struggle through a season with badly calibrated instruments that could so have easily been corrected, either by the navigator investing some time sorting it out during training, or by the owner getting an expert in to take a look at it.
I know that calibration exercises like doing compass circles, running a measured mile and checking your masthead wind offset, can be tedious and boring for the crew - especially in the UK on a cold Solent morning in the wintertime - but these exercises are well worth the effort because the speed, heading and wind sensors are the basis of all the other instruments’ information on board the boat. Remember, bad information in, can only ever give bad information out.
It’s also important to note that once you have got the base calibration right the job doesn’t end there. Calibration, especially for the true wind angles, is something that needs to be done on a daily, if not race-by-race, or even leg-by-leg basis. Sailing in different wind structures, for instance a gradient breeze as opposed to a sea breeze, will affect your calibration as well, as will using different sails.
To make things worse, your calibration often changes throughout the day too! In my experience, I have found that the more you look into it, the more you realise that every day is different, so calibration is something you have to be continually working on and keeping track of.
I always try to check the calibration upwind before the start. But, rather than tacking on the shifts as you might expect you would do, it’s actually better to tack in steady breeze as then you can identify any differences in readings from the wind gear.
During a race it’s also a good idea to check the wind direction through each tack and make corrections if needs be. However, always let the guys on board know if you are changing things, just to make sure it doesn’t cause confusion on deck!
More complex instrument systems can offer a greater range of options with respect to calibration, but that also means more work for the navigator and more possibilities for getting it wrong. This however, is all part of the fun and the challenge of mastering the system – well, I think so anyway.
All this may all sound a little daunting, but if you are able to stay on top of your boat’s calibration, the rewards can be enormous. As a navigator you will be able to be confident in the information you give and the team will benefit from accurate and repeatable data which will enhance performance and improve tactics on the race course.
Weather Forecasting and Tides
Having an accurate weather forecast is essential to a good day’s racing and managing this task is an essential part of a racing navigator’s pre-race preparation. There are a number of ways of getting hold of a good quality forecast, but the easiest and I think most enjoyable, is to work with a professional meteorologist. Companies like Chris Bedford’s Sailing Weather Service will work with you to give you a daily forecast and can provide invaluable insight and feedback on the day’s conditions.
It is rare that the weather doesn’t throw something strange at you and working with a meteorologist like Chris has meant I have managed to learn a lot along the way. That said, it also makes me realise how much there is still to learn about meteorology.
If you don’t have the opportunity to work with a forecaster, there also are number of very good subscription services giving access to high resolution wind grib data such as Ugrib, PredictWind and Squid.
Whether you are working with a meteorologist, using high resolution grib data or relying on a free local forecast, it’s important to identify what are the key parts of the forecast are that will impact on your race.
Are you expecting a weather front, a sea breeze filling in, or clouds moving over the race course? By getting an understanding of what is likely to happen, you can more easily spot any changes out on the water and anticipate what the weather might do next. Whilst the timing of a forecast might be slightly out, you can still know what to look out for and be ready for what you think is going to happen next.
It is also good to get a feeling for how reliable the forecast is. There are some days the forecast is likely to be wrong and if you know this than you can factor it in to your strategy and not put all your eggs in one basket.
Briefing the team with the weather forecast in the morning before racing means you can get the sail selection right for the day and hopefully the crew can be kitted up correctly too! Whilst out on the water a good understanding of the forecast means you will be able to (hopefully) stay on the right side of the course and anticipate any important sail changes.
When you are racing somewhere like the Solent, the tides and current play a big part in successful racing navigation. If you are going to be working the banks and edges to find tidal relief you will need to know the high and low water times as well as tidal heights.
For tidal heights, the iPhone and iPad App TidesPlanner is very handy to have on board in order to quickly calculate how much water you might have under the keel relative to your charts.
Specific to the Solent, the Adrena Software Winning Tides Current Atlas is very handy to have on deck at all times.
Grib data can also be useful and there’s some good data available from companies like Tidetech which can be displayed in your navigation software. I think this is a nice way of visualising what is going on and making use of the technology you have on board.
Managing the Course, Charts and Navigational Hazards
A big part of racing navigation, especially at a venue as challenging as the Solent, is managing the course. Getting around all the marks correctly is the very bare minimum that is expected of you as a race boat navigator, although it seems it is not uncommon for people to get that part wrong.
Windward-leeward courses using inflatable marks are generally pretty easy to stay on top of, but things tend to get considerably more complicated when the course utilises navigation marks and fixed buoys.
I always input the course into the navigation software, but I make sure the course is written down in my wet notes book too and I also have a waterproof chart with all the racing marks on it as well. Before all that it pays to double or even triple check that you got the course down correctly.
I find a waterproof chart is very useful for explaining the course to the crew before the start. When I’m doing that, I try to give the crew an idea of what sails will be used on each leg, what the likely mark roundings are going to be – bear away set, or gybe-set etc. - as well as what the timings are likely to be for each leg and if there are any areas of the course where difficult decisions are likely to rear their heads around strategy or sail choice.
During the race I like to have a waterproof paper chart to hand to help quickly explain any navigational hazards on the course, where the banks and shallows are and how they might be used to our advantage.
Although I work mostly with navigational charts on the computer, having the ‘old fashioned’ paper charts can also be handy, in the event that all the modern technology goes wrong and you have to go back to basics.
Information on the Race Course
With all the information and data at your disposal, doing a good job as a racing navigator and getting things right out on the racecourse mostly comes down to being a good communicator and knowing how to provide the right information at the time when it is needed by the crew.
There is always a ton of information you can give out at any particular time, but the trick is to think before you speak and make sure what you say is accurate and relevant to where your boat is on the racecourse.
Before the start you should be able to give some information on what the timings are likely to be on the first leg; stuff like which tack is favoured and if the leg isn’t too long, what sort of rounding it is likely to be at the first mark.
Once you are in the pre-start, you should be capable of using the navigation software to provide information to the helmsman and tactician about the bias on the start line, as well as feeding a constant stream of information about time and distance to the line, time to burn and the speed you need to approach the line.
Once you are racing, the ‘splits’ – the times on each tack to the two lay lines - become increasingly important as you either approach the top of the course or get out to one side or the other.
You should also be keeping track on how your boat is going relative to the rest of the fleet. Using the hand bearing compass and the wind direction you can calculate crosswind to work out whether you are likely to come out ahead or behind another particular boat.
Before getting onto the final approach to the mark I always try to provide as much information on what the next leg is going to look like in order that the tactician can get the boat on to the making tack as quickly as possible and with the optimum sail on.
Downwind, especially in fast planing conditions, laylines to the leeward mark or gate become very important and it is critical that you help the tactician manage the final approach in a way that gives enough room to get the spinnaker down and doesn’t require any down-speed maneuverers.
On top of all of this, you should also be able to offer useful information as to the boat’s performance; things like whether you are hitting your targets and if not, what is happening around you with the weather or the other boats that may be preventing you from doing so.
As you can see from the last few paragraphs, there’s plenty going on most of the time for the navigator on a race boat and great deal of information to juggle and get right. Hopefully though, if you have done all the preparation, the instruments are well calibrated, the polars are accurate and everything is well setup, you should be able to give out the right information when it is needed!
I do want to make the point here that, even with all the technology that is at your fingertips, above all else, it is important to remember that none of it is a substitute for good sailing skills. Getting your head out of the boat and looking at what is happening around you remains a vital component of the racing navigator’s armoury.
The technology on board should enable you and the tactician to make better decisions, but it won’t make the decisions for you. There really is no substitute for common sense! Despite having raced with some of the best instrument systems available on board there are always times when what your eyes are telling you makes a whole lot more sense than what is coming out of the computer.
The knowledge, skill and confidence to work out when to rely on what the instruments are saying and when to ignore them, is another crucial part of the navigator’s job!
Data Logging and Performance Analysis
Finally, it is worth mentioning a little about data logging and performance analysis. These days, data logging seems to be increasingly becoming a part of our day to day lives. Most people run or cycle with a personal GPS with them so they can look at the data afterwards and see how they performed.
Yacht racing isn’t any different, apart from the fact that it’s rather more complicated to analyse the data, owing to the fact that the wind, tide and weather conditions are always changing! By setting up a data log, - something that is very easy to achieve in most navigation software packages - you can collect lots and lots of data while you are out on the water. A warning, however - making sense of it all afterwards can be tricky and can end up keeping you working late into the night if you let it.
Luckily though, there are now some good software tools available - such as those from Sailing Performance - that make the job a little more manageable.
Although time consuming, data analysis is rapidly becoming an important part of the navigator’s role. It can help improve calibration and provide valuable feedback on the boat’s performance. It also gives you the ability to refine the boat’s polar data and sail chart and all this feeds directly back into you and your crew being well prepared for the next regatta.
Simon Fisher is a director at UK specialist yacht racing electronics business Diverse Yachts. Last year he took part in his fourth Volvo Ocean Race when he successfully navigated Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing to victory. This season he will be navigator on Sir Keith Mills' Ker 40+ Invictus in the UK's Fast 40+ Racing Circuit.
[Main Image: Matt Knighton/Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing]