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Brawn v Brain? The Bar or The Room?

by John Curnow 6 Jul 2016 13:22 BST 6 July 2016
SailX Bart's Virtual Sailing Championship © SailX

Interesting questions and can they possibly be linked in any way. Is it just the one connection, or could there indeed be several ways to address this conundrum? Well the route of the answer could be SailX, the online inshore racing game. The reason is that in a lot of ways, these two hypotheses were the very reasons for the game being created in the first place.

Amando Estela, the father of the game (SailX), is a Hobie 16 sailor from Valencia. He and his three brothers all sail and windsurf, and one day they came back to the club and had a rule discussion. Out of that also came the knowledge that strategy and tactics were not so well known either. It is pretty much a familiar scene around the globe.

We are all happy to spend time working on the boat or the body to extract speed, but far more reluctant to go with brain based stuff. Ultimately the group at the bar realized they were not as conversant as they should be, so Amando, a software developer, took on the challenge. They looked at different scenarios and set basic parameters with wind and tide, then added RRS and developed away.

The first versions were rudimentary, with line drawings and splitting the keyboard left and right to make the controls. It was a little like a digital version of the old Battleships game, with two separate computers at the bar linked via hardwire and the competitors got into match racing. Everyone at their local club got right into it, and before long there were four or five computers and fleet racing had begun.

Once Tacticat (as it was then known) got web enabled it exploded, and by 2009 there was no stopping SailX. It was still top down view line drawings back then, but chat would soon be added. It was off the one server at the time, so the closer you were to it, the better off you were for reaction times and so on. This racing and training tool had now become a full-bore game.

Differing approaches to commercialisation followed in the next couple of years, but today there are now seven servers around the globe, with a military grade communications protocol between them and an algorithm that smooths the flow between the game server that is being used presently, which improves the real-time aspect of it all.

Amando explains, "SailX is a massive project - much more complicated than you would imagine. It is what we need to enable sub-second interaction and gaming. There are six programming languages, and a state-of-the-art data gathering and analytics backbone, so it is much more than just race management for we have real time moderation for language and behaviour, etc. Additionally, there is the constant battle against hackers and spammers, along with upgrades to keep pace with changing world."

When you consider that races are done in less than 10 minutes, it brings a whole new level to the term 'sprint series'. Remember too that this is a truly global phenomenon, with the recent World Championships attracting 2500 players.

So a super robust system is mandatory, as everyone talks and races in real-time. There are human moderators to make sure everyone plays nicely and a zero tolerance policy on bad language and racing techniques! These moderators are volunteers, but racers can get rapped over the knuckles, muted or retired.

In their time, some 18,000 ruled protests have taken place, which of course are complete with videos and so forth of the event, and they're all admissible and used. Things are recorded down to the millisecond, so there is absolute clarity and therefore, no wiggle room. The moderator makes the ruling. You fill out a protest form and have a chat privately, with retirement and points deduction the usual outcome. However, if you choose to go to the room, the stakes are much higher and not only is the moderator there, but other players can weigh in too.

Remember, it is all about the learnings, the spirit of helping and encouraging everyone. It can take a couple of years to become a moderator, which is an elected role by the moderator team, that is subsequently validated by Amando. There are 20 of them globally, and they are Presidents of Class Associations, elite races and also high achievers with good people skills for conflict resolution. There are also two IJs for when it gets serious.

Now before you start thinking this is all way too much for you, note clearly that when you start you operate in ghost mode, so you cannot collide with anyone, dump on them, or interfere with their plans in any way, shape or form. It is about letting you see what it is about and then build to becoming a regular, which does seem to happen a lot, with addiction having been one of the underlying elements since SailX's inception!

"SailX is both fun and sociable, and a good way to improve your racing. Your starting and overall race strategies will benefit from forward thinking and you can actually see things out in front of you by virtue of the different view options."

"The best way to engage is just to register and start racing, chatting, posting in the forum, learning, sharing, and so on. Come for ten minutes and you will be with us for an hour at least! Our racers, who range from absolute novice to elite, and young to not so young, keep coming back as SailX is a very powerful combination of fun and learning", said Estela.

Racing goes on 24/7, so no matter where you are on the globe you can join in. There are six types of craft that resemble some very famous varieties. Specifically, we are talking Laser, 420, 49er, AC90, AC45 and Foiling AC45, and there are the nuances of this vastly differing craft present in their form around the track.

Each boat is tweaked to emphasise its tactical nature, so the skiff capsizes, the AC90 is all about pointing, with the Laser it is about tacking on each knock, whereas the AC45 is about picking the one (and correct) tack. The 420 has the same VMG no matter what angle you sail and with the Foiling AC45 you can pass to leeward.

There are insights to be learned around the craft, you have options around pre-race tune and then also whilst on the water. The objective of each boat is to put the racer into a mode of thinking that has parallels in the real world and one where you manage your risk overall, as it pertains to a series.

So of the 120,000 or so registered users you find there are around 5,000 super active heads. There is Bronze, which is life membership for a once off US$15 fee and then Silver and Gold, which are monthly subscriptions. There are 3,2,1 votes for control over the environment attached to the levels, but note that you only get an information advantage the higher up the tree you go, not an increase in boat speed! So with six to ten minute race durations, this really is all about short course work and making decisions. It is calculated that you'll be making those every five or so seconds as you go about two laps of either a W/L or trapezoid course. Presently there is only a desktop version, with no mobile or offline capability (yet), and a good Internet connection is a must. "The future planned offline or casual version will be much less aggressive and focus on being a practice tool", says Amando, indicating it may not be as far off as one might think.

Still not convinced? Just remember that you start in ghost mode and you should win or at least be in the top three, for you can even port tack the fleet, but you will be amazed at the pace of the choices you face, for wind shifts and tide arrive on you much faster than in real life.

Also, just like the real thing, it is a passion for life and you build friends and networks in exactly the same way. It seems the learnings and the pace is quite addictive, and there is a lot of video material to wade through to get you inspired whether you already know it all or thought you might give sailing a go.So in SailX we have something that provides for multiple ways to learn and one where you can see it all happen over again.

The benefit of making decisions more often has to be in making some things more second nature, seeing the chess moves and anticipating what is going to happen before it does. Ultimately, that has to mean more time on tell tales, waves and all those other critical elements in a sport with constant change as its mantra.

Amando then added. "Those who get it (including some of the best sailors in the world) really get it, and also get addicted. It's taken time to really get the story out there, but it's happening! SailX is not only great for individuals, but also clubs, classes and even federations. Our sport is struggling because we are small and highly fragmented. SailX is a great platform for bringing it all together."

In the end, Amando can sum up the whole concept when asked what is the one thing you want them to leave with after reading this article and also the SailX site. "Try it!" So without further ado, leave the bar and exercise the brain by heading straight to, but be aware, you could be there for more time than planned!

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