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Leaderboard FD July August September 2023

Define sailing

by Mark Jardine 3 Apr 19:00 BST
Elena Moreno - GWA Wingfoil World Cup Cape Verde 2023 © Lukas K Stiller

Simple, isn't it? Defining the sport that we know and love. Get in a boat, pull up the sails, sheet in and off we go. The problem is, defining what we know as sailing is becoming increasingly difficult.

So where to start? Well obviously in this day and age you turn to AI for a definition, so I asked both Google's Bard and the now (in)famous ChatGPT.

Bard told me: "Sailing is the activity of using boats with sails. It can be used for recreation, transportation, or competition. Sailing is a popular sport and there are many different types of sailboats.

To sail a boat, the wind must be blowing. The sails are set to catch the wind and the boat moves forward. The sailor steers the boat by adjusting the sails and the rudder.

Sailing is a great way to enjoy the outdoors and learn about the physics of wind and water. It can also be a challenging and rewarding sport."

ChatGPT added: "Sailing is the activity of using wind to propel a boat or ship through water. It involves controlling the boat's direction and speed by adjusting the position of the sails, which catch the wind and generate the necessary force to move the vessel. Sailing can be a recreational activity, a competitive sport, or a means of transportation for commerce, fishing, and exploration. It requires skill, knowledge of weather and wind patterns, and an understanding of navigation and safety procedures.

Sailing can be enjoyed on various types of boats, including dinghies, keelboats, catamarans, and yachts, and in different environments, such as lakes, rivers, seas, and oceans."

Both answers got me thinking. Not just about their definitions, but about AI in general. Both Bard and ChatGPT's opening sentence talked about boats and sails, but now this can be boards and kites or foils and wings, with the huge growth in both kitesurfing and wingfoiling.

Maybe my question to them was wrong. Should I have actually asked them what is a boat? I didn't want to go down that rabbit hole, so I left the AI to answer questions for everyone else who wants to know the answer to life, the universe and everything... which is obviously 42. So today I'm going to assume all waterborne craft powered by the wind are boats and refer to them as such in this editorial.

AI has been playing a part in sailing for some time, with IMOCA self-steering systems / autopilots learning on the job, and ride height controls for the America's Cup AC50 (now the SailGP F50) and the AC75 keeping the boats smoothly foiling.

Remember how the Emirates Team New Zealand AC50 in Bermuda had the 'dot to dot' system which Glenn Ashby used? It was written in the rules that the computer couldn't control the trim and foils directly, so the boffins thought carefully about the problem and tried to find the easiest and simplest way of getting the computer's 'suggestions' through to the humans in the boat, so that they could then tell the sails and foils how to be trimmed. Their human-machine interface was suggested 'dots' on a screen that Glenn then pressed to set the controls. It brings up the question: is the sailor driving the boat, or the boat driving the sailor?

This of course is the cutting-edge of the sport, so obviously doesn't apply to you and I in our everyday sailing... or does it? How many times have you used the suggested lay line on your yacht to choose when you tack? The polars for your boat to hit your optimal angles and sail configurations? All these are creating using complex algorithms, and at the end of the day that's what AI is, the simulation of human intelligence processes by machines.

In the 'old days' you'd get your handheld compass, have a fair idea of your tacking angle, take any tide or current into account, scan the sky for clouds which could move the wind angle, take any local phenomena such as land mass into account and then calculate, or guesstimate, when to tack or gybe. The algorithms do this for us, simulating the processes our brains are doing, albeit with far more accuracy and processing power. Scary, isn't it?

So, what do you do if you want to do your sailing traditionally? Free from electronics, high powered computers, algorithms, and AI? Many dinghy classes are restricted in what electronics you can use, limiting you to a countdown watch and compass, but most keelboat racing, particularly in the larger yachts, is pretty much unrestricted. Even the classic yacht scene, underneath the veneer of gleaming wood and white sail, often has a myriad of cables, sensors, processors and displays guiding the sailors on their every move. Classic doesn't always mean traditional.

Over the years I've competed a lot in the XOD class, racing in the Solent. For those who don't know the class, it's a wooden 21ft three-man dayboat designed by Alfred Westmacott in 1909. While there have been developments over the years, the class has remained very traditional, retaining wooden masts and booms, and only very occasionally updating the sail plan. When it comes to technology, I used to joke that even digital watches were frowned upon, and with a huge part of Solent sailing being about understanding the tides and geography, it's as much a mental game as a physical one.

Technology though is always getting miniaturised, and many watches are now powerful computers, containing GPS and other sensors, which makes my joke about digital watches look pretty dated now. We've moved on from the days of the Casio LCD which featured stopwatch, countdown and dual time...

Is it time for technology-free classes or regattas, so that traditional navigation and tactical skills aren't lost? The Golden Globe Race is just that in the offshore world, and is proving immensely popular, so would there be a similar attitude inshore? Where would you draw the line on the allowed technology? Would you insist on nothing electronic on board, only mechanical? Just like traditional woodworking skills are highly sought after in the days of CAD / CAM and laser cutters, would this racing attract a strong audience and participation?

All this brings me back to the definition of sailing. I don't believe it's defined by the boats we sail, but instead by the way we sail them. The more we use technology, the less connected we are with the elements. Sailing, in my view, is so much about the freedom of being on the water and disconnecting from an increasingly technological world. That's a bit tricky when you're guided by technology through every tack and gybe.

Even writing this on Microsoft Word I felt the influence of AI, with the new 'suggestions' feature built into the software thanks to ChatGPT. It was ironic asking Google how to switch this feature off. While I'm more than happy to use quotes in my work, I'd rather my words and thoughts be my own.

It's a polarising argument, if you'll pardon the pun.

Mark Jardine and Managing Editor

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