If, like me, you are getting a bit long in the tooth, losing your strength, but still enjoy racing offshore then it’s likely you keep your place in the crew by being a reliable driver. Others might grind like demons or perform foredeck heroics. Our job is to take the helm, keep the boat on its feet and stay headed in roughly the right direction.

Well, our days could be numbered. A report has emerged from the Royal Ocean Racing Club that makes strong recommendations that the use of autopilot systems should be allowed – without penalty – in offshore racing. In the ‘man v. machine’ struggle that has troubled the sport since the introduction of powered winches and canting keels, it seems this will be another victory for the machines.

Here’s the bombshell conclusion at the end of the RORC report: “It is therefore the recommendation of the Race Office that automatic steering be adopted for fully crewed racing in RORC events (to also include major events).

While this is only a recommendation at this stage, and from the Race Office and not the club’s sailing committee, the RORC has tended to set the rules for offshore racing since its foundation in 1925. Most clubs around the world follow their lead when it comes to the regulation of blue-water competition. 

If adopted, as now seems likely, the introduction of automatic steering (autopilot) in fully crewed yachts will be a fundamental change to the way we sail. It would be reasonable, therefore, to expect the RORC to support their recommendation with some solid data. Instead, the report relies primarily on assumptions and anecdote.

The problems with their finding stem directly from the stated aim of the report: 

“Aim: To improve participation by allowing the use of automatic & wind vane devices for steering across all RORC racing. It is the current belief that as boats struggle with the logistics of larger crews, increased costs and keeping crews actively involved in the sailing of the boat, allowing them the use of automatic steering would enable crews to sail with less crew and thus increase participation opportunities.” 

Say what? The logic is difficult to follow. Fewer crew would mean “increased participation opportunities”? The opposite is far more likely: existing boats will just drop a couple of crew. The assumption that there are would-be new owners out there waiting with race-ready boats to recruit these drivers who’ve been made redundant by autopilot is ludicrous. 

And what this whole leap of illogic sidesteps is the principle involved. Offshore racing is a sport. Automatic steering takes away one of its most fundamental human elements: the skill and experience that goes into good helming. Instead, the RORC report wants us to believe that autopilot doesn’t make a difference: 

“As yet, there is no empirical data that suggests there are universal advantages with modern automatic steering systems against fully crewed boats. In some conditions it is acknowledged there may be some advantages (mild sea conditions, in constant wind, up wind, while at night) but these are considered to be limited, especially at varying angles of sail.” 

If that’s true, why are so many equipment suppliers spending millions to develop and market ever more sophisticated autopilot programs that already incorporate inertia navigation systems and 3-D sensor technology to input heel angle, rudder angle, trim, pitch and roll rates while integrating all of that data with fast-sampled GPS, wind and boat-speed information? 

At a wild guess, that stuff might just outperform a guy holding the wheel.

– anarchist David

PS: This article was written entirely by a fully automatic typewriter. I’ve been downstairs all the time watching football on TV and drinking beer. 

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