Hi-tech glasses boost America's Cup's skipper's info

22:45, Feb 09 2010
Oracle skipper James Spithill
HI-TECH: Oracle skipper James Spithill wears his futuristic fighter pilot-style sunglasses that have a heads-up display to supply the Sydneysider with vital wind and sail load information aboard Oracle's 90x90-foot trimaran USA-17.

BMW Oracle Racing helmsman James Spithill has revealed what goes on when he dons his game face for the US-challenger ahead of the rescheduled first race for the 33rd America's Cup tonight (NZT).

The 30-year-old Australian hides behind a pair of sunglasses but not to deflect any glare from the Mediterranean Sea or to hide any pre-race fear from Oracle's bitter rivals aboard Alinghi 5.

The sunglasses house a futuristic fighter pilot-style heads-up display to supply the Sydneysider with vital wind and sail load information aboard Oracle's 90x90-foot trimaran USA-17.

Spithill hopes to tap into the information some time tonight when the warring syndicates head out of Port America's Cup in an attempt to start the opening 40 nautical mile race in the best-of-three Deed of Gift match, abandoned at the first attempt on Monday due to unstable winds.

However, strong winds off Valencia which have produced a lumpy sea have already delayed tonight's planned start time by at least two hours.

When the gigantic multihulls do finally race, Spithill will be wearing his glasses regardless of how dreary the skies over Valencia are. They are linked to a tiny laptop and battery-pack which he carries in a small back-pack while helming aloft the flying hulls of Oracle's trimaran. The technology is not new to America's Cup sailing but the gigantic boats being raced are, particularly Oracle's trimaran which produces a staggering 26,000 data points per second from 250 onboard sensors feeding information to a central database. The supply of real-time information allows Spithill to process his next move without having to divert his focus from USA 17s 68m tall wingsail or the race-track ahead.

"It provides a display for me and I can have numerous pages. I've got like a load page where I can see all the loads on the boat, rudder angle, anything basically that we're recording I can see," Spithill said during an impromptu media conference held at Oracle's base overnight.

"For instance there's a start page and I can just ask Matteo [Oracle's Italian navigator Matteo Plazzi] to hook me into the start page, hook me into the load page, and see the wing [sail] targets etc and see what's happening in real time.

"I think it's the future because wherever you look, it's there. You don't have to keep looking back into the boat and maybe back at where your competitor is. So it's been pretty exciting."

The science behind the sunglasses was divulged when Spithill was asked by a European journalist what he carried in the back-pack.

"It's not a parachute," he quipped in reference to the scary heights the Australian often finds himself in when USA-17 is powered up and flying one and often two of its three hulls.

"The biggest push to do it was to save weight, take weight off the boat because now it's one small pack I've got as opposed to running cables throughout the boat and [bulky] displays etc."

The fighter pilot analogy is a good one for Spithill who recently gained his private pilots' licence in Sydney, something he achieved in his own time but with a clear ulterior motive.

When the America's Cup looked headed for a multihull showdown, Spithill went off to gain experience in A-class and Formula 18 catamarans and eventually in the bigger Extreme 40 cats. Then Oracle started toying with the idea of building a wing sail.

"When it looked like we'd pull the trigger on the wing, we had a small break in the sailing team [programme] and I saw an opportunity. I thought well, I might be able to get my pilots licence.

"So I was able to do that in a fairly short time down in Sydney and yeah, I learned a lot actually. It was very, very interesting. It's amazing actually how many guys in sailing fly like Tom Schnackenberg; Larry [Ellison] flies, Russell [Coutts] has got his pilots licence. There's a lot of guys. It's the same principles, it's all about lift, drag, and it's just another way of thinking about how to make yourself go as quick as you can on the water."

Meanwhile, neither syndicate went sailing yesterday, preferring not to risk their boats in winds gusting to 30 knots. There were sure to be nerves in the Oracle camp overnight as high winds can play havoc with USA-17 thanks to the wingsail. The Americans were rumoured to have added more man power to the team of three that are reportedly stationed on the moored boat each night to negate any potential damage.