CIO Blog: Is the 2017 America's Cup going to be all about sailing or technology?

The venue of the 35th America's Cup must have been the worst kept secret around the sailing scene over the last few months of 2014.

Bermuda the chosen venue, so far, has only 17 hotels and potentially challenging infrastructure. However, Bermuda has made a promise to host an event that delivers for sailors, spectators and the armchair watchers relying on technology to deliver the experience.

Touring behind the scenes at the Cup last year visiting Animation Research’s San Francisco base, we got a glimpse of the scale of technology needed off the water to support the worldwide TV audience.

At the New Zealand Oracle User Group Conference late last year, Asim Khan (formerly CIO of Oracle Team USA) talked about the technology, on and off the water, that helped Oracle Team USA achieve the unthinkable in San Francisco.

Khan scotched all the cheating rumours that had been the more palatable choice in New Zealand, when the score line started moving the wrong way. Khan explained the seemingly sudden change of fortunes as coming from a range of actions, many of which date back to the beginning of the series.

According to Khan, as a result of the Oracle team being docked two points and having lost a sailor due to a rules infringement in the America's Cup World Series, they were under increased pressure to make sure there were no further rules violations.

Khan, enjoying having a technical audience, explained how the foil trimming system known as Herbie worked. It has been was well documented in sailing media and was the subject of heating chatroom debate. Despite the conspiracy theories, Herbie was in fact installed on the boat three weeks prior to the start of the regatta.

Summing up the other keys to success beyond ensuring rules were not broken, Khan’s message was that it came from a combination of technology, understanding the sailors better and automating communications, along with a critical clarity of goal.

Next: The crucial differentiator

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Oracle had several setbacks throughout the campaign, not least of which was capsizing and destroying its boat on its 8th outing and then losing five months of testing. The ability for Oracle to then adapt its program to cope with the disasters along with accelerating its rate of understanding (through increased reliance on analytics), was key and, as it turned out, the crucial differentiator.

On the technology front, the team was fortunate to have an Oracle Exadata to crunch the numbers. They used project management methodologies to ensure that changes and tiny tweaks by one part of the team did not inadvertently throw out the work of others and they had one clear guiding goal: The goal of winning.

Last word goes to long time yachtie and member of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron Colin Lucas who said, “My hope for the 35th America's Cup is that it goes back to being speed achieved from sailor skill, rather than a tsunami of money and technology!”

Indeed, technology has its role, but the race creators would probably turn in their graves at suggestions of big data rather than big courage making the winning difference.

Jennie Vickers ( is principal of Zeopard Law.

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