Why sailing feats matter

March 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

Source: SailingAnarchy

As seen on SailingAnarchy, March, 2010

Sailing almost never makes news, and in the shadow of the economy and the healthcare debate, the headline “Groupama Breaks Around World Mark” is no different. Indeed, the feat barely registered on Google Trends… so small it fell off the charts altogether against chatter about the latest PS3, Justin Bieber, and Wrestlemania. By that measure, Groupama 3’s win might deserve the unenviable designation as the greatest human accomplishment to have earned the least possible attention.

Think about it. Last week, a French sailboat scooted around the globe at an average of almost 25 knots propelled only by pure solar energy and the determination of a tiny team of athletes and technicians. Their stated goal was to complete the circumnavigation in under 50 days, only a 5 year old record, set by Orange II.

Instead of ranting about the media and its apparent disdain for amazing things like this, let’s use the opportunity to reflect on something far more important: the almost stupidly simple concept of getting good things done when you want to.

To start, it is important to note that the Jules Verne record reflects an objective that seemed impossible for most of human history; codified in Jules Verne’s fictitious 1873 novel in which Phileas Fogg dares to travel around the world in under 80 days on a bet, using all manner of coal-fired and wind-driven transport. Of course, a hundred-fifty years later, with petrol, airlines, credit cards and freeways, anyone can do it.

Ironically, Verne’s book reflects a time (for him, a recent memory) when only wind was available, so Fogg’s hybrid any-fuel approach seems to be cheating. One of Verne’s key observations is that technology provides leverage to bring goals into reach. But that’s just half the story.

Indeed, the far grander feat — sailing around the world without the benefit of coal, steam or engines in under 80 days — was first accomplished just 17 years ago, in 1993, by a catamaran called Commodore Explorer (named for defunct sponsor Commodore Computers), which managed to do it in 79 days. Since then, the record has been broken 6 more times, shaving 32 days (40% of time) off of Verne’s original steam-driven fictional record. More stunning: only a handful of teams have tried, led by a handful of men and women, and the same man, Bruno Peyron, led 3 of the record setting teams. So in 17 years, 5 tiny consortiums have have set and met statistically impossible goals 7 times.

Finally, consider that no other water-born machine can do what was done here, except, perhaps, for the nuclear warship, and in that case, the wealth and vital resources of nations and the complete science of nuclear power are committed. A safe metaphoric equivalent might be the tiny nation of Costa Rica safely landing a man on Mars next year, and then again 5 more times before anyone else does it, without using rocket fuel.

So a miniscule sailing story is huge in the context of lessons of the plausible and the possible in what feel today like impossible times.

Middle east peace remains a distant dream. American energy independence is bogged down impossibly in the lobby. A cure for cancer. A decent education for kids. A Cubs world-series. What else can’t we do?

Jules Verne trophy winners did and keep doing. How? Let’s be simple: by simplifying; enlisting the time-honored, oft-forgotten process of reduction and condensery*. They did everything that they had to do, and nothing that they didn’t. By understanding the fundamental ingredients that would go into reaching an audacious and, dare I say, massively important and informative goal in the context of the human condition, I suggest that they zeroed in on two key needs: light and smart. Everything that most of us are usually not.

Indeed almost all human progress comes back to these two rare ingredients.

- Light simply means efficient, sustainable, powerful, safe and durable.

- Smart simply means aware, logical, and practical.

- Together, light and smart sum to fast, agile, confident and bold.

Taken one at a time:

With each iteration, record attempters have used the lightest materials available. Lightness makes them fast in all conditions, and it makes them notably safer when the weather is harsh, because instead of stressing, lightness turns the added energy into speed. Lightness is what makes cars and trains and planes that consume less fuel or get much more from the fuel they use. Lightness is what makes it possible for a skier to ski faster, and a runner to run longer. Lightness is what makes rockets that can reach the moon or Mars. Lightness is what makes it possible for humans to see new horizons.

Most of all, lightness yields efficiency, which enables peak performance over long periods of time. To be able to travel long and uninterrupted, these teams and their machines must work in the most efficient possible manner at the very threshold of breaking. Light and lean systems, both mechanical and human, are designed to make the most of the energy that is carried, created and received — food, generated electricity, and wind. Everything and everyone, by design, performs at or near peak for the duration. So the teams know what peak is. They measure it and manage to it precisely. Calories and watts are densely packed and strictly limited. Finally, wind, the ample resource that propels, is deliberately concentrated for maximum usefulness.

Of all of the advancements contributing to these feats, perhaps the most important is the flow of information, which gives the advantage of knowledge and flexibility. It is no coincidence that before the Verne record was broken, only NASA had the wherewithal to deliver ample real-time and predictive information through computers and communications to teams in places where there are no others. Today, the same technologies that I am using to upload this file also transfer critical information to Jules Verne sailors — feedback, questions, ideas, scenarios — that make it possible to find the ideal route around the globe. Weather, routing and boat performance data come together to provide the best possible choices and enable the best possible decisions that the sailors can make. As information becomes more granular and comprehensive due to gains in computer power and bandwidth, greater advantage is delivered. More than anything, computers underlie continuous record-breaking since the Commodore Computer company first sponsored a winner. With computers, these are the smartest sailors in the world, and they get smarter with each attempt.

And we can look forward to more. An upcoming record attempt by Hydroptère promises a new level of lightness and smartness. Smaller versions of the wind-powered hydrofoil have already set world records for top speeds. This ultra-light and smart design completely depends on computer simulation to find a point of sail with the lowest friction and the highest transfer of solar power to motion. Theoretically, this team has the potential to break the 40 day mark, although if they do, probably few will hear about it.

No irony that most great human accomplishments often go back to two underlying factors: lightness and smartness: consider the use and improvement of tools, faster travel, safe flight, deep sea exploration, the renaissance, space travel, mass literacy…

Jules Verne winners offer us a glimpse into a tiny closed loop, a miniaturized planet, if you will, with both fixed and variable inputs (finite carried goods, ample information, human ingenuity and solar energy), that drive sustainable progress (fantastic but safe sailing speeds pointed in the right direction) towards an improbable goal. It’s a clear metaphor for human progress and the quest for quality of life.

Why does any sailing story matter? Because sailing is, at its core, among the most complete and accurate analogies that we have for the problems that we face, the solutions that are within our reach, and the thinking and effort that is required to put them into action.

Perhaps we can learn something here and use the same tools: lightness and smartness… to do what seems impossible.

###

* Credit Lorine Niedecker with the word condensery.

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