Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Weather with you

Team meteorologist Chris Bedford (USA) heads up the BMW ORACLE Racing weather programme and it's hard to imagine someone with better qualifications. This is his eighth Cup campaign and he comes to the team fresh off winning the Volvo Ocean Race with the Ericsson Racing squad (it was his fourth Whitbread/Volvo).

But despite his vast experience, this America's Cup, with two enormous multihulls sailing on the much longer, Deed of Gift race courses, is a very different proposition to what he, and everyone else, is accustomed to.

"I think the fundamental thing to understand about this race is that it is more like a coastal race," he says.

"There are quite a few things we don't know. The race area is very large, so we don't know exactly where the race course is going to be on any given day. We also don't know how to define 'upwind' over a 20-mile course length, as the wind will vary quite a bit over that distance in both direction and speed. So we're treating it as a venue where we need maximum flexibility.

"In general we're going to be relying on modelling a lot more. Because the race will take anywhere from a couple of hours to several hours, the information from a weather boat will become irrelevant fairly quickly. So the main role of the weather boats will be to define the initial conditions and to verify that the computer modelling is accurately representing those conditions.

"In that regard, it's quite different from the traditional race when you're really doing what I think of as 'nowcasting', where your weather boat data has a lot more relevance. When you're taking an hour plus to get to the top mark, the weather boat data is not as useful."

Bedford's team on the weather programme includes Hamish Willcox (NZL) who comes to us from Luna Rossa and Olympic 470 sailing (Atlanta, Barcelona), as well as the Spanish contingent, including Simon Cardona, Pablo Mira, Elvira Llabres, Aitana Forcen, and Nacho Braquehais. Many worked on the successful Meteorological Data Service set up by ACM in the last event.

"Hamish is responsible for placing the weather boats out on the course, managing them and communicating with them," Bedford explains. "He's also a sailor/tactical interface for us with the sailing team. Then we've got some people with strong backgrounds in electronics and local knowledge as well."

Despite their experience studying the waters off Valencia for the last Cup, the team is taking a completely fresh approach to the challenge of forecasting the weather on race day.

"It is almost a new venue in a sense that it's a much different time of year for the racing. We've trained in the winter here before, but this is different. Also, you're going so much further up the coast and offshore, that really, it's essentially a new venue."

And it goes without saying that the BOR 90 is a much different boat from the Version 5 ACC boats, with different sensitivities and sweet spots.

"Like all boats, they're sensitive to pressure and direction. The performance curve flattens out when you get into higher windspeeds, (so finding more wind becomes less of an advantage at that point). And once you're flying hulls, it get a little flatter still, so then direction becomes more important.

"It's quite possible that you may sail on an unfavoured tack for a while to get to something significantly better. Again, we're talking about a 20-mile leg which is something like 125 square nautical miles of ocean. And then the course area is something like 2000 square miles. It's a huge area of water that we're dealing with. It's a very different problem. It's more like giving information to a Volvo Ocean Race crew than what we think of as an America's Cup race."

Fortunately, we've got someone with a great track record in both events.

(You can read more about Chris' thoughts on the weather for the February AC Match in this interview conducted last year.)