The Science Behind Successful Sailboat Racing

Neal Peterson (left), Sam Stevens

Episode 2 of the virtual learning series Ocean Diaries featured Neal Peterson (left), a South African sailboat racer and adventurer, and Sam Stevens (right), a doctoral student in oceanography at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. The pair worked together to weave a compelling story of how science plays a role in sailboat racing, with Petersen sharing glimpses into his solo race around the world in 1999 and Stevens providing insight into how and why scientists collect data from the ocean.

After the successful inaugural episode of Ocean Diaries—a virtual education program and collaboration that aired as a Facebook Live event on the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum, and Zoo (BAMZ) Facebook page last month to over 2,000 views—the team of educators at BAMZ, the Bermuda Zoological Society (BZS), BIOS, and the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute (BUEI) quickly remobilized to begin working on episode 2.

“Building on the success of our first episode, we wanted to continue to bring these unique stories and perspectives of ocean research and exploration to our audiences,” said Kaitlin Noyes, director of BIOS’s Ocean Academy and one of the program’s hosts.

The second installment, titled “Harnessing the Power of the Ocean: Sailing Meets Science,” aired June 30 and featured discussions with Neal Petersen, a South African-born professional adventurer and racing sailor, keynote speaker, author, global investor, and former commercial diver. Petersen was joined by Sam Stevens, a doctoral candidate at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver (Canada) and a physical oceanographer who spent over three years at BIOS studying the Sargasso Sea with the Bermuda Atlantic Time-series Study (BATS) program.

A natural storyteller who eagerly conveys his love for adventure, Petersen jumped right in, regaling listeners with a tale from the 2015 Bermuda 1-2 race, during which he and John Lubimir, owner of the 30-foot (9-meter) boat “Flight Risk,” piloted the vessel from Bermuda to Newport, Rhode Island (on the East Coast of the United States) on the second leg of the race. Shortly after leaving Bermuda, however, they discovered they were sailing right into a tropical depression and “had to try to push as deep into the Gulf Stream, a large ocean current, as possible to spend less time in the extreme wind conditions in the depression.” After averaging 23 miles per hour, or mph (20 knots) for four hours, covering a total of 80 miles (129 kilometers), the boat capsized and had to be righted ahead of the rapidly approaching storm.

Using a large map overlaying a variety of satellite measures of the ocean to create a moving real-time picture, Stevens demonstrated the role of the Gulf Stream in such a situation. “For races like Newport to Bermuda, the Gulf Stream is a very important consideration,” he said. “It’s a fast, energetic current that shoots out from the Gulf of Mexico, carrying warm tropical water past the east coast of the United States and toward Europe.”

Gulf Stream eddies

During the virtual learning event, Stevens shared his screen with participants and used an interactive map to explain how eddies (circular rings of currents) form off the Gulf Stream. Petersen was able to provide insight as to how these eddies impact navigation and tactical decisions made during sailboat races, such as the Bermuda to Newport (Rhode Island) race that crosses the Gulf Stream.

One aspect of the Gulf Stream that can wreak havoc with sailboat races and navigation are eddies – slow moving, circular rings of currents that pinch off along the borders of the Gulf Stream, effectively forming pockets of turbulence that can persist on scales from weeks to months.

“For someone like me, when we leave Newport and cross the Gulf Stream, what is really important is knowing where that Gulf Stream is and having a scientist like Sam being able to tell us where those eddies are,” Petersen said. “The Gulf Stream that we’re fighting against in the boat can be 3.4 mph (3 knots) of current against us, and an eddy can give it an additional 2.3 mph (2 knots) against us, so we could end up with 5.7 mph (5 knots) of current against us. Or, if we could end up on the right side of the eddy, we could slingshot and get a 4.6-5.7 mph (4-5 knot) advantage to better position our boat against the competition. Knowing where the eddies are can definitely help us win these races.”

While the information collected at sea by Stevens and other physical, chemical, and biological oceanographers can help sailors like Petersen, the data are also being collected and analyzed on a near-continual basis to help scientists around the world understand how the ocean is being influenced by a changing climate. For more than 80 years, researchers at BIOS have been traveling on research vessels each month to specific locations in the middle of the Sargasso Sea to use instruments that measure various aspects of the ocean, including temperature, salinity, bacterial abundance, primary production, carbon flux, and more.

One of Petersen’s largest achievements to date is his solo race around the world on a 40-foot (12-meter) boat he built himself – a feat he accomplished in 1999 after collectively spending more than 196 days at sea alone. He said this experience drove home for him the fact that the sea doesn’t care whether you’re South African, American, Bermudian, black or white, rich or poor—it is going to treat us equally. At the end of the day, the sea will make every one of us just as wet!

As in the first episode, the keynote speakers (Petersen and Stevens) and moderators (Noyes and Alex Amat, BZS youth program coordinator) were joined by two young ocean ambassadors chosen by Tia Tankard, club development officer and education assistant for the Endeavour Community Sailing Program in Bermuda. Sivaja Perinchief, 12, is a student at Dellwood Middle School and has been a graduate of the Endeavour Community Sailing Program since the summer of 2019. Ja’Zyaid Ingham just graduated from the Whitney Institute and will be starting at Berkeley this fall, and was named Endeavour Community Sailing Program’s “Sailor of the Year” for 2019.

Both students were chosen by Tankard based on their teamwork, willingness to learn, listening skills, and overall effort within the sailing program. “We nominated Endeavor graduates Sivaja and Ja’Zyaid to represent our organization as they both demonstrate a passion and appreciation for our waters, as well as a commitment to our shared vision of a sustainable future for all,” Tankard said. “Endeavor was grateful to partner with BZS, BIOS, and BUEI for this second episode of Ocean Diaries, as we are committed to raising awareness about the importance of marine conservation and inspiring Bermuda’s youth to become healthy ocean ambassadors.”

When asked about what advice he had for budding young sailors, Petersen shared the following: “It’s not just about the end result and being successful at achieving a goal, it’s also about the process and being able to find the joy in the adventure. I am proof that dreams can become our reality when we work at them and are not afraid to take risks. There are no failures, just opportunities to keep learning and keep trying. It requires just as much mental fortitude to fight your way to the start line when people say it’s impossible as it does to finish. And we should always strive to contribute to our world by knowing our facts and having experiences that can be shared to lift people up.”

Stevens echoed these sentiments. “If you want to work with the ocean, you need to be well-prepared, but also be able to adapt to the unpredictable ocean conditions; however, sometimes, if you have the right tools and knowledge, you can harness that unpredictability and use it to your advantage,” he said. “The ocean is a big, intricate, beautiful puzzle, and oceanographers get to spend time trying to piece that puzzle together! If you like science and being in and around the water, then oceanography might just be the thing for you.”