Sailing has a Major Timing Problem

Sailing has a timing problem, and it’s causing more issues than competitors realize. At almost every regatta, inaccurate OCS calls are made relying on bad time information, or simply because people cannot process time and motion well enough, and these calls have profound impacts on racing. Perhaps even worse, in almost all cases, these inaccuracies do not favor the sailor.

This error poses an important question to sailing which is often answered differently based on which RC, competitor, or judge you ask: when is the start of a race? Is it five minutes after the warning signal? Is it when the class flag goes down around the time assigned to ‘go’? And, how can a race officer sighting a line have a 100% accurate judgment of time, based only on an audible countdown? Often, many of these moving parts are not synchronized: this isn’t a race committee's fault, it’s simply a limitation of being human and running things the way we have for years. But, this lack of synchronization impacts thousands of competitors every year, whether they know it or not.

An Introduction to Timing Issues

Sailing does a good, but not great job of timing. Most error that seeps into the start timing system is in the order of .1 to .5 seconds. But, that’s more than enough to massively impact boats’ positions relative to a start line. So, how does this time error creep in? Buttons may be sticky, people may or may not press them perfectly, and the oscillators in watches or start-boxes may be old and errant. Long hoses for horns cause delays, and verbal countdowns sway from actual time.

And, perhaps more significantly, humans struggle to process motion without a quarter-second delay. Don’t believe us? Check out this video on a concept called Change Blindness in humans:

All of these factors come together to cause most errant calls to not favor the competitor: more often than not, errant calls determine competitors to be OCS when they are, indeed, not.


Why Does This Matter?

Take a look at this quote from World Sailing’s Race Management Manual:

Although the failure (absence) of a sound signal shall be disregarded (RRS 26.1), the mistiming of a sound signal during the starting procedure is in fact an error of the Race Committee that has no rule that says it may be disregarded. If the mistiming is such that it could result in boats being misled resulting in OCS or perhaps a claim for a late start request for redress, then it would be prudent for the race to be postponed if time permits, or abandoned and restarted.

This directive seems simple, but when we drill down, it doesn’t take much for mistiming to mislead both RC and sailors resulting in false OCS calls. The issue remains that these issues are small enough, and there are so few checks on timing in sailing, that they are rarely ever noticed, and almost never contested

And, this isn’t without good reason: it’s extremely difficult to prove where a boat’s bow was at a given time stamp, and even harder to prove how that timestamp relates to when the actual start is. Here’s a chart showing the difference .25 seconds makes in distance up the course at various speeds and headings relative to the line.

Time-Error ChartWhat's the message? This error is significant, even without accounting for swinging of bows, which exacerbates the difference.

Solving This Issue

When we began developing RaceSense, our thought was that positioning and boats being covered would cause most OCS error. We were amazed by the impact standard timing makes, and it is now the top benefit to using RaceSense. The most advanced fleets in the world are moving away from unreliable flags and horns and relying on synchronized timing systems to ensure RC and competitors, along with OCS determination, are all taking place at the exact same GPS time. 

This is a solution sailing can't afford to live without: the consequences of these small errors in timing have long been ignored or unchecked. Sports like tennis benefit from television bringing officiating disputes to viewers on slow-motion cameras, but sailing has never had that level or scrutiny on its start lines. Now, the ability to call with unprecedented time accuracy is available, and is taking the sport by storm.