The Skandia Cowes Week race office replaces pin and stringboard course-setting system with new, hi-tech, super software

With over 40 courses a day to set during Skandia Cowes Week the potential for course-setting errors has got to be, one would think, reasonably high. But according to Stuart Quarrie (Skandia Cowes Week regatta director) the years of experience at running the world’s biggest regatta means the team in the race office rarely put a foot wrong. However, they are always looking at ways of improving the system. Quarrie explains that the old method using a pin and stringboard has been laid to rest and replaced with a new software application that allows courses to be designed straight onto a chart on-screen.

Quarrie explains: “What’s happened in recent years is we’ve had course-setting software but the courses have been designed on big charts using pins as the buoys and bits of string on elastic. You can decide you want a 20-mile course, pull out 20-miles worth of string and design the course. That works pretty well with small numbers of classes. The problem with Skandia Cowes Week however, is that we split the 40 or so classes in to Black and White groups and that is too many classes for one set of course-setters to design for. So we have a White Group course setting team and a Black Group course setting team. Because the pin and string boards are obviously not linked we have had occasions where the White Group course-setters had just decided to use a buoy at the same moment as the Black Group, going round the opposite way. And although our old course-setting software picked it up it was really time consuming making corrections.

“Now, if there are any clashes they flash up straight away, because both teams are using the same database. And it also means that the software has the tide, wind, polar curves for the class, and so on built in. So immediately, during the design stage, the course-setters can see how long a leg is going to last and what time boats are predicted to get to each mark.”

Finding a commercial software package for such an event was impossible so Quarrie decided to spec it himself and bring in a specialist to carry out the software design. “We chose Simon Middlemiss who’s a professional programmer to take on the job of writing and designing the software. He’s been working as one of the course-setter data inputers for the old software for the last three years so he understands what the course-setters need.”

According to Quarrie this new system can make quite a big difference to the type of courses set because the system is a lot more efficient. “The wind information gets put in to a third computer, so the programme will already know the particular conditions of the day, the start order, start times, what classes are racing and tides. We have Chris Tibbs on the platform giving us the forecast, and the administrator will feed that in to the computer.

“There are two stages to course setting. One is setting up the course that begins at 08:00, and the second is the finalized course half an hour before the start. And one of the other nice features is to be able to set multiple courses for each class. So if Chris is saying at 08:00, ‘well it might be a seabreeze, or it might not’, the course-setters will be able to have two course options ready. It also gives the option to change the course at a much later stage.

“After the classes have all gone off racing, one of the other big advantages of the software is being able to monitor fairly easily where the boats should be – giving us an even better idea what’s happening out on the race course. It doesn’t tell us when to shorten a course but it does help tell us which classes are likely not to finish until a certain time, or whether they’re likely to be really close to the time limit.”

And the pin and stringboard, has it really been laid to rest? Quarrie concluded: “Well I have to be honest, not quite. This is a major step for the race team so we’re still keeping our faithful pin and string board as an ultimate back up in case of a major power failure.”