Smart sailing: François Gabart’s trimaran MACIF is a floating tech lab

The application of technology to sport continues to redefine the art of the possible. Thanks to modern computing technology, performances can improve, equipment can become lighter and more efficient, while records once thought unbreakable continue to tumble.

For the last three years, Intel has been working in partnership with French yachtsman François Gabart to help him design and skipper one of the world’s fastest racing yachts. The aim? To take this most demanding of sports to the next level.

Gabart’s 100-foot- long ‘Ultime’ class trimaran MACIF – sponsored by the French insurance group – hit the water on 18 August 2015 after an 18-month build that required 100,000 man-hours of work. With a focus on performance, safety and comfort, the boat is wonderfully elegant, equipped with curved foils that allow it to practically fly across the surface of the water.

The trimaran MACIF flying through the water
‘Flying’ at 50mph. © Jean Marie Liot / DPPI / MACIF

The vessel’s first serious outing was the Transat Jacques Vabre ‘Match of Giants’ in November 2015. Co-skippered by Gabart and Pascal Bidégorry, they made the crossing from Le Havre to Brazil in just 12 days and 17 hours, leaving the second place boat 88 miles in their wake.

Gabart’s next challenge was even tougher, taking on the Transat bakerly 2016, a 3,500-mile race from Plymouth to New York – single-handed. The inaugural race took place in 1960 and was won by Sir Francis Chichester in Gipsy Moth III.

The voyage took Chichester 40 days. Gabart won the 2016 race in 8 days, 8 hours, 54 minutes and 39 seconds, narrowly missing out on a new race record.

“It was a big challenge for me,” he told the press after crossing the finish line in New York. “You should have 10 or 15 people to manage these boats, and it’s just me. It was my first solo race on Macif, and I didn’t know if I was able to do it, so I am really proud of what I did.”

Francois Gabart abord the Trimaran MACIF
François Gabart, skipper of the Trimaran MACIF. ©Yann Riou/MACIF

To do the Transat bakerly in such a short amount of time pushes both boat and skipper to their physical limits. Often sailing into the wind, contestants faced mile after mile of stormy seas, battered by waves. They also had to contend with the threat of icebergs, freezing fog and the risk of collision with fishing boats, merchant ships and even whales.

Such a dangerous trip required an extraordinary boat and before the Transat bakerly took place, Gabart invited Intel IQ to see it.

Biomechanical machine

Perched on the waters of Plymouth Sound, the trimaran MACIF resembles a giant, cybernetic insect; a melding of man and machine, either component useless without the other.

Remove the skipper from the cockpit and the boat would veer aimlessly across the sea, eventually running aground on some distant shore. And by his own admission, Gabart could not control the vessel alone without the network of meters, sensors and computers that festoon the inner walls of its carbon fibre hull.

Francois Gabart using an Intel PC inside the trimaran MACIF
In the cabin, two IEI touchscreen panels connect to an Intel Core i7 PC. ©Yann Riou/MACIF

Intel’s involvement in the project began during the boat’s design phase, when the French naval architecture firm Van Peteghem Lauriot-Prévost (VPLP) and its digital simulation provider Hydrocean employed the Xeon computing clusters at Intel’s HPC lab in Swindon to find the most efficient design.

“You have the shape of the hull, and you’re just putting it in virtual water,” explains Gabart. “You try it at different speeds, then you have graphs that tell you that this hull is better for [these conditions]… You always have a balance to find between different shapes.”

Innovative design

Using the clusters, the whole design and optimisation process was reduced by three weeks, enabling the team to maintain a lightweight construction while refining the shape of the hulls.

The innovative design also incorporates a spacious cockpit, providing some protection from the elements, while giving Gabart access to the steering wheels, winches and travellers, from where he can perform 95% of adjustments to the sails.

The cockpit aboard the trimaran MACIF
The trimaran MACIF’s cockpit features two steering wheels. © Yann Riou/MACIF

Aft of this is the small cabin where the skipper can sit, eat and sleep. It also features the touchscreen monitor that provides access to the wealth of data generated by the equipment on board and corralled by a computer below deck.

“I have to spend a lot of time here,” says Gabart, “This is the control of everything. You have the weather, you have all the information from the shore. Everything about it is coming here.”

NUCs and bolts

Originally the vessel was equipped with a pair of fifth generation Intel Core NUCs (Next Unit of Computing). But the team decided they needed more processing power while keeping consumption low.

With so much data to manage, plus real-time weather prediction and course optimisation to take into account, responsiveness is crucial. So now the vessel is equipped with a pair of computers powered by sixth generation Intel Core i7 processors.

Intel technology aboard the trimaran MACIF
Gabart can access weather, navigation and comms via the touchscreen. © Yann Riou/MACIF

Reliability and safety is paramount, and as with all of the trimaran MACIF’s systems, there is redundancy throughout, with a second computer, second monitor, multiple radio and GPS systems, plus three autopilots in case of failure.

To monitor his sleep patterns, Gabart has been using a timer app via the touchscreen display where he can also rate the quality of the sleep he’s getting. But it requires him to enter the data manually and because he sleeps in such short bursts he admits it wasn’t working well.

“I check if everything is okay, and sometimes I manage to do several [naps] in the same hour. I do one nap. I just wake up for a minute; I check there are no boats. I check the sails. I go for another nap.”

Francois Gabart aboard the trimaran MACIF
As he needs to move around the boat, Gabart relies on mobile technology. © Yann Riou/DPPI/MACIF

Because of the need to move about the boat, Intel has provided Gabart with an Asus Transformer Book T300 Chi, a 2 in 1 device that can be easily switched between laptop and tablet configurations.

The main navigation touchscreen isn’t visible from the cockpit, so Gabart can use the Transformer Book instead, either as a standalone computer or mirroring the main display.

“It’s quite practical,” he tell us, “because you’re not far away from the computer, but if you’re steering the boat, for example, you can put your small screen in front of you and you know where you are.”

Looking ahead

Intel’s involvement with Gabart and the trimaran MACIF extends beyond the design and on-board systems. Yacht racing isn’t a particularly audience-friendly sport; there’s little TV reporting or commentary during the race, and information is fairly limited.

Trimaran MACIF tech below decks
Below deck is a complex array of sensors, comms, GPS and computing systems.

To help people relate to the vessel, Intel will use its RealSense 3D camera technology to scan the multihull, inside and out, producing a detailed 3D model. This can then be explored via an online app, enabling viewers to navigate around the boat and discover information about the various systems on board.

All of the data captured by the on-board sensors will be relayed via an Intel Xeon server, enabling viewers to follow Gabart on his journey accompanied by a rich set of data. With everything from the boat’s speed and location to the skipper’s heart rate and sleep patterns, fans will be able to stay abreast of every detail of the race.

360-degree 4K video

Later in the year, coverage of the boat will extend to 4K 360° content captured from photos, time-lapse footage and video, as Gabart continues his voyages. Intel is also working on live 4K 360° content, made possible using Quick Sync Video Technology powered by its Iris Pro Graphics. Before long, VR viewers will able to experience the rush of flying above the ocean at 43 knots –- nearly 50mph.

But there’s more yet to come: the trimaran MACIF is practically a floating laboratory, where new technologies are constantly being tested and refined.

binaural earphones
The experimental binaural comms system can capture precise spatial information.

They’re already trialling a new communication system, capable of capturing binaural sound that recreates the experience of being on board, helping teammates and support crew better understand the conditions. While the issue of operating tech in the cold and wet is also being tackled with gestural controls and voice activation.

And for Gabart himself, he feels there is still much more to improve. His first port of call is the autopilot, the vital, key component in single-handed racing.

“At the moment, the autopilot is just following… it’s just measuring what happens and acting on it,” he says. “When a sailor is steering, he’s also anticipating what he sees in front of him or what he could imagine – because this is on his feelings; he can anticipate things.

“Will an autopilot in the future be able to just look in front of the boat, to measure the wind ahead? Maybe in a few years we can measure the wind that will arrive. We could just look a mile in front and say, ‘Okay, in ten seconds, I will have this type of wind’.”

And that’s enough time for a skilled skipper to make a judgement on how best to steer his craft. “We just need a few seconds,” asserts Gabart. “At least you know what the wind will be in ten seconds. It’s wonderful information.”

Main image: © Yann Riou/MACIF

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