High-tech Yacht has Mini PC as First Mate

French Sailor Upgrades His Boat by Downsizing His Computer System, Saving Weight and Fuel for a Competitive Advantage

On the first weekend of November last year, over 250,000 sailing fans crowded the docks of St. Malo in Brittany, France to watch 91 sailors from nine countries embark on a transatlantic journey to the islands of Guadeloupe in the French West Indies.

One man—31-year-old François Gabart—sailed into Guadeloupe 12 days later, finishing first  among yachts of his class after single-handedly navigating his boat 3,542 miles at an average speed of 12.10 knots. The young skipper beat the previous record— set by Roland Jourdain in 2006—by over 7 hours.

The race, the Route du Rhum, takes place every four years in November. Sailors face not only nasty weather and high wind speeds—up to 60 knots—but they also have to deal with fatigue and lack of sleep because they’re manning the boats solo.

Gabart with his NUC autopilot.
Gabart with his NUC autopilot.

Gabart had no human companions during his treacherous trek across the sea, but he did have some modern technology on board his 60-foot monohull yacht. (A monohull boat only has one hull, in contrast to multihulls like catamarans and trimarans.)

Armed with NUCs – short for next unit of computing, which refers to tiny PCs that have a footprint of around four square inches and weigh about two pounds – and tablets, Gabart was able to successfully navigate the Atlantic Ocean by keeping abreast of sailing conditions and weather activity.

Engineering at sea

According to Yachting World, Gabart “became a sports superstar and heart throb in France” when he won the solo round the world Vendée Globe in 2013 on his first attempt, setting a new race record of 78 days, 2 hours, and 16 minutes. Gabart gives partial credit to computers for his victory.

Like any elite modern yacht racer, Gabart relies heavily on computers to analyze the weather and to help plan his racing strategy. “My engineering skills are put to the test all the time,” he remarked. “A sailor’s job includes being an engineer, among other things. You have to be constantly attentive to a high-tech boat, develop it and take it further still.”

This NUC unit measures approximately 4
This NUC unit measures approximately 4″ by 4″ by 2″ and has the functionality of a desktop PC.

“Electronics and IT are a fundamental aid for the solo sailor,” explained Gabart. “The autopilot is your best friend at sea and your most faithful crew member.”

Gabart particularly favored the NUC for its diminutive size and power requirements, which he said reduced his boat’s weight by 35 kilograms when compared to his previous computer setup. This in turn also reduced the fuel requirements, improving the entire efficiency of the craft. Another benefit: if there is a breakdown due to bad weather, the NUC can easily be replaced instead trying to track down and build a highly customized component. A ruggedized tablet also enabled Gabart to view and access the control screen even when he was away from the instrument panel, allowing him to make fewer journeys to and from the cabin and to make critical decisions more quickly.

Tackling even bigger boats—and challenges

Gabart can interface with the boat systems via a tablet.
Gabart can interface with the boat systems via a tablet.

This content was originally published on the Intel Free Press website.

Gabart won’t be on land for long. The Route du Rhum was his last race on a 60-foot boat and he now joins a small circle of extreme navigators, racing around the globe on giant 100-foot multihull yachts.

The French sailor is in the design stages of his new boat. Using “super calculators” on Intel Xeon-based supercomputers located at Intel’s Swindon office, Gabart was able to test various hulls using CFD (computational fluid dynamics), enabling the architects to design a boat that will be highly efficient.

“Because this boat will be really fast, I will have to rely even more on on-board technology,” says Gabart. “For example, we have some innovative systems like gesture recognition to interact with the electronics—which is sometimes difficult with wet fingers on a touchscreen! And a stereo audio system, so that I can share my sound environment as closely as possible with people back on dry land.”

“What really fascinates me is the thought of all the solutions we don’t yet know about,” he adds. “I long to know what sailing will be like in ten years’ time!”

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