A brief history of sailing instruments and software over the decades.

I’ve been involved in weather routing, yacht instrumentation and software since the 1993/4 Whitbread race, but actual Explorer/Expedition development only properly started in 1995 – see the version history.

This history is by no means complete so as to fit on one page and because I don’t know it all. There are many projects that remained hidden in the various Americas Cup projects through the years and a lot of other hobbyist efforts that just petered out. If anyone has anything worth adding, please feel free to email me.

On that note …

In many ways the history of sailing instruments and software is a history of the Americas Cup as most of the major developments were driven by AC requirements and resources.

There are many names that occur through the years, but two stand out – Dick McCurdy of Ockam and Graeme Winn (Deckman and WTP). Through many Americas Cups, these two were pivotal to much that happened.

B&G was founded in 1955. The Hermes speedometer was produced from 1960 and the Harrier combined log and speedometer arrived in 1963.

One of the very early names was Kenyon Marine. They don’t exist now, but were important in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Signet started in the mid 1960s (?) with analog instruments.

Dick McCurdy built the first analogue true wind computer for Valiant in the 1970 Americas Cup and even wrote his 1968 masters thesis on in. Unfortunately, Valiant went on to lose to Intrepid in 1970. The 12m Intrepid used an onboard strip recorder to record boat performance.

B&G started production of the Horatio sailing performance computer in 1972. The Horatio was developed with the University of Southampton. The Halcyon electronic compass arrived in 1975.

Around 1974, Arvel Gentry built a strip recorder system for Jim Kilroy’s Kialoa III. I have since done a lot of sailing with Jim’s son John Kilroy and the Samba Pa Ti.

Nautech was founded in 1974 by Derek Fawcett to produce auto-pilots under the Autohelm brand. Autohelm was acquired by Raytheon in 1990 and became Raymarine in 2001 after a management buyout.

The seminal event of 1974 was the Dick McCurdy’s Sidney Gearbox for the Courageous AC syndicate. Dick was working for Kenyon Marine at the time, but went on to start Ockam in 1974 based on this work.

Sailing World magazine reported;  “The year 1974 saw the birth of what became Ockam Instruments when Richard McCurdy built the first “miniature” computer, which was used as a wind direction instrument processor for the successful 1974 Cup defender Courageous. Packed in a large aluminum suitcase and cooled by bilge water pumped through a system of internal finned pipes, the box weighed 60 pounds and needed 280 pounds of batteries to keep it running.”

 The Sidney was cooled using bilge water pumped through a system of internal finned pipes! With 16K of RAM, the suitcase-sized box could kick out 32 separate performance functions to a 4 character display ».

B&G introduced the 190 system at the end of the decade. This was the first truly integrated instrument system and was initially banned by most racing organisations. It brought reaching and tacking performance to an off the shelf product. The first system was installed on Lionheart in 1979 for the 1980 Americas Cup. The later 290 was the addition of the MDU unit. The B&G sonic speed system was introduced in 1984.

Ockam released the Unisyn 001 processor in 1982, which would power the Ockam range of instruments until the end of the century. OS1 was released in 1983 and ran on an HP41 calculator.

During 1982-3, Graeme Winn and the Victory America’s Cup team used a graphics workstation (ICL Perq) on the tender to capture Ockam data from 2 boats in real time and provide real time facilities for data analysis – real time strip charts of multiple variables, polars, historical data, sail tests, historical database. The onboard tactical software, written by Peter Weinberg at the Wolfson Unit, ran on an Apple II. Information was presented as graphics on a small CRT.

There were also parallel efforts outside the Americas Cup. In 1982, Stan Honey and Ken Milnes developed a system for Nolan Bushnell’s maxi Charley that was used to win first-to-finish in the 1983 Transpac. The system ran on a National NSC800 (Z80), learned the polars, received weather faxes, analyzed roll call positions and compared current boat performance to the learned polars. It could even exchange data with the B&G 190 bus.

Also around 1982, Tim Thornton at Rob Humphreys Yacht Design developed race nav and performance software for the B&G 190 (though initially the RORC banned interfacing the instruments to a computer system whilst racing). This initially ran on an Apple II and then on a Sharp pocket computer, and was then ported to the Epson HX-20, an A4 sized machine running CP/M – all under the name Tacticalc. It added a lot of the functionality that is now standard on race instruments, plus allowing the navigator to do “What if? “ style calcs, comparing actual performance against polars, race results, and performance data analysis etc and sold under the Tacticalc name. This was mostly used on IOR yachts in the Admiral’s Cup, RORC races etc.

Around this time, Silva introduced the Sire 1000, the first with a single chip micro-controller.

In 1984, Noël Kerebel started NKE (Noël Kerebel Electronics) to design marine electronics instruments with a computer to manage and display speed, wind, depth and compass data. NKE was the first to design a electronic range with a microchip. Noël supplied the marketing and technical specifications to the company Micrel who designed the hardware and software. This was the CRM range. The NKE 2 range was launched two years later with the same architecture.

B&G introduced their first processor with built in polars, the 290, in 1984. This featured many of the simple instrument functions we take for granted now – target wind angle, target boat speed, reaching performance, tacking performance, rudder angle, heel angle, trim tab angle. It had 2 linear channels to measure anything that could produce a voltage (potentiometers, string pots etc) to measure loads and positions.

Bob Winson started Compusail in 1984, a DOS based application that interfaced with B&G 390, 690 & Hydra 300, KVH Quadro, Ockam or Signet SmarkPak. It was and is still highly regarded. It did most things apart from charting, including target boat speed and angle, data logging, performance evaluation and polar tables.

Shortly afterwards, Diverse started selling their ubiquitous load cells in 1985.

Meanwhile, Graeme Winn was continuing development of his PERQ system for real time data collection and tender operation from 1984 to 1987 through the Consorzio Italia, NZ AC Team and British Teams.

The second half of the 1980s continued the accelerating trend.

Peter Scholfield went public with Tacstar in 1985. This was sold with B&G 690 and 790 systems from 1993 to 1998 as Tactician and then became Seatrack. It even had automatic polar generation.

B&G released the 390 in 1986.

Graeme Winn started Deckman in 1987. By 1988, he had added isochronal routing using wind, current and tide. This used a HP 6800 based handheld device.

Concurrently, Dick McCurdy evolved his concept of Wallying – adjusting targets based on wind shift phase. The Ockam system on the Cup winning Stars & Stripes 87 was controlled by an HP71b calculator and included an interface with a rangefinder/digital compass to calculate enemy position relative to VMG.

Around 1990, Hasso Platner, the owner of SAP, had some of his employees create a racing application. It was running on DOS and interfaced to Ockam and B&G. He used it on his own yachts ABAP and Morning Glory. They created of algorithms to dynamically calibrate the wind instruments by sending data back to Ockam based on wind speed and other parameters. The software ran on a normal portable and Hasso had some of his engineers create a waterproof external display / keyboard with a cable that ran from the navigation area where the portable was placed to the back of the boat. The software had comparable functionality to the Deckman at that time, but was never commercialized.

In 1991, B&G released the 690 Fastnet based system, a development of the 390 with a separate performance processor polar and performance calculations. It featured 4 linear channels for measuring anything almost anything, such as rudder angle, forestay load etc. Matador 2 had the first big 690 system. B&G added an expansion processor for the 690 and Hydra 330 systems in 1992 to enable an extra 4 linear inputs. We (Exp, Dfw, Kiwitech etc) could also send any data from the nav computer to the 690’s remote channels for display on teh instruments. The 690 was rebranded over the years as 790 and then 2000.

In 1991, KVH took over DanaPlus from Denmark and produced the Quadro system from around 1992. It had target and polar speed, vmg, vmc, pitch angle, heel angle.

In 1991 NKE launched the Topline range . The Topline bus connected displays and sensors with a 3 wire bus. A year later, NKE added battery, loadcell and barometer sensors. Alain Gautier won the Vendee Globe with NKE instruments.

Also in 1991, Stan Honey wrote a DOS autopilot program that steered by the polars in 1991. The the pilot would sail to targets both upwind and downwind. He used it to set the double-handed Pacific Cup record in 1992, the singlehanded Transpac record in 1994 and win the Pacific Cup overall sailing double-handed in 1996. A Windows version of that software is still available from Alpha Marine Systems and runs on their autopilots.

Ockam updated their tactical and performance software to OS2 in 1992. This ran on an HP100 calculator.

By 1992, Deckman II ran on a TouchPC – a rugged waterproof device about the size of a brick. I recall still using these in 1997 for racing and testing. We even used VHF to conduct two boat testing with them! Ockam later used the same device for the ESP.

At this time, B&G and Navtec were both owned by Lewmar. Navtec was selling strain gauge transducer processing systems to send data to computers and instrument systems in 1993 and B&G had a custom Navtec FFD display that could read the proprietary NMEA sentences from the Navtec Model 91 Signal processor. The model 91 was preceded by the 1730 signal processor, year of introduction unknown.

The 1992 and 1995 Americas Cups in San Diego saw the introduction of larger budgets to sailing instruments and software. Every syndicate had its own software and hardware specialists to develop and modify instruments and software as required. Laser range finders were used and even sail shapes were measured – remember those large black ovals on the sails.

Silva launched their Nexus series, the first using the Nexus protocol.

I sailed the 1993/4 Whitbread on Yamaha. We had a B&G 690 system with performance processor, wind, speed, forestay load cell, GPS and a massive Inmarsat A satellite system in the bow. We also had rudimentary weather routing software (MacSea) and some custom data collection software. Unlike later races, the computer didn’t get a lot of use as the weather routing was of marginal benefit and the polars and targets in the performance processor sufficed.

Existing products such as Compusail, Deckman, Ockam and B&G advanced through use on the racetrack. One other system from this period that I became associated with was Kiwitech, started by Matthew Thompson in 1992. Matthew had worked for the New Zealand Americas Cup teams since the 1988 big boat challenge. Kiwitech furthered the spread of onboard tactical, navigation and performance analysis systems utilizing GPS, wind and other onboard instruments outside the Americas Cup. Kiwitech was sold to Raytheon in 1999 and became Raytech. I first worked with Matthew in the 1994/5 Tag Heuer Americas Cup.

Development of Deckman for Windows started in 1994. Weather routing using grib files was added in early 1997 for the upcoming Whitbread race, although it already had weather routing using user defined winds.

The genesis of Expedition is about here.

With the intention of doing a second Whitbread and wanting some decent tools for it, I started work on routing, performance, instrument and testing software after the Tag Heuer project in 1995. This project was initially called Tasman Navigator.

I started supplying some of this work for inclusion in Kiwitech products from the beginning of 1997. This arrangement was extended in 1998 to a percentage of all Kiwitech sales. Kiwitech was quite visionary for its time – Navionics charts, sail charts, weather, 2 way exchange of performance data with most instrument systems etc. It was widely used around the world – I still have a Kiwitech system from 1997/8.

In 1995, NKE designed an autopilot with Micrel, Philippe Raude and Michel Desjoyeaux that used an electronic gyro to use yaw rates to be able to drive the boat in rough seas whilst racing. The NKE pilot is still known as one of the best pilots. NKE was sold to Micrel in 1998 and Micrel was renamed NKE in 2003. A new processor and auto-pilot in 2005. The regatta processor arrived in 2009.

Tacktick, with their wireless, solar powered displays, was started in 1996 by Clive and Mark Johnson. Tacktick was purchased by Suunto in 2009 and is now owned by Raymarine.

The last Whitbread was in 1997/8. I was involved pre-race and specified a B&G 790 performance processor for calculation and display of boat, performance and target data. Wind sensors, GPS, speed sensor, heel and trim sensors, rudder angle sensor, forestay and downhaul load cells, air and sea temperature sensors, barometer, expansion processor for extra linear inputs and Inmarsat B. I used a combination of Exp, Kiwitech and Deckman for the pre-race sailing testing and performance evaluation, but everyone ran a combination of custom, Deckman, Kiwitech, MaxSea and Compusail software. The Exp alternating numbers idea dates back to mid-1997 as do the Expedition sail polars.

Explorer development continued solidly through to mid 1999 while I also worked in high precision GPS surveying. Exp was simple, but did all the basics Exp now does. It featured polars, data logging, sailing performance, load cells, PCX charting, grib weather and isochronal optimal routing. It could exchange data with B&G Hercules and NMEA systems as well as Trimble GPSs – see screen shots below of the 1998 sofware, in this case mapping linear 4 to a forestay load cell and sending performance data to the B&G performance processor and displays. Stripchart was called Tracer in those days. I used Exp in the 1997 Fastnet and Suva races for example.

An example of the Exp interface from 1998 to send performance data to B&G Hercules displays:


The late nineties saw the development of very high end systems leading up to the Auckland Americas Cup in 2000.

The first WTP with rate gyros was supplied to Spanish AC team in 1995. It was controlled via a Deckman II.

Ockam introduced OS3 for Windows 3 and the ESP brick, a waterproof handheld tactical computer, in 1997.

Racing Bravo, as used by the winning Americas Cup boats in 2007 and 2010, also had its genesis in Desafio AC from 1999. They used Octagon hardware (as did WTP), with something like 10 serial and 32 analog ports. This eventually became the Racing Bravo system.

Ockam launched their Tryad T1 system in 2000 and updated their tactical and instrument software to OS4 in 2002.

There were also attempts to provide lower end solutions in the late 90s such as Raymarine’s ST290, which had potential to be used as race processor, but abandoned that part of the market. Raytech could send data to ST290 and ST80 custom channels though.

Kiwitech was sold to Raytheon was completed in June 1999 and renamed Raytech. My weather routing and a few other things were included in the sale, so I contracted full time until mid 2000 developing Raytech. My first task in 1999 was to develop a new polar program based on the Exp polar interface. We also provided technical support for some of the 2000 Americas Cup teams such as Stars and Stripes and the Swiss (Be Happy) using Raytech with Ockam and B&G systems. I also developed the software the race committee used to start the races and even had a column on Virtual Spectator. Interestingly, Cyrille Douillet who now has Sailing Performance worked with us too.

I left the Raytech effort in mid-2000 to compete in the 2001/2 Volvo race with NewsCcorp. We used Exp almost exclusively for sail and performance testing, initially on an old Merit boat. Some things had to be redone from scratch as they had gone to Kiwitech, but these came out much better second time around. The optimal routing method now used, derived from an idea after the 1997 Volvo, is far superior to the original isochrone method. Our instrument system was standard for the time – B&G H2000 with a performance processor, a couple of load cells etc.

There was another Americas Cup in 2002 in Auckland. A lot of the teams used WTP hardware, but I was fortunate to work with Dick McCurdy of Ockam fame in the Stars and Stripes project, so Ockam support was added to Exp at this point. During this time the software evolved from its offshore racing/sail testing roots and buoy/match racing features began to be added including windward leeward course and starting line tools used by the S&S team. The software also grew some additional features as it was used by the Stars & Stripes weather team to monitor and analyse wind information from many sources including weather buoys and boats. We also adopted the name Expedition as Explorer was so widely used elsewhere. Daft name, but it seems to have stuck.

For the next few years, I sailed and gave copies of Exp to friends. Good friends including Peter Isler, Will Oxley and Campbell Field gave invaluable feedback and advice through these years. Due to increasing requests, I formed a company to sell Exp licences in 2005. Initially, sales were exclusively through Ockam Europe. US resellers started to be added in 2006 and the reseller network has slowly grown since. It is still a very small market though.

Silva added FDX support to their Nexus system in 2002 for faster exchange of data with tactical and performance applications. Garmin acquired Nexus from Kiwi Yachting in 2012.

B&G bought Sailmath (WTP and Deckman) in 2004. WTP was replaced with the WTP2 in 2005, featuring updated hardware and much better integration with the Fastnet bus and B&G displays. Wtp3 and the B&G Zeus display were announced in 2010. H5000 in 2014.

More recently, Cosworth (formerly Pi research) has started adapting their range of high end car racing (Formula 1 etc) electronics to sail boat racing.