Sailing the high-tech seas
July 12, 1999
by David Needle
(IDG) -- Philippe Kahn is out to sea, but never out of touch.
Kahn, the colorful entrepreneur behind Borland International, Starfish Software, and a new Internet company called LightSurf, is skipper of a high-tech yacht hoping to win a grueling 2225-mile race from Los Angeles to Hawaii.
As of late Thursday Kahn's boat, the Pegasus, had completed two-thirds of the race and was in fourth place.
Are we having fun yet?
As an old saying goes, yacht racing is like taking a cold shower while ripping up $100 bills. And although Pegasus is one very fancy yacht, its crew is hardly living the good life.
"The considerable cost of these giant race boats [several million dollars for each boat] is not spent in luxury amenities, but in super-high-tech designs that are all executed using state-of-the-art aerospace composite technology," says Kahn. "We sleep in carbon fiber bunks. The only table in this huge yacht is the navigation station," which has many computer systems and a full network running.
"The goal in these boats is to make them super light and over-power them with huge sails in order to go very fast. We divided the crew of 12 into two watches. Each watch is on for 4 hours and off for 4 hours. You never sleep more than 2 to 3 hours in a row."
Who's out there?
If you were on the yacht, it might be easy to forget there was a race going on but for the frenetic activity of the crew. "We haven't seen a single boat in the whole race," says Kahn. On Wednesday the Pegasus averaged 14 knots over 24 hours with a top speed of 22.7 knots -- very high speed for a sailboat. "With more wind we'll go faster," says Kahn.
In a long race like this, Kahn says, it's easy for the participants to put considerable distance between themselves. The farthest anyone can see across the ocean is about six miles. And while the other boats are equipped with e-mail and some have Iridium phones, Kahn says they don't communicate with each other. ("Offshore sailing is a very competitive sport!")
Race participants are not supposed to receive help from the outside beyond daily weather maps. But the Pegasus has three notebook computers on board to help interpret the maps, plot strategy, and plan tactics. Kahn wrote a few simple programs he says help optimize decision making.
"We don't have the biggest or the fastest boat, but we can be smarter and more aggressive," says Kahn. Aggression has its limits at sea, though; another yacht capsized on Wednesday and the crew was rescued by Coast Guard helicopter.
In my interview, the connection via the Iridium phone was as good as a very good cell phone connection; in fact it was all too much like a cell phone call. The connection was fine for about 10 minutes, then there was static, sentence fragmentation, and disconnection. One minute later Kahn reconnected and the interview finished without a problem.
"You can't replace the cell phone," says Kahn. "This is technology for where there is no land-based infrastructure like if you're going to go to the Amazon, or out on an oil rig." The Iridium phone won't work indoors because it has to have a line of sight to the satellite that makes the connection to the phone network. Kahn also uses the Iridium pager, which is the only global pager that can connect from anywhere in the world.
The 40th Transpac race is sponsored by Iridium North America, a global telephone and paging company. Through a constellation of 66 low-earth-orbit satellites circling the globe, customers can make or take calls and receive pages in the most remote regions on Earth. After developing the initial concept, Motorola incorporated Iridium as a separate company in 1991.
Kahn became an advisor to Motorola's top brass after the company bought Starfish last year. He remains chief executive officer of Starfish and chair of Lightsurf.
After such a tough race, will Kahn kick back and enjoy Hawaii? Yes, he will until his wife and kids meet him. Then they'll jet off to his idea of a real vacation: helicopter-snowboarding in New Zealand.
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