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Will Data Help U.S. Sailing Get Back On The Olympic Podium?

We’re on the ground in Rio covering the 2016 Summer Olympics. Check out all our coverage here.

RIO DE JANEIRO — The U.S. sailing team left the 2012 London Olympics without any medals — it was the first time Americans had failed to place in an event since the 1936 Berlin games. They weren’t even that close, either. Sixteen sailors, across 10 events, and the best anyone managed at the 2012 London Olympics was fifth place. They were disappointed with the result, one that brought the failure of U.S. sailing — one of those sports we only really hear about every four years — to the forefront.

“It was really hard to watch, you could see it unfolding,” said Dean Brenner, the former chairman of U.S. Sailing’s Olympic Sailing Committee, about their performance in London. “And it was hard to deal with. It was was a very public stage, and we took our heat for it.” But Brenner was already on his way out after London, and the person taking over — Josh Adams — had four years to turn things around before sailing was back in the spotlight.

The first thing he did was get down to Rio.

Sailing is among the Olympic sports most influenced by environmental factors. “There’s quite a bit of randomness in our sport,” said Adams, the managing director of U.S. sailing. Despite the randomness, he said he knew that data acquisition would be paramount to the team’s success at the 2016 Olympics. “Rio de Janeiro was not a routine stop on the Olympic sailing circuit. There wasn’t an existing body of knowledge or data we could draw from, so as a team we had to start from scratch to learn about this venue,” he told me.

The geography of Guanabara Bay, the site of all of the 2016 sailing events, makes it one of the most unique and difficult sailing venues in the world. The large bay funnels out through a very small opening to the Atlantic Ocean, resulting in strong currents and erratic winds that whip around the 1,299-foot-tall Sugarloaf Mountain. And a lot can change from inside the bay — which is characterized by flat waters and a more complicated current — to outside the bay on the open ocean, where waves can reach 15 feet high.

So for the past three years, U.S. Sailing has been collecting data about Rio: about its currents, its winds, its tides, when the sun sets and where trash accumulates — any information that could potentially help the U.S. sailors better understand the complexities of Guanabara Bay and its seven race courses. While the exact location of courses on Guanabara weren’t finalized until the fall of 2015, test events in the two years prior gave Team USA a pretty good sense of where the races would be.

They dropped custom current buoys both inside and outside the bay, gathering data on how the water moves at various points throughout during the day. They tracked windspeed and direction, two factors that are critical to a sailor’s ability to find the fastest lane, and which can shift quickly around the mountains that flank both sides of the bay.

The three years of gathering and analyzing data culminated in what U.S. Sailing calls their “Rio Weather Playbook,” a body of critical information about each of the seven courses only available to the U.S. team. They’re not calling it a silver bullet, but Adams says the playbook project was one of the most comprehensive data efforts that U.S. sailing has ever done. “This is a unique undertaking for U.S. sailing,” he said. “In terms of the amount of time that we collected data, it’s one of the most extensive projects.”

A page from the U.S. Sailing Team’s “Rio Weather Playbook.”

U.S. Sailing Team

Jonathan McKee, a two-time Olympic medalist and the coach of Team USA’s Nacra 17 catamaran crew, has been in the sailing world for decades and said that data has always played a critical role in sailing. “It’s always been a data heavy sport, but the quality of the data has gotten better and better,” he told me as we sat on Flamengo Beach. “It used to be the really good data was only available to America’s cup and bigger boats, but now it’s come down to be more fine tuned for Olympic sailing.”

Even with the extensive weather playbook, the U.S. team’s preparation for Rio went beyond just daily forecasts of winds and currents. They also worked closely with Deltares, a water and subsurface research company, whose current prediction software aimed to help Team USA’s athletes understand not just the conditions before the race but what to expect during the race.

“The data can help you make sense of things that you see on the water, and it can help you predict what’s going to happen next,” said Helena Scutt, who’s racing the two-person 49erFX in Rio. “Our races can be up to an hour long, so the conditions can change a lot during that time, and this helps us be one step ahead.”

Even with all of this information available to them, a sailor’s ability to interpret changing conditions on the fly is part of what distinguishes great sailors from good sailors. They’re constantly weighing the historical data they have about a place and its conditions at that time against what they’re seeing and feeling during the race — no different from an NBA player digesting whatever stats the analytics team put into the scouting report and weighing that against what he sees on the court.

“The best sailors are able to take information, digest it, and then sort of grade it by confidence level,” said McKee. “During a race they’re able to say, ‘Yeah this is happening as the forecast predicted’ or ‘No this is totally different’ and then decide to go by what they see and what they feel instead.”

Interpreting the data correctly is as important as having good data to begin with. For instance, in slower boats like the Finn or the laser radial, information about the current is more important than it is for the quicker boats. Two knots of current on a boat that’s going four knots has a huge impact on those boats, but on a boat like the Nacra 17 going 15 knots, two knots isn’t as crucial. “The playbook is not precise for every class,” said McKee.

There are dozens of other variables beyond just weather conditions that sailors are trying to prepare the boat for — the position of its mast, the way the mast bends, how tight the shrouds are — but that often need to be adjusted during the race, too. You have to be able to understand the data, but you have to have good tactics, too, says McKee. “If you go the right way but you’re slow, you’re still going to be in trouble,” he said.

This information, intuition and technique is part of what makes sailing so conducive to good data work. “It’s one of those things you have to balance,” said Caleb Paine, a U.S. sailor racing Finn. “I try to think about the information I have on the trend for that day, while knowing that trends can change. I’ll always have that trend in the back of mind, but I’m looking out for things to start changing.”

Sailing isn’t just balancing data and intuition, it’s a game of risk, too. The entire regatta spans 10 days, across seven courses, and the winner is determined by the lowest total number of points after the last race (with double points awarded on the final medal race.) Sailors are constantly measuring risk and reward, deciding when it’s better to remain part of the fleet or gamble and break free.

As of Monday morning, Paine sat in fourth place overall ahead of Tuesday’s medal race, just 5 points behind the contender currently in bronze medal position. Scutt and her partner, Paris Henken, are in sixth place overall and 10 points from third place. Others, like Paige Railey on the laser radial, enter the final race mathematically eliminated from medal contention.

“There’s a lot in a sailor’s head when it’s time to race,” said McKee. “And a lot of it comes down to getting them in a mental state where they can apply what’s been learned, but also be free enough to actually sail in real time.” In other words, weighing three year’s worth of highly specific data against the data that you’re getting during the race — and being able to reconcile the two. Team USA has bet that good instincts combining with better data will carry it to medal contention before it’s off to Tokyo to begin the whole process again.

Allison McCann is a former visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

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