When Swiss yacht Alinghi won the 2003 Americas cup from Team New Zealand, it wasn't just the result of a badly timed snapped mast or the presence of New Zealand sailors on the opposing side - behind the scenes Australian science played a critical role in providing accurate weather predictions for the Swiss team, particularly at the all-important starting line.
The CSIRO was contracted by the Alinghi syndicate to apply its new global climate model to pre-race predictions. Race rules require that all communication with the outside world must cease five minutes before the start of the race, so conveying as much accurate information as possible about expected wind behaviour and translating data - collected from weather boats around the course - into an effective forecast model is paramount.
The global climate model used, called the conformal-cubic model (CCM), is based on the projection of the globe onto a cube that enables greater stretching or "zooming" in on small regions of the globe. The expert race forecasts made by CSIRO scientist Jack Katzfey were based on the projection of this global model down to the 1km grid over the Hauraki Gulf where the race was held.
This clearest example of the model's effectiveness during the third race of the final series - a wind change detected just before the start of the race was identified by the CCM as a crucial wind shift. This convinced the Alinghi's crew to head for the right-hand side of the course to take advantage of the eventuating shift and snatch the initial lead that was maintained throughout the race.
Alinghi's weather team leader, Jon Bilger, said the forecasts were crucial to the team's ability to predict changes in racing conditions. The system runs on a laptop PC over the internet and its efficiency enables wireless communication in the final seconds before communications with the yacht must cease. Longer term forecasting is also used with teams selecting the appropriate sails to use for each race day following a morning briefing.
In addition to the modelling system, Dr Katzfey developed new ways to display weather observations on board the yacht. The role of this display software was to collate measurements taken from seven weather boats, more than 40 meteorological stations and satellites and display them effectively in real-time observations in a variety of different ways.
The modelling and display software is adaptable to anywhere in the world and may have numerous other applications in areas such as understanding future energy demand.
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