Royal Perth Yacht Club Develops Ground-breaking Starting Flag Technology

In 2011, Royal Perth Yacht Club (RPYC) was issued a Race Control challenge by the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) for the Perth 2011 World Championships: ensure that flag hoists on start boats were six metres above the waterline, with the flags measuring 1000mm x 800mm.

Technology usually develops over a lengthy period of time, and often acceptance is protracted as the sceptics rage against change (consider the development of the aeroplane, from Da Vinci’s concept to execution by the Wright Brothers).

At RPYC, things are done differently.

The challenge was accepted and several regular and very mature yachties at the Club took on the task, including John Rosser, Commodore Kel Quinlan (dec.) and Hunter Gillies. Standing at the Wardroom Bar following Wednesday racing with glasses of red wine of dubious origin, they began to wrestle with the problem of how to raise these large starting sequence flags on time and instantaneously – not the three seconds any fit starting team would require.

Applying logic that only develops over years of post-race analysis, the first prototype rig was manufactured at the formerly unknown facility of Snake Gully Engineering. The design was agricultural in nature, consisting of a tube mounted 5.2 metres above the waterline of the start boat ORPYC, in which the flag of regulation size was secluded on a stick that was raised by a fast-moving operator pulling a string.

This led to a more animated discussion at the design centre (the RPYC Wardroom) where bungies were incorporated to give an enhanced performance. Test results were encouraging, and attention could then shift to the requirement to be on time, as is often a challenge for those managing the start sequence.

By this time, the consumption of beer mats and Club biros was considerable, and the design advisory team had grown significantly.

The question was raised: “Why not use compressed air to drive these flags to their appointed position?”

This solution would meet the requirement of speed-raising while also eliminating potential operator strain, fatigue or injury.

The design/development team, dedicated to the cause and motivated by the challenge and performance bonus offered, made a great leap forward by incorporating pneumatic raising and lowering, so long as the operator had the timing under reasonable control with clock in left hand and switch finger ready to signal on the right.

They didn’t stop there, for engineers cannot help themselves when technology can and must advance. The design was updated to include the incorporation of automatic control driven by a clock, triggered in turn by GPS time.

RPYC recognised that the reliable and accurate starting system was critical to a fair competition for all participants, because Olympic selection would depend, in large part, on these results.

RPYC sent a formal delegation to the USA to convince ISAF representatives knowledgeable of racing starts that this technology was the greatest breakthrough in flag-raising since Nelson’s time. ISAF approved the system, but many sceptics remained pessimistic. How would it perform on race day? What of operator error, equipment failure, or other opportunities for things to go wrong?

The system’s performance spoke for itself at the Perth 2011 ISAF World Championships:

  • 31 women’s match racing teams
  • 444 race starts over 14 days
  • Approximately 5,000 flag movements with associated integrated sound signals
  • All signals controlled by GPS timing with flags raised and lowered almost instantaneously, having only to be rammed 8000mm from and to the tube

The competitors and the ISAF officials were very complementary regarding the system performance, clarity of the signals, and of RPYC’s conduct of the Championships, while recognising the exceptional performance under challenges presented by weather, the venue with high ship and boat traffic, and the number of flights to be completed.

Since then, the dedicated team of inventors, buoyed by the results, have continued to challenge themselves to improve the system. In keeping with improvements in technology, the system now includes a touch-screen and a fully designed package which can be tailored to suit the start needs of fleet, match, teams-racing and more.

Today, the Rosser Start System, affectionately named after its inventor, John Rosser, is, to our knowledge, still the only system of its kind used around the world.

Benefits of the System

  • Flags are displayed to all competitors at precisely the same time and always at GPS time
  • Race officer can singularly control all flag movements with sound signals
  • Race officer can easily select any penalty starting flag as needed. (P, U, I)
  • Race officer can be positioned anywhere while being able to activate all signals (start of a match, individual recall, general recall, AP) from a handheld control unit.
  • Race officer receives a warning buzzer prior to every major event (such as an entry, elapsed time, start etc.), to alert them of an important function.
  • In the case of an AP or general recall, this system records that activity, waits for the next command to be activated, and will subsequently remove the first command prior to the next start.
  • The system will produce a log of all starting activities.
  • Specialised programs can be installed in the system, if required.

More recently, the system has been used to start the Warren Jones International Youth Regatta (2012 – 2019), and numerous national, state and Club events.

Secondary Benefit – Reducing the Demand on Volunteers

Race Management Volunteers can often be difficult to recruit for a number of reasons, including the long-term commitment needed, the intensive training and level of expertise required, and the vast difference in the methods used for each style of racing, whether fleet, match, teams, etc. In addition, the fierce competitiveness of sailors can see the start team rebuked for the slightest error.

The simplicity of the system requires less training required for volunteers, and results in less stress and less fatigue for operators with split second accuracy at the press of a button!

It’s a win all around.