Q: Have you always been in to sailing? How did you get involved?
A: I tried to build a sailboat out of 2x4s and a bedsheet at age 6, but the boat was unfortunately a sinker. I learned to sail small boats at Boy Scout camp in Minnesota and then spent endless summer days sailing around our cabin lake in my youth. I really got into bigger boat (i.e. keelboats) sailing during graduate school at Stanford University in Silicon Valley. I used my flexible schedule during my PhD research to take lots of sailing classes, join a sailing club to sail 3+ times per week, became a sailing instructor, and even bought a 33 foot sailboat to live in over a three year period. I was racing on random boats several times per week. I would often spend the weekends anchored out in exotic places near San Francisco proper and then find myself making the four hour sail back to Silicon Valley on Monday afternoon. You could say I was living a Jack London lifestyle of sorts. In 2012, I sailed from San Francisco to Hawaii in the Pacific Cup; an incredible 13 day journey with a little bit of drama in the middle.
Q: When did you realize there was a need and a niche for forecasting the winds?
A:During my postdoc at the University of California Berkeley, the most prestigious sailing event in the world, the America’s Cup, was taking place in San Francisco. The sailboats are incredibly high tech and can sail 50 mph in 18 mph of wind. I was researching harmful turbulence in wind farms at the time using weather models. I could see the America’s Cup boats sailing in the bay every day and wondered if I could use the same weather model to forecast the complex winds of San Francisco Bay. So I spent an afternoon setting up the forecast and made some really crude wind maps of the race course. I was incredibly surprised to see how well my maps showed areas of high and low wind on the race course. I knew ahead of time based on my wind maps when the boats were going to slow down due to less wind. I started emailing my forecasts to the sailing community for free on Saturday mornings before big races. Eventually, I had 300 people on my email list demanding the forecasts almost every weekend. That’s when I decided to automate everything. Six months later, SailTactics.com was born and I had my first paying subscriber.
Q: Why is predicting the wind so difficult, and what’s the science behind it?
A:Many people think that weather, and therefore wind, is random. It’s more appropriately defined as chaotic. There are some things you can’t predict, like the timing of wind gusts. But large scale drivers of the weather are predictable, especially on shorter timeline. I’ve had to train my customers to use the latest forecast - the morning of their sailing race. Chaotic systems like the weather are much easier to predict on shorter timescales.
Q: You are also a wind energy consultant. How is sailing related to wind energy in your mind?
A: Quite simply, when you use a wind turbine or a sailboat, your fuel is free. The wind is always blowing somewhere and sailors have studied and used global wind patterns to travel vast distances for over a thousand years. The U.S. is now the number one producer of wind energy in the world, at 5% of the U.S. electricity supply. We’re on track to achieve 20% of our electricity from wind by 2030. Although the winds can stop blowing at a single location, we know wind patterns well enough across the nation to achieve high reliability in our electricity supply using lots of wind power. Just as a sailor can set off on a long voyage across an ocean knowing the wind patterns shall deliver them in so many days, we know roughly how reliable a large, geographically disperse set of wind farms will be based on historical wind patterns and also state-of-the-art wind forecasting.
Q: What does it mean to be a forecaster?
A: Nowadays, it’s really a much different profession. Computers have become quick and accurate enough to do a better job than a human forecaster much of the time. The required skill now is being able to tune the weather model to perform the best under the most common weather conditions. In reality, a supercomputer starts running every morning and uploads a bunch of data to Amazon to create pretty maps… all automatically. But, there’s still a need for human analysis.
Q: Who uses this service and how do they benefit from it?
A: Mostly racing sailors utilize the service at SailTatics.com. They can see in pretty high detail three days ahead of their race what the overall winds are going to be during their race. They can start to plan how long the race might take, how heavy of sails to bring, and if they need more crew if the winds will be heavy. Then on the morning of the event, they’re given a super-detailed wind maps. The forecast isn’t always “spot on,” but when it is, it’s a huge advantage for the boat using it.
Q: What brought your business to Corpus Christi?
A: Honestly, a twist of fate. My partner Lindsey ended up, unexpectedly, getting her family medicine residency here. We got a phone call from Bay Area Medical Center asking if we wanted to move to Corpus Christi. We had only five minutes to decide. My first question was, “Where is Corpus Christi?” as I had never been to Texas at that point. I immediately hit Google Maps, found it near the Gulf of Mexico, and also found the city’s reputation for wind. As being near water was our number one priority, as Lindsey also loves to sail, it seemed like a great fit. So we said yes. I also got in touch was the Coastal Bend Business Innovation Center and was thrilled to find a business incubator/accelerator in the area, where my business now lives. We’re really happy here. I’ve fallen back in love with fishing and spend much of my spare time now kayak fishing. I’ve also started working on a fishing calendar application that tells you what days to fish called WeatherForFish.com.