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The Myth of Rod Butler

Sailing Fiction by Tay Vaughan, 11/28/83

On a windy September weekend in 1983, Rod Butler's name was added to the chronicles of San Francisco Bay's yacht racing folklore. It wasn't his yacht, though, that put him there, it was a computer. And indeed, the computer may in the end become more famous than Butler himself!

Everyone at the Yacht Club knew Rod Butler. Despite his strikingly diminutive stature of some five and a half feet, he was nevertheless one of those rare energetic persons who take up a lot of space in a room full of people. Butler emanated a special aura of Presence and Purpose and, as most Club members would agree, he had a reputation for being uncannily smart and impeccably straight-forward. He was the driving force behind a successful computer company in Silicon Valley and, while chronically lean on spare time, he spent most of it in serious saltwater sailing competition aboard his modern-built and classically-named 36- foot yacht, Prudence.

Butler wasn't loud or pushy or prone to the usual hollow boasting during ritual pre-race challenging and side-betting among skippers and crews at the Yacht Club bar, but he was treated with great respect, much of which may be attributable to an oft-recounted story. It was widely known that during a pre-race luncheon in 1981, Butler had offered two minutes of start lead to Pete Olaf, his class rival, if this portly man would simply share with him a plate of salami cold cuts. But according to the finer points of Butler's proposition they would eat only the caper-sized white parts of the imported salami! Olaf had been the only participant intestinally undisturbed by local food and water after the Mazatlan race earlier that year and had loudly boasted that he could eat anything; Olaf accepted the challenge with apparent glee. Carefully separating greasy white tidbits from red amidst cheers and guffaws, together they dined upon a quarter pound mound of glistening salami roe using tiny crab forks. Olaf drank copious amounts of Coors beer while Butler sipped on Perrier. That afternoon the rival withdrew from racing in only moderate seas. Olaf had succumbed to a strange prickly sweat which left him so discomforted and upset that he fouled his genoa sheets during a sloppy tack and ripped the big sail at the clew. Butler was later overheard discussing the interaction of certain fats with high-nitrogen amino acids and their combined effect upon north-European genotypes, further admitting that if his rival hadn't imbibed the Coors catalyst in addition to the salami whitemeats, the season would certainly have ended quite differently. Some members thought at the time that this pre-meditated trick clearly stretched the limits of fair play, but Butler was a likable and matter-of-fact kind of guy, and the grumblings attenuated after a few weeks into a generally shared awe. Olaf had, in the end, recovered without lasting debility and Butler himself had sailed another perfect race, albeit having started some two minutes after the gun.

Butler's quantum leap into the select annals of folklore began during the winter of 1982, when he first outlined the requirements for an interactive, fully-integrated and computer-driven navigational system for his ocean racer. The decisions and operations that win races, he felt, could be clearly reduced to a series of simulations in a computer model. After all, pilots fly thousands of accurate miles in digital jet trainers without leaving the ground, and for his nautical simulation he could draw upon plenty of qualified help and a factory with state-of-art hardware and software capability to give him a hand. So Butler began to collect information and apply expertise.

He visited the National Weather Service at Redwood City (not too far from his office), and persuaded the director to download twenty-five years' worth of data into his company's mainframe at the plant. Julie Barstow then wrote a complex program to provide wind speed and direction baselines for San Francisco Bay waters, extrapolating to square half-mile tolerances from the data of twelve source stations and from charts of local terrain features such as slots in the hills and wind shadows behind islands. And from the Army Corps of Engineers research facility at Sausalito, John Wolfschwanntz kindly forwarded tide and current data tobe interfaced with the weather program.

By January, Butler was busy in the R&D shop, attaching analog/digital interfaces to a long list of yacht racing instruments: he had scrounged an old Aquameter compass, a Kenyon log, and the masthead sender for a Combi apparent wind indicator. He also made up a few new instruments, like a magnetic clinometer with its own damping processor to measure pitch and roll, and he made strain gauges for his sheet winches. When he was done, each instrument looked distinctly military and very functional, with about a dozen color-coded and harnessed :It: 18 wires emerging from grommeted ports. Butler then spent another two thousand dollars for a SiTex 747 SatNav unit. He was serious, could afford it, and he needed to know where he was on the earth to within fifty feet of his true position.

Meanwhile, Julie Barstow wanted more to do (she was turning this project into a Master's Thesis at Santa Clara). So Butler had her set up the main logic and algorithms for the simulation program while he worked on the applications side, getting all of the sensor input to multiplex into a small Atari home computer which had been expanded with bubble memory to 256K. Early in March, he hauled Prudence at the local boatyard for her annual coat of antifouling bottom paint and spent an extra four days installing special thru-hull fittings, antennas, smooth power supplies and masthead sensors. By then, of course, snippets of rumor at the Yacht Club bar could be stacked up like dominoest but Butler did not yield to gently inquisitive crowbars like "What the hell are you putting on your boat,tight Rod?"

The racing season began in late April and Julie needed another thirty to sixty days to complete her software model. With time getting tight Butler deftly reached into the company's pocket and assigned two programmers to assist her on this unnumbered project. In theory they would test the navigation and tactics simulation under artificial conditions at the shopt then simply plug in real sensor data when they mounted the system aboard the boat. The first weeks of April were spent pushing joysticks in front of a large-screen television debugging and fine tuning Julie's algorithms and verifying navigation chart displays.

Now Butler was already a good racer and competitors were used to following him around the course hoping that he would lose a mast or hit a sunken deadhead or tear a sail (all in good fun of course). So it was with no surprise that Butler won the first racet beating poor Pete Olaf by about a minute and a half after twenty miles of sailing up and down the Bay. What was of interest however were the intermittent conversations overheard between Julie Barstow and Butler on VHF radio. "Rod t it's 16 at 340 ... " she repeated throughout the racet varying both numbers from time to time. Julie had discovered a hollow spot in the meterological data along the coastal hills north of the Golden Gate. In order to make the simulation work she volunteered to provide wind speed and direction readings every few minutes during the race. Butler entered them by hand into the on-board computer. It was a required nuisance but Julie ventured that she actually enjoyed this quiet timet sitting in her van at the scenic outlook with a portable transmitter in one hand and a diet Pepsi in the other.

The results of the first race were more than just encouraging to Butler and his friends. With Julie's wind readings filling the gap, all the predictors had worked out perfectly, although Butler twice had to override the computer due to tidal eddies which he knew about but wasn't sure were known to the computer. Having told the computer where the race buoys and marks were, the computer (now known affectionately as "Buzzer", pronounced with a decidedly deep-throat French slur halfway between "bosom" and "flair" because of the sounds it made when directing tension to the jib sheets> had optimized the course and indicated not only what direction to steer but also how to set the sails for best performance.

The next two races were record-setting. With Julie dutifully relaying wind data and Buzzer delivering course and trim commands, Prudence made unprecedented finishes, the first some fourteen minutes ahead of the next boat over the line, and the second an incredible twenty-two minutes. Prudence had deviated significantly from the conservative course chosen by most of the skippers and at one point had sailed almost out of sight of the pack in order to take advantage of the predicted better current and wind. Indeed, some competitors had believed Prudence had withdrawn, and were rudely surprised to see her on a fast beam reach, coming out of nowhere at the finish. Such deviations, of course, do not pass unnoticed at the Yacht Club bar, and Butler was finding it increasingly difficult to remain polite before frontal assaults of curiosity Jim Heavingston of the Examiner featured these latest wins in his Sunday column. It was apparent that Butler would win the series hands-down.

During the next-to-last race in August, Butler again deviated markedly from the expected course. This time, however, when he pulled off the layline and made for the optimal conditions outlined carefully by Buzzer, a handfull of bolder skippers followed his lead on blind faith and were rewarded with top places at the finish. His strange tactics were beginning to have a marked impact on the racing style of everyone. Some members had begun to discuss him as a candidate for Americas Cup skipper in Australia in 1986.

So it was that during the final race of the season Butler discovered whenever he made the unusual course changes commanded by Buzzer, a retinue of boats tagged along. In fact, for about as far as he could see, most of his competition followed one after another in his wake, no matter what crazy maneuvers he made. Julie, from her perch in the hills offered to Butler by radio that she had seen this before in a children's book, and they chuckled about geese, sheep, and human nature. Julie also, however, cautioned Butler about a fast-moving bank of fog dropping off the headlands onto the northern part of the race course.

By this time Butler was growing a bit bored; Buzzer had been doing all the thinking of late and Prudence, of course, was in top-notch performance. The sight of his competition strung out behind in a daisy chain and the good laugh he had had with Julie suddenly triggered in him a spike of the same pranksterism that was the genesis of the salami-eating contest some two years before. He called Julie Barstow and suggested that she pack it in and meet him later at the Club for dinner. He'd manage just fine for the rest of the race.

In the northern part of San Francisco Bay, it shoals into shallow mud flats and sand bars a good distance from shore, and navigators are warned to stay in the marked channels, although locally knowledgable yachtsmen regularly take short cuts and chances on clear days in order to win races. Trailing his daisy chain of boats and humming to himself, Butler sailed into the fog bank. In San Francisco's peculiar fog, the wind tends to blow heavily as cool air rushes landward to fill California's hot interior valleys, and Prudence's speed picked up to about eight knots. When the wind blows harder, a sailboat often heels over further. And when heeled, the boat's keel is lifted further from the bottom. Sailboats can traverse shallower waters in this attitude, although it is not commonly done.

Butler punched up the detailed local chart on Buzzer's console, carefully plotted a new course, and the rest is history. Coast Guard documents report seventeen calls for aid from the fog bank and they dispatched three search-and-rescue cutters with long towing ropes to drag boats from the mud. While later official reports claimed human error in all cases, the young coxwain who took the required statements from angry skippers had a decidedly difficult time keeping a straight face after the third stranded boatman mentioned the name of Rod Butler. Butler himself had, it seems, sashayed along a very carefully guided course known only to him and to Buzzer's bubble memory, sailing a tight navigational window which became immediately closed to the competition by a rapidly falling tide. Heeled over to thirty degrees and drawing but three feet of water instead of her usual five when at rest, Prudence had slid across the mudbanks, tacking finally into the deeper channel closer to shore. Not only was Butler first to cross the finish line, he was also the last.

At the unusually empty Yacht Club bar, Butler told Julie that perhaps they should now introduce Buzzer to the rest of the world. There was, certainly, sufficient real interest.