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Allen Brothers

Introducing The Boat Timer App - Running club races with fewer people (and a computer)

by Ian Cherrill 30 May 00:30 PDT
Boat Timer app © Ian Cherrill

As sailing clubs in the UK are opening some of their facilities after the CoronaVirus pandemic crisis, they have also considered a limited return to racing. There is a problem with providing safety cover as proximity to those needing assistance is inevitable, but the race team is also an issue as it requires a team of volunteers working closely together.

Even before the crisis, most clubs faced a decline in the number of people available for race teams. This seems to be due to the time pressures of modern life as well as less regular participation in sailing and competition with other sports and interests.

The expectations of instant information on our mobile devices puts pressure on volunteers who collate and publish racing results. Sailors want to know the results of a race as soon as it is over, rather than wait for results to appear on the club website hours or days later. This makes the management of results a rather thankless task at times.

Using Technology

So some clubs have started to think about ways to automate part of the process of managing a race and the race results. Most sailors are familiar with Sailwave for managing results, SailRacer to manage event entries, results and providing GPS tracking services and HAL for results and race management.

My own app Boat Timer has a different focus and concentrates on making tracking and timing of club races easier and therefore reducing the number of people required to run races. The Boat Timer app is free and there is no need to register to use it. I have been a dinghy sailor most of my life and as a professional app developer this is my way to try to give something back to the sport.

What Is Wrong With Paper?

Many clubs record race entries, lap times and finish times on paper. So why not carry on? My own experiences - and what led me to write Boat Timer - was that the simplicity of paper is out-weighed by a number of disadvantages.

Timing Finishes

The main disadvantage of a paper system is timing finishes. This can turn into a nightmare with multiple starts/fleets on the course at one time and the pressure of trying to write down finish times and sail numbers when several boats get to the finish line close to each other. I know some club races that have been abandoned and many results have been estimated because of this issue alone. Some clubs have video recording in case results are missed, but it takes time to review more than a couple of finishes so it is not as useful as it sounds.

Publishing Results

When I finish a race I want to know where I came. Knowing that makes your post-race cup of tea with your fellow sailors much more interesting. But especially for handicap races, results recorded on paper can take hours or days to be published. What we all want is the results on the club notice board as soon as we have finished changing (if not sooner).

Watching A Race

Is sailing a spectator sport? Well not usually. But if you go to a junior open meeting you will know the parents are desperate to know how their child is doing. A fleet of boats with GPS trackers makes it possible, but for club races and open meetings it is difficult to organise and difficult to justify the cost. It would be great to see the lap times and finish times as the race team records them, but if you use a paper-based system that is not going to happen.

Getting Race Entries

You probably have a sheet to sign on to a race, though some clubs have done away with that. In any case, the race officer has to get the class and sail number for the boats in the race written down somehow, which can take time. It would be nice to have a list of "the usual" boats from previous club races to avoid all that writing.

My Handwriting Is Perfectly Legible

That is clearly an eight, I have no idea why you thought it was a three.

The Boat Timer App

So I wrote Boat Timer to address some of these problems. Boat Timer runs on laptops (Apple Macbook, Windows, Chromebook, Linux etc) and on tablets (there is an Android app but no iPad one). So it will work on most devices. It is not good for phones simply because the screen size is not big enough to be useful (unless you have a very large phone).

What It Looks Like

Boat Timer's main screen is a grid of squares that represent the boats in the race. Within each race you can have multiple starts for different fleets and as the race progresses you record lap times for the boats, which means you can easily see who is leading each fleet and check the fastest/slowest time if you need to shorten course.

What It Does

The app remembers boats from previous races (in the "Boat Park") so you can quickly include them in today's race without re-entering the details.

Each box has a finish button so, as boats cross the finish, you can record the exact time with one click (or press, if you have a touch screen). You record lap times the same way.

Once the race is over, the app produces a list of results (including corrected times if you use a system like Portsmouth Yardstick) for each fleet that you can print off and pin up in the club or export as a CSV file for systems like Sailwave to use.

The app is free and works without an internet connection, so if you are looking for something like this please try it out here.

Boat Timer Future Stuff

There are some other Boat Timer features in the next version that streamline things a bit further. The database system behind the app can sync information to the cloud, so if you have an internet connection at any point in the process this allows you to do some extra things.

Running and maintaining a cloud service costs money, so although the Boat Timer app is free, the cloud services - if you decide to use them - will have a monthly fee when available.

Live Race Progress

If the race team has an internet connection, Boat Timer can sync the lap times and finishes with the cloud so anyone with a computer/phone/tablet can see the progress of the race as it happens.

Sign-On Mode

Boat Timer already has a "sign-on" mode for competitors to sign into a race themselves. This is not that helpful unless the race team are going to physically take the laptop with them after everyone has finished signing on.

But with the cloud services in the next version, you can have one computer for signing on and another with the race team so that entries appear automatically for them as each sailor signs in.

Further into the future it will be possible to sign on from your phone and avoid the queue in the clubhouse.

Postscript

So that was an introduction to Boat Timer and the possible future of dinghy race management. I hope it has at least given you some ideas about how to make running races easier at your club.

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