By Sigurd Neubauer
Sailing around the world is becoming easier and safer.
Are you accustomed to using Waze or Google Maps to reach your destination? Imagine for a moment that you’d like to cross the Atlantic Ocean from let’s say Portland, Maine, to Hamburg, Germany. What would be the best, safest, and fastest route? And how can one avoid everything from storms to high waves? Whether you’re on a 30-foot sailboat, a catamaran, or on a mega yacht crossing the Atlantic, or any other ocean for that matter, PredictWind, has developed a navigation app providing customized weather forecasts for sailors.
The Auckland, New Zealand-based company was founded in 2010 by Jon Bilger, a competitive sailor who has won numerous international competitions. As a life-long sailing enthusiast, which he shares with his wife, Tracy, and their two daughters, 18 and 20, the entrepreneur began sailing with his father as a young child.
“My father, Jock, has represented New Zealand at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics and at the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics. As children, we used to follow him around the world with his Olympic Campaigns,” Bilger recalls, adding: “I remember these excursions vividly. Now, he’s a big fan of our product and has used it for his own sailing.”
The father, who is now 86, was also twice silver medalist at World Olympic Flying Dutchman Yachting championships in 1971 and 1975.
The Bilgers invested all family resources in developing PredictWind
Sailing: A family tradition
“One night while dad was working on his boat, I overheard him talking to his crew, but he didn’t know that I was listening as I was in the kitchen. Dad’s crew, Murray, asked dad: ‘When is Jon going to learn how to sail,’ to which he responded: ‘Nah, he’s too young and he doesn’t have any money either,” Bilger recalls. He was seven years old at the time. The next day, he went to his father and told him that he has $300 saved and asked him if he could build him a boat, which he did. “This is how it all got started.”
Like his father had done before him, Bilger represented New Zealand at the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics. His father was also at the Barcelona Games as the New Zealand coach for the Finn class, he reveals.
After the Olympics, Bilger’s first job was in the 1995 America’s Cup as navigator, for the Tag Heuer campaign. “Before moving to San Diego for the Cup I married Tracy and then I worked seven-days a week for nine months and only took 3 days off,” he recalls.
Both daughters, Lucy and Stella are also sailors. Lucy is Kite foil racing and Stella races the iQFoil. Lucy took a gap year and worked for the company for a year, “but she didn’t report to me,” the entrepreneur says with a laugh, adding that “although she wasn’t initially keen to work for the company, when she did, she was amazed by what we do.”
Before establishing PredictWind, which is privately owned by the Bilger family, Bilger distinguished himself by winning the following competitions:
- New Zealand National Champion in multiple dinghy classes
- 7th 1992 Olympic Games in 470 Olympic Class
- Navigator for TAG Heuer in the 1995 America’s Cup
- Alinghi Weather Team Manager – Winner of the America’s Cups in 2003/2007
- Alinghi Weather Team Manager 2010 Dog Match
“Because of my experiences as a competitive sailor, I knew that winning a race requires accurate weather forecasting, which is why we extended our technology services to both professional yachtsmen and the recreational sailor,” Bilger explains, adding that the company has over 1 million subscribers. The company offers a three-tier subscription-based services, of which the first level is free. The basic package – which is the second tier – is for people who are land-based who may go sailing, fishing or windsurfing but operate in a coastal environment. The third level are for those traveling offshore for ocean crossings.
Bilger, along with his wife, leaned on his background in engineering coupled with sailing expertise to build their company. Bilger also got some assistance from his uncle, Bob Bilger, who was a professor of engineering at the University of Auckland with identifying the various existing technologies in the marketplace. Together, the entrepreneur collaborated with Jack Katzfey of The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), an Australian government entity, with developing meteorology technology. Katzfey was initially going to be a business partner but was ultimately unable to do so because he was a civil servant, Bilger explains. “At the time, we knew the data was incredible and we thought about what we could do so that sailors around the world could benefit from it,” he recalls. “The modeling technology was originally developed by the CSIRO over a period of 20 years and was publicly available,” he says. “Katzfey set up the modeling for us during the initial stages,” he adds.
“While ‘everyone’ on the America’s Cup team fancied themselves as weather experts, after a while they began to trust the technology more than their own judgements, which gave us the confidence to start PredictWind.”
Continues Bilger: “At the time, we were a bit naïve as we thought that all that was required was an accurate weather forecast. How hard could it be! What became apparent was the challenge to design an interface that was easy to understand and interpret. The aesthetics would determine whether people would purchase the product. The interface and the data went hand in hand. A core component was the CSIRO technology, but its initial model had been limited to one area whereas PredictWind would build on it so that it could cover over 520 high resolution areas around the world by providing real-time high-resolution imageries. Getting this system to work reliably was a massive undertaking,” Bilger explains.
PredictWind had to develop the tools to interpret the weather and one of the tools is called Weather Routing, which “calculates one’s route to avoid rough seas, strong winds, land, and shallow water to ensure a safe and efficient passage. Every route is calculated using the highest resolution forecast data,” Bilger explains. This technology enables the sailor to determine the fastest and safest route using a computational mesh. The tool can measure how the boat will perform in the impending weather and wave conditions. The technology can also run through what the entrepreneur describes as “billions of scenarios” that factor in wind and wave conditions for the sailor’s course. “Unlike before, when one had to download the images and study them for 30 minutes before setting off, now it works like Google Maps; all that needs to be done is setting up the start and end points – and along with it, comes the weather conditions along that route.”
Unlike before, when one had to download the images and study them for 30 minutes before setting off, now it works like Google Maps; all that needs to be done is setting up the start and end points – and along with it, comes the weather conditions along that route: Bilger
“We have since taken it to the next level because quite often the main challenge is not the wind but rather the wave conditions. What our technology does is provide hydrodynamic modeling based on the type and size of the boat – whether it is for a small sailboat, a catamaran, or a superyacht – how it will respond to every possible wave condition the boat can possibly encounter,” he explains. It will forecast wave motions such as boat slamming, roll and vertical acceleration, which Bilger prefaces as it is quite dangerous for both the crew and boat. His technology even allows one to predict wave conditions and how they would impact seasickness. “This feature keeps people safe,” he adds.
The entrepreneur points out that about 50 percent of his customers are experienced sailors whereas the other half have captured the sailing dream from YouTube videos. “They sell their homes and buy a sailboat with the goal of traversing the world. Some have little to no sailing experience, so we give them the technology to help them to be safe at sea. Our information is part of their arsenal in keeping safe at sea.”
Although PredictWind is not targeting the cargo industry, Bilger reveals that he’s in talks with representatives from the cruise ship industry who have requested modeling for their vessels. “This is definitely an area in which we could possibly move into but so far we’ve focused on the recreational market,” he says.
The company also wants to target the fishing and surfing markets, respectively. “We have developed a ‘PredictFish’ and ‘PredictSurf’ App, along with a new product, ‘PredictCurrent,’ which we’re just about to release. “We’re always coming up with new ideas,” the entrepreneur says with a laugh.
The company has over 50 employees, of which 13 are computer developers. “We have been very fortunate because of the exceptional team of developers who have been with us for over 10 years. PredictWind is only as good as the team working for it and I am very proud of the team. It’s a big machine with lots of moving parts and it’s the people in those roles that make it all work smoothly and I’m so grateful for their dedication and hard work. It is a privilege to lead them and see our ideas come to fruition to help sailors make safe passages,” Bilger concludes.
Our company is only as good as the team working for it and I am very proud of them: Bilger