Moving Parts is an INEOS TEAM UK series looking at the invaluable work of different members from across the team. This time we are looking at Electronics Technician Peter Cowell.
Peter ‘Pete’ Cowell grew up in Shropshire. It was there, at the age of seven, that he first started sailing on Optimists in Chelmarsh Reservoir close to Bridgnorth. He quickly fell in love with the sport and the young Pete had a new goal; to work in the marine industry and maybe even one day reach the pinnacle of yacht racing, the America’s Cup.
“It was my dad who first took me sailing”, explained Pete, “he has always been a keen sailor. I started sailing in Oppie’s then progressed through Toppers and Laser youth squads before starting yacht racing as part of the Bear of Britain academy. Then I finished school and the time came to decide what to do next. I knew I loved sailing and always had an interest in engineering, so I decided to go to Southampton Solent University to study Yacht Production & Surveying with a view to combining the two and getting into the marine industry.”
Alongside his background in sailing, Pete’s studies at university, focussed on yacht design and boat building, gave him the strong foundations he needed to get his foot in the door in the marine industry. His first job straight out of university was with international sailmaker North Sails as a CAD Designer and Sail Measurer. After a valuable stint with North Sails Pete’s second job in the industry was with sailing electronics manufacturer B&G. It was there he started to gain experience in a new world for him, the world of electronics and systems.
“My interest and experience in electronics started at B&G. I was working on developing an instrument system for them as part of the Product Management team. I then moved to Osprey Technical where I installed B&G systems on various race yachts and big superyachts around the world. That was great, really valuable hands on experience.”
During his time at Osprey Pete’s role included working with various race teams to install electronics on their boats such as Alex Thompson’s HUGO BOSS, The RC44’s, GC32’s and serval J Class. For Pete it was all about working with those race teams to gain the skill and experience he required to make it to the America’s Cup level. It was at that time that he spotted the opportunity he’d been looking for.
“When I heard that INEOS had sponsored Ben Ainslie’s team and that they were building again for the 36th America’s Cup I thought this may be my opportunity to get onboard. I contacted INEOS TEAM UK programmers Andy Bryson and Tom Cheney, who I’d worked with previously, and, given my experience with Osprey, got the introduction to their systems team.
In 2018 Pete fulfilled one of his lifetime goals and joined INEOS TEAM UK’s America’s Cup challenge as Electronics Technician for the team. His role is one that requires Pete to use the full arsenal of his experience gained so far, from his sailing background through to his electronics work at B&G and Osprey.
“In the Electronics Systems team we all come from different backgrounds. Many, for example, bring a lot of experience from Formula One, whereas I come from a sailing background. We all learn from each other and have our different roles within the Electronics department.”
Pete’s role within that team is an ‘on the water’ support role. His areas of responsibility include ensuring all the electronics on the race boat are working properly and managing the communications systems on board each boat, a hugely important role that can ultimately make the difference between a successful day of sailing or not.
“With electronics there are many critical elements to the components and systems that could potentially end a day on the water if they were to fail. The comms system particularly is hugely important because it’s used for every aspect of operations, from leaving the dock through to hoisting the mainsail, through to co-ordinating the chase boats. When the guys are sailing, given the deck layout, the intercom on the race yacht is vitally important for manoeuvres. It’s massive from a safety point-of-view too, if something goes wrong instant communication is critical and that’s all done through the comms system. If any element of that system were to break down it would make sailing very difficult or even impossible.”
Whilst Pete and the team have designed and built some redundancy and back-ups into the comms system, the best way to ensure everything goes well consistently is to test it, maintain it, check it and check it again, all whilst constantly refining it.
“Every single time we go out on the water the whole systems team is involved in rigorous checks. We normally get into the boat shed about two hours before leaving the dock and run through a checklist, just like a pre-flight checklist, which has to be completed every time to make sure everything is running correctly before the boat rolls out of the shed. We then do the same when it returns to the dock, making sure everything is checked, shutdown, cleaned and charged so it’s ready again for the next day. If we do then find anything that needs attention it can quickly turn into a late night of fixing something for the next day”
To ensure the team have the best and most reliable comms system INEOS TEAM UK turned to the supplier RIEDEL that serves all Formula 1 races with the specialised radio and intercom systems used by the race control and various teams. Pete and RIEDEL took that system and adapted it for the sailing environment.
“We essentially ‘marinised’ a system used by Formula 1. That mainly involved a lot of waterproofing and weight saving. The circuit boards were removed from their metal cases, all the antenna hubs and hardware are now housed inside Peli cases with waterproof connectors on the outside. The sailors’ bodypacks had to be waterproofed in order to be worn inside their lifejackets. The headsets were specifically designed for us and 3D printed to slot into our SMITHS helmets. The ’press to talk’ buttons are incorporated into the headset themselves. This means the sailors never have to touch their bodypack. We make it as simple as possible to use so the sailors almost forget they are wearing it, whilst making sure it is as rugged and reliable as it can be.”
The communications system, however, is not the only thing the team has taken from Formula 1. In December 2019 INEOS TEAM UK announced a new performance partnership with Mercedes AMG-Petronas Formula 1 Team to look at advanced technological challenges and drive performance gains across both teams. The partnership has seen 18 Mercedes F1 staff embedded within INEOS TEAM UK full-time.
“As I come from a pure marine background it has been an amazing opportunity to work directly with guys from Mercedes sharing skills and best practices, I’ve taken a lot from that. They really are next level in terms of professionalism and meticulous attention to detail. Through this Mercedes partnership we also get access to significant resources and technologies, which means we can push concepts along further and make our ambitious designs come into reality”.
Once everything is put in place and the systems team have properly checked each element, the sailing team will head out sailing. Every time they do so, Pete’s role requires him to be in one of the support boats following the race yacht.
“When we leave the dock, I am on board the yacht during the main hoist to connect sensors and carry out any final checks. Once sailing I am on the chase boat where I am always listening to the conversation that is happening on the boat so I can pre-empt any potential problems they may be having, such as replacing or fixing a piece of hardware. At the same time, we work with telemetry to monitor voltage levels and to ensure all the electronics are working correctly. Of course, being out on a chase boat all the time means you are part of the crew as well so there is always a fair amount of hands on work to be doing too, such as helping tie up alongside, transferring headsails or getting the yacht on tow.”
From being one of the first ones in the shed, to being out on the water all day, through to potentially having to work through the night to make any necessary repairs, Pete’s role as Electronics Technician is certainly a demanding one. He would not, however, have it any other way.
“I have loved my time with INEOS TEAM UK so far. It’s been challenging, stimulating and fun to be a part of. As we’re at the bleeding-edge of sailing development, I’m am always learning new and exciting technology or ways of working. Then there is also the competitive element of it. As a team we are not working to earn money, we are working to win. That drive is way more motivating.
“Of course, it can be pretty tough, especially being away from home a lot and there are a lot of hours but if we were to win the Cup at the end it would be fantastic, it will all be worth it. It’s something I have thought about doing since a young age and it’s one of the biggest, if not the biggest, prize in sailing. It’s a pretty hard goal to achieve but it would be a huge milestone for both me personally and the team”.