Sailing Simulator Software
Stentec is complicated to learn, but still tops for realism and value. Posey has kept developing, and now has a whole suite of programs for different sailing disciplines; several are good learning programs. The cool new thing is online racing. For that, try Duran's Virtual Skipper 2.
A lot has changed in computer technology since this publication last reviewed the sailing simulators available for home PCs, in the July 15, 1996 issue. Processor power, network speed, and peripherals have all experienced tremendous advancements. A technology from Microsoft called DirectX has brought new levels of realism to computer games and has fueled their popularity. DirectX, which comes bundled with, and works only for Windows, makes it easier for software developers to incorporate the multimedia capabilities of a computer, such as graphics accelerator cards, sound cards, mouse, joystick, and network communications, into a game or simulation.
Have the makers of sailing simulators kept up with the state of the art in computer games and simulations? Two of the simulators reviewed here, Stentec Sail Simulator 4.2 and Virtual Skipper 2, take full advantage of DirectX to enhance 3D graphics, while others employ only components of DirectX to manage multiplayer networking.
21st Century Sailing Simulator 2.0
21st Century Sailing Simulator 2.0 is a successor to a simulator reviewed by Practical Sailor in August of 1995. The biggest enhancement is the addition of online multiplayer racing; the simulator otherwise exhibits all of the deficiencies identified in the earlier review.
21st Century Sailing Simulator is a basic "sheet and steer" racing game: the primary interface consists of a wheel to turn to port or starboard, and two buttons, one to trim the overall sailplan in, and the other to let the sheets out. The simulator aspires to photo-realism by incorporating still images of actual boats in the onscreen animation. Unfortunately, this strategy results in very poor realism. The simulator uses dozens of images of a boat, each showing a particular combination of heading, heel, and trim. However, there are not sufficient numbers of basic images to represent subtle variations in trim and heel. As a result, the visual effect is of cardboard cutout images pasted onto a background in a sequence so jerky that it hardly counts as animation.
The user interface in 21st Century Sailing Simulator has serious problems that detract from the quality of the overall experience. The map view showing the position of the boats on the race course zooms in, but not enough to avoid collisions during the pre-start. Collision avoidance is made more difficult by the fact that the positions on the map of other boats get updated in a series of jerky steps.
The computer-controlled boats in 21st Century Sailing Simulator do not offer challenging competition. The best way to race on your computer against opponents that act intelligently is to race online against other people. However, the once active online racing community for 21st Century Sailing Simulator seems to have moved on to find its thrills and chills with more advanced sailing simulators.
Bottom Line: 21st Century Sailing Simulator can get you and your friends racing online at a moderate price. You can order the CD for $29.95 + tax or purchase online with a credit card and download the software right away. A downloadable free trial has most of the options disabled, except online multiplayer racing.
The Posey Simulators
Posey Yacht Design has been a mainstay of the sailing simulator market since Dennis Posey released his first simulator in 1983. The current suite of Posey simulators packages the 3D animation and sailing performance model steadily refined over the years in a variety of novel simulators, each with a different emphasis, from cruising to racing.
Weak graphics have always been the Achilles heel of the Posey line of simulators. The simulators generate 3D images without the help of DirectX, so corners had to get cut to accomplish the job within available resources: Boats are defined with as few polygons as possible, giving them very boxy appearances, and the palette sticks to basic colors, with no shading or texturing. The decision not to use DirectX was made in part so that the developer can offer both Windows and Mac versions of the simulator.
Posey simulators make very few demands on the computer; system requirements are tiny compared to those of the other programs (see sidebar).
All Posey simulators are $54.95 if shipped, or $44.95 when ordered online and downloaded. A 30% discount is offered on multiple purchases. Demos are available for downloading online.
Posey Advanced Racing Simulator is perhaps the flagship of the Posey line of simulators. It is a single-player racing game, with full sail controls and tactical information at your fingertips. Posey Advanced Racing Simulator has been steadily refined over the years, and the current release features updated appearances for the boats, and new features such as leeward gates to keep in line with the current state of racing in major North American regattas.
As the only major racing game without multiplayer abilities, Posey Advanced Racing Simulator relies solely on the Artificial Intelligence programmed into the computer-controlled boats to imitate the behavior of a large fleet. For the most part, the behaviors are convincing, with boats tacking, ducking, and reaching up for clear air at the appropriate times. However, with all boats essentially following the same set of AI rules and heuristics, one can get strange phenomena, such as an entire fleet preternaturally tacking on some psychic cue. Pre-start maneuvering is unrealistic, but this is a fault shared by all AI-based racing simulators.
Bottom Line: Still the best sailing simulator on the market for complete control over all aspects of racing in a large fleet, but the weak graphics and lack of multiplayer racing will mean that it will soon be supplanted by competitor products.
Posey Coastal Cruising Simulator presents the opportunity to plan short cruises and practice one's navigation and piloting skills. At higher levels of difficulty, the simulator throws surprises at you, such as losing key electronics or the engine. The simulator drives home the importance of not relying on one navigational aid. At the end of a cruise, you are scored on how well you did, with points awarded for the number of challenges overcome, and deductions for mistakes and poor judgment. Coastal Cruising comes with a well-written, if a bit blandly packaged manual. The manual goes beyond telling you how to use the simulator and provides sound cruising advice, drawn from the game developer's extensive cruising experience.
The computer-generated scenarios in Posey Coastal Cruising Simulator are still a bit 'canned.' For instance, ranges always align with the cardinal points on the compass. The two actual cruising grounds represented (the Gulf of Maine and the Bahamas) are overly simplified, with not enough real-world details to make them very challenging. However, one must remember that the point of the simulator is for practicing piloting skills, not to provide an immersive virtual cruising experience.
Bottom Line: Posey Coastal Cruising Simulator appeals to perhaps the broadest group of sailors, and fills its niche well. It succeeds as a training simulator because its virtual world throws enough variation at you to keep it interesting, and it drives home the consequences of making errors in judgment.
Posey Distance Race Sailing Challenge takes aspects and features from the company's cruising and racing simulators and applies them to distance racing. The overnight and two-day coastal races available include classics such as the Chicago to Mackinac Race and Marblehead to Halifax. With Distance Race Sailing Challenge, you can run five Vineyard races in an evening.
The race areas are charted with moderate detail—more in Long Island Sound, less in the Marblehead-Halifax race. The simulator is biased towards the eastern seaboard; the Swiftsure race in the Pacific northwest and races to Mexico are not represented.
The computer-controlled fleet largely adopts the same strategy, with no boat taking real flyers. To avoid obstacles and get through narrow channels, the fleet reverts to pre-scripted courses. There are some discrepancies in close-reaching speed between one's own boat and the fleet, which is regrettable considering how much close-reaching there can be in long-distance races. Weather modeling is right out of a meteorology textbook, and is not sufficiently random and unpredictable to keep the simulator interesting.
Bottom Line: Posey Distance Race Sailing Challenge occupies a niche that no other sailing simulator addresses. It may be a good introduction to a particular offshore race for those who are planning to enter it for the first time, but it likely will not be satisfying to race veterans.
Posey Sailing Dynamics Instructor is a computer-based training aid with the basic Posey simulator packaged within it. One can view tutorials or go daysailing in the simulator. The tutorials use graphics and animation to teach sailtrim, racing tactics, and rules.
The "Dynamics" component of the software title comes from being able to experiment with the full range of sail controls within the simulator to see the effects they have on boat handling and balance.
Bottom Line: Posey Sailing Dynamics Instructor is a curious hybrid product. There are better tutorials available on CD-ROM, particularly for racing rules and tactics.
Posey Sailing Tactics Simulator puts you in the role of a boat's tactician, making all the decisions for getting around a race course ahead of the competition. A simplified set of controls takes the emphasis away from sailtrim, and lets the user focus on the big picture.
You can sail an entire race controlling the boat from the keyboard using "c" to sail closehauled, "t" to tack, and a few other easy-to-remember keys. Top marks here for ease of use.
The racing takes place in one of a number of computer-generated settings, each one intended to mimic the conditions of typical racing venues, from a small inland lake to a tidal sound. You can choose from a variety of different popular one-designs, with fleets of up to 30. There is a two-player option in which one uses the mouse and the other the keyboard, either for match racing or in the context of a large fleet.
With the emphasis of Sailing Tactics Simulator on making the right tactical decisions, its value as a simulator comes down to how well it models the behavior of the wind. The wind model in Sailing Tactics Simulator is subtle, taking into account shoreline effects and other variables.
Bottom Line: The simplified set of controls in Posey Sailing Tactics Simulator is refreshing, as is the reduced emphasis on boathandling and speed. Beginning and intermediate tacticians will find the program rewarding, but limitations in the game's AI logic mean that expert tacticians will probably not find the game challenging enough.
Sail 2000 by Vivid Simulations is an update on Sail 95, a simulator reviewed by Practical Sailor in July of 1996. As with the 21st Century Sailing Simulator above, the chief enhancement between the two versions is the addition of network playing. Other aspects of the simulator have been updated slightly, but otherwise Sail 2000 inherits all of the drawbacks pointed out in the previous review of Sail 95.
Sail 2000 is essentially a 2D game masquerading as a 3D simulation. Like 21st Century Sailing Simulator, it relies on stored images for its animation sequences. The images are computer-generated, not stills of actual boats, which makes it easier for the developer to create images of the thousands of combinations of heading, heel, and trim that are required. With many more stored images than 21st Century, Sail 2000 achieves a smoother animation, but it is still not sufficiently lifelike.
Though Sail 2000 specializes in match racing, there are enough problems with the user interface that it is not suited to aggressive close quarters tactics. The best source of information concerning the position of the two boats on the course is in the top-down map. However, the map neither zooms nor pans, so it is inadequate for tight maneuvering. The cockpit view is useless in all but the briefest of situations, as is the external view of the boat from the cardinal compass points.
Sail 2000 relies on some components of DirectX for networked, head-to-head racing. You must inform your opponent of your computer's IP address, typically by e-mail; there is no Internet lobby where two can meet and form a match on the spur of the moment.
Surprisingly, Sail 2000 lacks a chat feature, which is important given the social nature of online racing.
Bottom Line: At $69.95, Sail 2000 is on the pricey side for a limited style of racing and a limited simulator. You would find better value in a simulator with online multiplayer capabilities that can connect more than two players at once, so that you can challenge another to a match race if you feel so inclined, but still have the flexibility to race in a larger fleet.
Stentec Sail Simulator 4.2
Sail Simulator 4.2 from the Dutch software firm Stentec is the latest release in an ambitious project to develop a physically realistic sailing simulator. This magazine reviewed Stentec Sail Simulator 3.0 in August 1995, and declared it the clear leader then. Stentec has advanced the state of the art even further with the 4.2 release.
Stentec Sail Simulator 4.2 has the highest level of realism of the simulators reviewed. Taking full advantage of DirectX technology, Stentec employs a truly massive number of polygons, blended smoothly with texturing, shading, and other lighting effects to create very believable animation. The user has complete freedom to position the viewpoint, panning and zooming around the boat or any other point in the simulated world.
As a single-player game, Stentec Sail Simulator 4.2 is strictly for day sailing, as there are no computer-controlled boats. There are a large number of controls to learn; however, one can turn the trimming of the sails over to the computer.
Stentec Sail Simulator 4.2 is the only sailing simulator of the ones reviewed to take into account the physics of waves and the effects they have on the boat.
If you want to race in Stentec Sail Simulator 4.2, you have to go online. A small but genteel community of sailors meets to form multiplayer sessions of up to 10 boats.
Bottom Line: Stentec Sail Simulator 4.2 is the most flexible and configurable of the simulators reviewed. The program has many features, which makes it difficult to learn, but its overall high value makes the effort worthwhile. Caveat emptor: the software is not without its bugs. Purchase Stentec Sail Simulator online at $59.95 or download a demo.
Virtual Passage 2.0
Virtual Passage 2.0 bills itself as a bluewater passagemaking simulator, in which the armchair sailor may experience actual, historic weather conditions, taken from 20 years of stored data. If you want, you can recreate the conditions of the "Perfect Storm" of Halloween 1991, made famous by the movie of the same name.
Virtual Passage 2.0 needs an auto-trim feature. As it stands, one must constantly adjust the sails (via a simple trim-in/trim-out function) to the apparent wind. Constant attention to sailtrim is, of course, an important consideration in bluewater cruising, but it should not be a constant chore in a bluewater cruising simulator.
The educational value of such a simulator lies in being able to run successive "what-if" scenarios in the course of an evening at the computer. Virtual Passage 2.0 allows the user to speed up the rate at which increments of time advance in the simulator, in order to compress more sailing into a given amount of time at the computer. However, this typically results in sailing for much of the simulated time with the sails not optimally trimmed.
Bottom Line: Virtual Passage 2.0 differs from other passage-planning software in that it uses actual weather data and tropical storm tracks, not wind roses showing seasonal or monthly means. The simulator should appeal to a fairly strong niche market: Those who are planning an offshore passage might find the opportunity to practice weather routing in their evenings well worth the $59.95 investment.
Virtual Skipper 2
Virtual Skipper 2 from Duran, a game developer in France, is a "sheet and steer" simulator, primarily oriented to online, multiplayer racing. Virtual Skipper 2 takes full advantage of DirectX technology for 3D animation and multiplayer networking.
The true value of Virtual Skipper 2 lies in its online multiplayer capabilities, in match races or fleets up to eight over a LAN or on the Internet. There's a convenient online lobby (no messing about with IP addresses) where users meet to form up new races. A large community of users has sprung up on the Internet with fast, cutthroat competition. At any given time, there will be anywhere from 20 to 100 users congregating in the lobby, forming up into races of 10-20 minutes in duration. Incorrect assessments of penalties by the computer umpire can be frustrating.
Bottom Line: The online multiplayer racing makes Virtual Skipper 2 a popular and entertaining game. Virtual Skipper 2 can be ordered online for $42 + $6 shipping from France (with delivery time of about two weeks). A demo is available for downloading online, but the online multiplayer capability is disabled.
The future of sailing simulators is undoubtedly in online multiplayer, 3D racing and cruising. In this regard, Virtual Skipper 2 and Stentec Sail Simulator 4.0 have shown the way. The two have taken quite opposite approaches to boathandling. The former simplifies game controls to the helm and an all-purpose sheet, while the latter taxes a single player with the helm and sheets and halyards for three sails. In the virtual racing or cruising of the future, however, it is conceivable that there will be multiplayer collaborative crewing on the same virtual yacht.
Also With This Article
Click here to view "System Configuration."
21st Century Sailing Simulator, 800/656-5426, www.21stcenturypublishing.com
Posey Simulators, 860/345-2685, www.poseysail.com
Sail 2000, 860/349-2011, www.vividsimulations.com
Stentec Sail Simulator 4.2, 011 31 515 443515, www.stentec.com
Virtual Passage 2.0, www.virtualsail.com
Virtual Skipper 2, www.virtualskipper2.com