Local Wizard's Hand-held Computer Does Sailors' Math


December 12, 1990|By Nancy Noyes

Bill Reilly is a sailor with a can-do approach to problem-solving.

He's in business in Annapolis to share that approach, and a unique hand-held computer he has developed, with other sailors interested in solving speed, tactical and navigational problems quickly and easily.

Known on the waterfronts of the world as "Basic Bill," 30-year-old Reilly has logged more than 150,000 miles offshore since his first sailing job in 1978.

He completed the 1985-1986 Whitbread Around-the-World Race on the crew of Atlantic Privateer and has sailed countless long-distance deliveries and numerous major racing events, including multiple SORCs, Fastnet and Admirals Cup regattas, on boats whose names are the stuff of modern-day legends.

"I've sailed in every ocean except the Arctic," he said, "and I'd really like to try that, too."

The practical result of Reilly's experience is the Basic Race Computer, a tactical-navigational-performance instrument as portable and useful as a foul-weather jacket or a pair of sailing gloves.

Reilly grew up in Madison, Conn., on the Long Island Sound, where he scorned sailing and sailors in favor of other pursuits.

"I never did any sailing as a kid," he said. "I went around in my dad's Boston Whaler, skiing, with girls, which was 'cool,' and I played football.

I thought sailing was for the sissies and wimps who played soccer."

But after graduating from high school and finding himself at loose ends with a sailing opportunity in front of him, he took it and hasn't looked back.

"I attempted to go to college," he said, "but that lasted about three weeks. I got my first job on a boat right after that, on an Alden-designed, gaff-rigged, 45-foot schooner named Heather, and that was it."

His gypsy-style life on boats brought him to Annapolis for the first time in 1983, and after headquartering here for a year or so, he drifted back into town periodically before settling here again earlier this year.

During his first stay here, Reilly started a business, Basic Marine, to manufacture and market a new type of sheet jammer. Because he was undercapitalized for the project and had to continue working as a delivery captain to survive, the project never really got off the ground.

After a few more years of deliveries and racing, including the Whitbread, Reilly felt he had a truly marketable idea in the tiny computer, so he resurrected Basic Marine to develop and sell it.

"This time, when I set it up again, I was smart enough to find a backer, but I had to go where my backer was, which was back to Connecticut," Reilly said.

Once the project was up and running, however, he was able to move back to Annapolis and set up shop in Eastport.

The computer was born of his extensive offshore experiences and developed in time off between deliveries and races.

"When I was doing deliveries, I used to have to carry around a sextant, sight reduction tables, all that stuff, and it weighed a ton," Reilly said.

"I wanted something small and light to make it easier, but all that was available was that Sharp computer you had to program yourself."

Reilly purchased a small stock computer-calculator and set about learning to program it.

"I didn't know anything about programming, but I decided to learn," he said. "There was a booklet that came with the computer that got me interested, so I went to the library. The rest of it was pretty much trial and error."

Reilly took along his computer with its developing program when he went sailing, comparing it with high-tech built-in electronics packages for performance and accuracy. He continued to fine-tune his program until he was satisfied.

"All in all, it was probably about 5 months between the time I got the first computer and the time I sold the first one," he said. "Of course, I wasn't really in business yet when I sold the first few. I was sitting around between deliveries, so I had time to work on refining it."

Reilly made arrangements to purchase the computers from a subcontractor, added the programming himself, and the Basic Race Computer first was advertised in November 1989. In its first year officially on the market it slowly has proved popular with "rock stars" and boat owners alike for its economical price and ultimate portability.

Reilly has worked hard at the project and admits it hasn't all been a piece of cake.

"It's been a struggle," he said. "A lot of people who are into high-tech racing are into it all the way, with big boats and the big built-in systems. Before this there was nothing small and portable for racing or small boats generally. It took a while to find the real serious market."

Reilly said that previous options for obtaining the kind of tactical, performance/speed, and navigational calculations performed instantly by the Basic Race Computer were one of the big-ticket high-tech electronics packages, having a PC aboard "or sitting down at the chart table with a pencil for an hour and a half if you're really good at math, and by then you don't need the information any more."

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