ANNAPOLIS -- When New Zealand's flat-hulled racing yacht beat its Italian opponent by 76 seconds in recent America's Cup trials, George Hazen of Annapolis could take at least some of the credit.
It was Mr. Hazen's computer program that was used to design the New Zealand, a million-dollar sailing vessel that was among about a dozen yachts participating in the trials off San Diego.
The outcome of those contests will determine which yachts compete in the America's Cup, the premier sporting event of the sailing elite, when it begins in May.
Mr. Hazen's naval architecture design software, known as Fast Yacht, was used by three racing syndicates in this year's competition, America's Stars & Stripes, captained by Dennis Conner, the Swedes' Tre Kroner and the New Zealand entry.
Computers have long been used by yachtsmen for speed prediction. Armed with data on weight and water displacement, -- the amount of water a vessel shoves aside as it cuts through the water -- software programs can figure out how fast a yacht will travel under varying wind conditions, which is critical for races such as the America's Cup, where the difference between winners and losers is typically one to two seconds per nautical mile.
But boat builders, steeped in tradition,have been slow to embrace computers to short-cut the laborious design process.
Some still approach naval architecture much as their ancestors did, by drawing every line of the boat's hull, keel, rudder and mast by hand. Using the traditional approach, it can take a day or more to redraw even a small part of a boat's de
sign. Designers typically run through dozens of drawings before settling on a design.
Then there's the Hazen approach.
Using Fast Yacht, designers can do with the click of a "mouse" what used to take hours or days. Surface space is automatically recomputed as the lines of the boat are altered, allowing designers to indulge their creativity. The program automatically calculates benchmark factors such as vessel weight and water displacement, which are used by boat builders to assess final designs.
"It becomes like a sculpture," Mr. Hazen said. "It's almost like the boat has become a rubber sheet" that can be molded any way the designer wants.
That is a strong drawing card for people such as Jim Schmicker, a designer who works for Annapolis-based Bruce Farr and Associates Inc. Farr is a longtime user of Fast Yacht, said Mr. Schmicker, who used the program to help design the New Zealand America's Cup yacht.
"The appeal is that it allows you to quickly modify a shape in small ways or large ways," he said. "It permits you to do a series of boats along a specific kind of variation and have the boat be somewhat related to the base boat you started with."
To demonstrate the speed of Fast Yacht at trade shows, Mr. Hazen said, he often designs a small boat, such as a sailing dinghy, as passers-by watch. The process takes about five minutes with Fast Yacht, the same design done manually by a veteran craftsman would take about four days.
Fast Yacht sells for about $4,000. That might sound steep by software standards, but it's not much by yachting standards. Indeed, racing syndicates competing for the America's Cup typically spend $10 million or more to design, build and outfit their sleek sailing vessels.
A self-described "sailing fanatic," Mr. Hazen got the itch to combine his love of sailing with his love for computers while he was a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the mid-1970s. Fast Yacht is an outgrowth of his MIT thesis, a software project that involved speed prediction for yachts.
After graduating, Mr. Hazen designed boats in Canada. But the lure of the Chesapeake Bay, where Mr. Hazen, a native of Princeton, N.J., had learned to sail, enticed him to Annapolis.
In 1983, he founded Design Systems & Services Inc., a consulting and software engineering business that caters to boating enthusiasts of all stripes. Mr. Hazen then set his sights on turning his thesis into a commercial software program.
The result was Fast Yacht. The program, updated annually, still features a state-of-the-art speed-prediction component and the design elements. It is one of a handful of naval design software products.
The Navy and Coast Guard are among the more than 150 customers who use the software program to design ships of all types. Mr. Hazen's non-yachting customers, such as the Navy, typically buy Fast Ship, which is the same program with a different name and package.
Despite the name, Fast Yacht isn't just for yachts -- or ships.
The program has been used to design a solar-powered car, airplanes and a concrete -- yes, concrete -- canoe. It also was also used to design the winning catamaran that caused so much controversy in the 1988 America's Cup races. The catamaran was designed in a little more than three weeks with help from Fast Yacht.
Peter Schwenn, one of three naval architecture specialists who works with Mr. Hazen, said no software can substitute for the kind of human inspiration and imagination that dreams up a concrete canoe or a high-speed catamaran.
No software program can substitute for the grit and determination of a seasoned captain and crew. That is especially true for America's Cup, Mr. Hazen said, where sheer willpower and a little luck can go a long way to make up for a flawed design.
"Ultimately, it comes down to the guys on the boat doing their jobs right," he said. "But they do want to believe that the boat they're riding on is not handicapping them."