Juan ‘Juanky’ Perdomo, a 22-year-old from San Juan, Puerto Rico, is likely the youngest Caribbean sailor to ever be a member of a winning America’s Cup campaign. In this case, Perdomo served as computer science intern for the Cup’s thirty-fifth champion, Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ). This opportunity came after Perdomo narrowly missed qualifying in the Laser class for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. In the wake of this defeat, the talented young man sought a new direction that would combine his love of sailing, his dream of working with an America’s Cup campaign and the dual majors of math and computer science he is studying at Harvard University. In the end, Perdomo played an important role in scoring the Auld Mug for the Kiwis.
“I didn’t have any connections to the America’s Cup, so I sat down and spent an afternoon googling the contact information of people who worked for the teams,” explains Perdomo, who in 2013 won a Gold Medal at the ISAF Youth World Championships. “I drafted a carefully worded email, attached my resume and hoped for the best. Much to my surprise, I got a response a couple of weeks later from Dan Bernasconi, the technical director of ETNZ, saying that they were looking for someone who understands both the sailing and the computer science parts equally well to do some work for the team. We scheduled a phone interview, I got the job and booked my ticket to New Zealand. I felt incredibly fortunate that Dan, Grant Dalton, and the rest of the management committee took a chance to hire a Laser sailor from Puerto Rico.”
Perdomo worked three months in Auckland during the summer of 2016 as part of ETNZ’s software simulation team. The team’s goal was to build an Artificial Intelligence (AI) agent that could sail by itself and which could eventually be used to practice against. In other words, a very fancy video game that would allow the sailors to train in tactics and practice start maneuvers without having to go on the water. The benefits are many since the logistical overhead of putting an AC50 on the water sailing is a large-scale team effort.
“It’s really a difficult problem from a computational perspective to build something that can not only sail by itself without any human input, but also to perform well in a wide range of wind conditions against a world class opponent. It’s like trying to design chess AI software that can beat Gary Kasparov, but unlike chess you don’t have access to a large database of games played by grandmasters that you can use to train the program. Therefore, you must think about the problem differently. It was a fun experience to try and implement different versions and to get ideas by reading the latest academic papers that had been published,” Perdomo explains.
In June, Perdomo said it was truly incredible to see ETNZ go out and put in such an impressive performance to win the 35th America’s Cup.
“Everyone from the sailors, to the shore crew, to the design team showed such a strong commitment to build the best team possible and exhibited a contagious culture of excitement and purpose to bring the America’s Cup back to New Zealand. I think that just being part of the team and experiencing the culture first hand are the things that I’m really going to take away from my time there,” he says.
Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.