One Unlikely Cruise: From Silicon Valley to Team New Zealand

Cruising sailor Christopher Miller has come a long way from Cheboygan, Michigan, and Northern California."Herb's Watch" from November 25, 3010

Christopher Miller Software Engineer

Christopher Miller has led an eventful life since setting sail aboard his Tayana 52.Herb Mccormick

When Christopher Miller—who grew up sailing on the shores of Lake Michigan—set out from Southern California in the late 1990s for an extended voyage aboard his Tayana 52, he was a solo sailor with an open-ended itinerary. A little over a decade later, he's a New Zealand resident with a wife and two kids; a waterfront getaway home on Kawau Island and a place near work in downtown Auckland; and a very steady gig with Emirates Team New Zealand, a job that combines his twin passions for sailing and software development.

It turned out to be quite an eventful, if highly unlikely, cruise.

Like his father and grandfather before him, Miller earned an engineering degree at Iowa State University before heading west to start his career, landing a position with a start-up technology company in Newport Beach, California. When that firm was gobbled up by America Online, he became a system architect for AOL's digital greeting-card division and set sail for Sausalito aboard his Hunter 37, from which he "tele-commuted" to work in the Silicon Valley. After seven years at AOL—during which time he upgraded to his 52-foot Tayana and "relocated" to San Diego and Ensenada, Mexico—he "cashed out" and took off.

In the Sea of Cortez, he met his future wife, Katherine, and together they sailed across the Pacific, eventually ending up in New Zealand in 1999. "We'd always considered that New Zealand might be a settling spot for us," said Christopher. After finding a nice piece of property on Kawau, the deal was sealed. "It looked like it would be a nice compromise between cruising and going back to suburbia."

One of the first things he'd done after arriving was to contact Tom Schnackenberg, a prominent sailmaker and member of the Team New Zealand America's Cup syndicate, which was preparing to defend the Cup. "Cruising's a lot of fun, but I like to work as well," Christopher said. "I thought there might be some kind of opportunity for a software engineer in the America's Cup. "Shnack" thought so, too, and almost immediately offered him a job.

His first major project was developing TNZ's SailVision program, which employs cameras in the rig to measure the depth, draft and twist of the mainsail to help trimmers optimize sail trim. These days, he continues to refine that system and to write velocity prediction program (VPP) software. With another American cruiser with a Silicon Valley background, Wayne Meretsky, he's also formed an independent company called Kinetic Scientific, to develop and market high-end, microprocessor-based electronics for round-the-world Grand Prix race boats and Superyachts. They are currently working on a device to dial in the canard/daggerboard settings on canting-keel race boats like Open 60s and Volvo 70s.

Now that BMW Oracle has won the America's Cup and announced that it will be sailed in 72-foot, wing-sail catamarans, Christopher and TNZ are back in the Cup game. During the hiatus, it gave him time to work on independent projects, including "Spin," a fully controlled robotic keelboat. "It gave me 18 months of full-time, learning-curve climbing for electronics design, circuit building and so on…things I'd always been interested in but never had real hands-on experience to be proficient at an America's Cup level."

When I visited Christopher in the pair of 20-foot containers that he uses as a base on the TNZ compound last winter—with Metallica blaring over the speakers—he'd just returned from the Unmanned Vehicle Exposition in Denver, Colorado. "It was seven football fields worth of technology," he said. "Half of it had some degree of application to the America's Cup: composites, software, wiring, sensors, displays, communications. That's where the cool stuff is going on. It's not being driven by the marine industry, it's being driven by the unmanned vehicle industry." Ultimately, he'd like to design and build a fully autonomous, "disposable boat, maybe 3 or 4 meters, that does something commercially useful like hydrographic survey, coastal surveillance, or ecology or biology monitoring.

"Ten years ago, I thought my Silicon Valley background might have some applicability (in the Cup arena)," he continued. "Now that I'm in the thick of things, I can see twenty or thirty years worth of more product development because there's still so many areas of possible improvement for onboard instrumentation to make sailors sail better and to make boats smarter."

Yes, cruising sailor Christopher Miller has come a long way from Cheboygan, Michigan and Northern California. But he still has quite a way to go.