“Fastest boats, best sailors” is the official motto of the America’s Cup. It’s clear that everything about the 34th Cup is ‘made for TV’, and some of the old guard don’t like it. There’s not much lip service to history or tradition, it’s about engaging the TV audience - and therefore potential sponsors - in the sport of sailing like they’ve never been engaged before.
It’s a big experiment, and from what we saw in Cascais, Portugal, the early prognosis is encouraging. There were 115 people working on the TV at the first America’s Cup World Series event. In terms of manpower, this puts it on a par with Formula One, a huge investment by the America’s Cup Event Authority in attempting to bring sailing to the masses. The online video hosting service, the Google-owned YouTube, reported that the online coverage was attracting more than any other online sports coverage on their site, greater even than the IPL cricket league, which gets huge audiences, particularly in cricket-mad India.
Days later, the Cup organisers announced a partnership with YouTube. Claude Ruibal, global head of sports content for YouTube, said: “Our goal for YouTube Sports is to create a user experience unlike anything available today, so it's great to have compelling content produced in a very innovative way. The new America’s Cup livestream is exactly that, and will be even more dynamic as we build in new technology. We believe that our partnership with the 34th America’s Cup will be a game-changer for viewers, providing global communities easy access to engaging content whenever and wherever they want it.”
Stan Honey is a key man in taking the TV coverage to a new level. A great sailor in his own right, Honey was the navigator board Team ABN Amro when the Dutch boat won the 2005/06 Volvo Ocean Race. The Californian has also garnered numerous Emmy TV awards for his pioneering developments in using electronics to enhance the TV coverage of stadium-based sports like NFL football, NASCAR motor racing and baseball in the USA. “For me, the opportunity to develop this technology for the America’s Cup brings two of my great passions together into one job,” says Honey. Sailing is very lucky to have a man of his talents, and for Honey to be given the resources to make it work.
Compared with Honey’s land-based successes, trying to bring similar game line technology to the water, creating virtual boundaries on an ever-changing race course, is a whole different ball game, if you’ll excuse the bad pun. As TV director Dennis Harvey explains: “The biggest difference is that you’re calibrating everything from a helicopter that’s always moving. Nothing is fixed, so the technical challenge of creating boundaries that the race officials and the sailors can trust, is immense.”
The unpredictability of the wind has always been sailing’s greatest challenge in trying to appeal to the unyielding schedules of television. The AC45 is billed as the boat that can race in anything ‘from 3 to 30 knots’. Well, that slick slogan was put to the test on day one in Cascais. Foggy, drizzly, and virtually no breeze. In any keelboat, the day was a non-starter. It wasn’t exactly riveting watching the AC45s, but even in 4 knots of breeze they’re capable of doing 10 knots boatspeed. You’ve got a race on a day when normally there would be none.
When the breeze did kick in, the racing was sensational. Emirates Team New Zealand was leading one race when bowman Winston Macfarlane was putting all his weight into grinding a winch. The winch handle snapped and Macfarlane tumbled overboard. Five crew down to four, the Kiwis did their best to hang on to their lead with a lap of the race still to run. Bravely they battled on, but the lack of horsepower through the manoeuvres meant they yielded the race win to Russell Coutts with just boatlengths to the finish line.
The fleet racing was a big success, but how would the match racing go? Purists have predicted the end of match racing as we know it, with multihulls plainly unsuited to the nip and tuck of the game. That myth was put to bed in the very first match of the event, with James Spithill and Dean Barker going through two lead changes before Spithill prevailed. We saw more lead changes between these two teams in the match race finals, although the Kiwi gennaker’s propensity to twist itself into an hourglass let Barker down badly throughout the regatta.
Most exciting match of the event was the giant-killing performance by Team Korea. Olympic medallist Chris Draper and his young dinghy sailors dispatched Russell Coutts and his cohort of multiple America’s Cup winners in a great duel where the Korean boat came from behind to give the master of keelboat match racing a lesson in high-speed catamaran racing.
The scoring for the series is very complicated, but the fundamental idea is to keep all the teams in the game for as long as possible. The Oracle boat skippered by James Spithill won the match racing championship. But in the final fleet race, a winner-takes-all showdown, with Larry Ellison riding on board as ‘guest racer’, Spithill failed to capitalise on an early lead, allowing the Kiwis to come through for the win with Artemis in second.
Cascais provided a great insight into Russell Coutts’s grand experiment. Will his great vision to bring an elitist sport to the masses succeed? I’m not sure, but it’s great fun watching them try. Whatever the outcome of AC34, the sport of sailing will be the better for it.
GUEST RACER ON TEAM KOREA
Many boats I’ve ridden on the back as a guest, but none that come close to the thrill of racing on board the AC45 of Team Korea during one of the fleet races. Being in the thick of the start, boats jostling for position and then accelerating to 25 knots line abreast with eight other catamarans, James Spithill to my left, Russell Coutts to my right.... it was breathtaking. Sitting on the camera mount that rises out of the aft beam of the AC45 platform, it’s not the most comfortable of experiences, but when races last little more than 20 minutes, the time flies by. If you’re at all sceptical about catamarans having replaced keelboats in the America’s Cup, beg, borrow or steal a chance to ride as a ‘guest racer’. Your mind will be changed the moment your surge across the start line.
Starting on a reach? Yet another example of Russell Coutts’s willingness to toss tradition aside in his quest for a more spectator-friendly format. Watching nine wing-masted catamarans launching off the start line and accelerating up to 25 knots within seconds - well I think he’s on to something. It’s all about getting to the first mark in good shape, and it takes less than a minute to get there, sometimes little more than 30 seconds. The pressure on getting a good start is enormous, and we saw boats over early and having to restart. Indeed Emirates Team New Zealand committed this cardinal sin in one fleet race and they bounced back to win the race. Verdict on the reaching start, and reaching finish for that matter? A hit.
Testing the boundaries
The teams had to sail within electronically defined boundaries, forcing them to engage with their rivals in the centre of the course, rather than running away into the corners in search of a favourable windshift. China Team’s Mitch Booth says it makes picking your way through the course all the more challenging, but he is a big believer in this innovation. “They have to be there. If we are going to bring the spectators to the sidelines, like you want it in a tennis match or a rugby match or a football match, then you’ve got to define the sidelines. We are happy with that. Sometimes it’s not what we are used to, but hey, we are here to promote the sport. We are not here to go with the old tradition of sailing far away with no boundaries. It’s got to be contained that way and we fully support that. We’ll just have to learn to deal with it.” At the next World Series event in Plymouth, the natural limitations of Plymouth Sound will probably suffice without much need for electronic fences.
DOG & PONY SHOW
The underdog, Team Korea, may have beaten Russell Coutts and his Oracle crew in the match racing contest, but let’s not forget that this was in 45-foot one-design catamarans. Some cynics dismiss the America’s Cup World Series as a ‘dog and pony’ show. It will be a different game when Oracle applies the limitless resources of billionaire Larry Ellison to developing its AC72 catamaran. Long-time America’s Cup veteran, design coordinator Andy Claughton from Southampton has been part of the team that has developed an off-the-shelf design package for the smaller teams to buy into. The likes of Korea and the other new teams will doubtless take this route, as it will make best use of their precious little development time and resources. But Claughton also points out the cunning behind Oracle’s decision to contest the 34th America’s Cup in multihulls. "Bringing in catamarans was a smart move for the defender. At a stroke Russell Coutts knows the righting moment of all the challengers. There's no guessing how wide they've build the boat, like there was with a Version 5 keelboat. The AC72 is effectively a very restricted class with 75% of the hydrodynamic design parameters swept away. The only real area for development this time is the wing, and they believe they are miles ahead of anyone in their understanding of wing technology. It's a masterstroke."
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