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Revolutionising the America's Cup

We look at the issues with optimising America's Cup competition to be a television sport

Thursday July 22nd 2010, Author: James Boyd, Location: Spain

The most thorough appraisal of what maketh yacht racing exciting as a television sport gets underway in Valencia today when BMW Oracle Racing start their America’s Cup Evaluation Trials using two Extreme 40s and two RC44s.

Russell Coutts has never been shy to break down barriers within our sport and he has been the driving force behind the present investigation into how to make the next America’s Cup work as an opiate for the masses.

So what will make yacht racing appealing to a television audience? This is hardly a new question and is something that has been addressed in the past with circuits like the 18ft skiffs in Sydney, the Ultra 30s in the UK and, to some extent, the current Extreme Sailing Series. For Coutts the defining features are that the racing must be exciting with more lead changes and the boats must be physical to sail with less crew.

So what is the most exciting boat that could be used? The answer must be some sort of 70-80ft skiff-like monohull or an inshore ORMA 60-style multihull, scaled down versions of the boats we saw racing the 33rd America’s Cup. Unless the monohull can be coaxed out of the water on foils (probably wait for the 36th or 37th America’s Cup for that) then the multihull should be the faster.

Which boat looks the cooler on the water for the cameras? Well, its hard to beat the spectacle of a multihull lifting its weather float, although a fully air-borne 70ft foiling monohull would be quite something.

From an on board camera perspective we want to see crew breaking sweat doing stuff, lots of running around, winching, rope flying everywhere. We want to hear the on board the dialogue, the shouting, a bit of emotion. The most compelling on board inshore sailing images we remember have been from the Ultras and 18ft skiffs or even the Libera class in Italy - with a bunch of crew out on racks suspended on trapeze wires. It’s particularly good when they get dunked in the water and you see the camera go under. However we doubt very much whether this can be emulated on a 70-80 footer where crew weight doesn’t count for as much, particularly when there seems to be a desire to reduce crew numbers.

So what are the pros and cons visually for the television cameras? The monohull could be good if it has some heel, making it hard for the crew to stand upright, but this is unlikely given that if a monohull is chosen it will probably have high stability to improve its performance and will therefore be relatively upright in the water. The multihull typically doesn’t heel as much as a monohull, although there is once again the hull flying aspect. However having sailed many of these boats, both cats and tris of varying sizes, the hull flying never seems as dramatic from on board as it looks from off the boat. The solution could be to have a camera attached to the inboard topsides.

As to the on board action if it is a catamaran rather than a trimaran there is likely to be more running around from hull to hull (is this exciting?). From a TV point of view the multihull’s wider platform is likely to please those setting up on board cameras as it allows more flexibility in camera positioning.

If there is to be a physical challenge to sailing these boats then we imagine that powered winches may not have a place on them and if this is the case then this could go a long way to dictating how big the boats can be. In fact a rule, as in the G-Class offshore multihulls - ‘as big and powerful as you like, except that you can’t use powered winches’ - as Bruno Peyron conceived for The Race, culminating in boats like Groupama III and the Banque Populaire maxi tris, could be interesting for an America’s Cup multihull. Offshore multihulls can get away with it because speed in manoeuvres isn’t critical – but for an inshore multihull you would presumably have to go much smaller for the sailing handling to become manageable.

Saying this, will watching the trimmer press a button won’t make for compelling television (perhaps show the sheet flying in at several metres/second instead), powered winches will make for a slicker competition with faster manoeuvring.

The match racing sport

Certainly we can expect the new boats to be fast and exciting with state of the art, leading edge technology. However as has been argued frequently in the past, fast boats change the sport of match racing as we know it at present, that at the moment is practiced from the America’s Cup down through the World Match Racing Tour to the Elliot 6s competing in the Olympic Games.

Match racing, as the sport it is at present, seems to work best with slow boats like the lumbering Version 5 boats. But equally the sailing characteristics of this genre of boat has dictated the format of match racing and all the play book manoeuvres with which we have become familiar. Lighter more nimble boats are likely to require this to be re-appraised, whether it is the ability of faster boats to live on each other’s hip upwind, whereas typically slower boats have to tack away – hence the tacking duel America’s Cup matches are famous for - or manoeuvres like dial-ups, dial-downs, slam dunk tacks, etc which all change on lighter boats that don’t carry their way so well or, in the case of multihulls, have more windage.

Or will they? Prior to the 33rd America’s Cup, we thought that faster boats after the start would disappear off to their relative sides of the race course and it will be hardly be a close contact sport. In fact at times the opposite seemed true – the crews wanted to remain in contact so that they could manage their rival’s edge, should they gain one, and, as pointed out, faster boats don’t seem to have such a problem sailing close to their opponent as slower boats do.

The Evaluation trials to be carried out over the next few days hopefully will determine how much going to a faster boat will change the sport of match racing as we know it. In fact the RC44 v Extreme 40 comparison possibly isn’t the best that could be done as what we want to know is how well can a fast boat be match raced compared to a slow(er) boat? The monohull-multihull issue doesn’t come into it, because faster lightweight monohulls typically end up with similar handling and performance characteristics as their multihull equivalents. A more illuminating comparison would be between a two ORMA 60s and two Version 5 boats.

Race format

A particularly interesting feature of the trials will be going back to basics with the race format.

opportunities - then you possibly end up with something quite different to the present match racing format. If you approach this from the perspective of simply what will make the best sport – ie with the most boat on boat contact and overtaking

If you think about it the current format we have is quite convoluted with the port and starboard entries, the dial-up or no dial-up, the pre-start manoeuvring, winning or losing the start, the boat to weather typically tacking away. As BMW Oracle Racing spokesman Tim Jeffery put it to us, how often is it that a boat that wins the start goes on to win the race? The answer is ‘very often’.

But since the pre-start is usually the most close contact part of the race and often the most dramatic with the most aggression and boats occasionally careering out into the spectator fleet, it would be a shame to lose this. So the trials will be looking at how any start advantage can be minimised allowing the boats to re-engage as quickly as possible. What would be the implications of a downwind or reaching start in this respect? Or alternatively if the start led into a short beat before a longer downwind leg? Which would maximise contact and passing opportunities?

If the boats are to be faster then it would make sense to have some reaching on the course too. This would probably be of little consequence to the race outcome but it would be the fastest part of the course, the equivalent to ‘the straight’ in Formula 1 and we would get the opportunity to see just how fast the boats can be sailed. On the ORMA circuit if ever you wanted the chance to see a 60ft trimaran sailing at full tilt on just its leeward foil, all three hulls otherwise airborne, then it was on the short reaching leg.

Inevitably it seems that the races will get shorter again. According to Tim Jeffery the target is probably getting race durations down from 1 hour 40 minutes to around an hour. For here we get into another area for debate. The ultimate exponents of fast boat, short course racing is the Extreme Sailing Series, but the priority for this circuit is to make racing primarily appealing to shore-based spectators. This they have achieved admirably with courses very close to the shore or even in docks, as was the case in Amsterdam. The downside of this though is that it can make a mockery of the racing with the affects from the close proximity to shore creating all kinds of turbulence in the wind.

Making yacht racing appealing to spectators and TV are not necessarily the same things. With the Extreme Sailing Series the spectator comes first. With the America’s Cup it should be TV first and for this reason we hope that they keep racing offshore a little for the pinnacle event in our sport must be carried out in the best breeze available.

In fact the racing heading offshore to a degree is inevitable. As was the case with the 33rd America’s Cup (although there won’t be the same Deed of Gift course limitations) the new AC boat, whether it is a mono or a multi, will be fast - expect 20-25 knot upwind speeds, 40 knots off the wind, if it goes to a multihull or say three quarters of this if it goes to an ultra high performance monohull. So an hour of racing, given a sea breeze wind direction, can potentially take boats a long way from the shore, even if there are multiple laps (more laps we feel would be a good thing making for more manoeuvres).

So who makes the decision? BMW Oracle Racing is holding the trials and we understand this will involve around 60 people. The 30 hours of TV a day from the 11 on board cameras will be edited down and published for us all to see. It seems that those outside of the defender’s camp can air their views but ultimately the decision over the race formats and the style of boat will lie with BMW Oracle Racing.

While we fully support Coutts’ back to basics approach in attempting to revolutionise the America’s Cup competition, this does come with considerable risk. For example none of the challengers we have spoken to seems at all keen on the 34th America’s Cup being raced in multihulls, regardless of their merits or how much it revolutionises the event.

Coutts’ vision is for the America’s Cup to be a full-blown sport with aggressive boats and athletic crew, with perpetual drama on the race course. This is a far cry from plodding around the race course in a stately manner aboard version 5 boats that we, but particularly the all-important Team Principals, have come to expect from the America’s Cup. Coutts is thinking Pepsi Max and Lamborghini, whereas the competition in the past has been more Chateau Lafitte and Bentley.

Tim Jeffery says that while with the Evaluation Trials they are going back to basics the aim is not to lose the vital ingredients of the competition – the match racing, boat on boat, the best sailors in the world, high levels of technology, etc. “This group absolutely understands and cherishes the traditions of the America’s Cup, but it is also a forward-looking. Everything we are doing is trying to make it better for team owners and their business partners, with the racing better than ever before.”

However we worry that while revolutionised the sport is admirable, it may end up with no competitors willing to come and play.

What do you think?


Latest Comments

  • benremocker 27/07/2010 - 06:22

    This will be a huge push forward for AC, no matter which format they choose. The dramatic push forward to TV audiences and a fair playing field should rid us all of these decades of court battles dominating sailing news. The 49er class has some interesting plans for formats, have a read at:
  • melges20 23/07/2010 - 12:22

    In the US, sailing is regarded as "only for the rich",,,ESPN changed that somewhat with the addition of Budwiser race cams on Dennis Conners Stars and Stripes in Perth, provided the non sailors with a new perspective on the sport...Hope the new trials go well in presenting new opportunities to open sailing to new fans.....
  • dmwdmw 23/07/2010 - 11:47

    Both F1 and Moto GP are popular and watched globally. Aspects they have in common are multiple participant teams and a series of races throughout the year. The larger number of participants gives rise to a larger number of "television moments" and the battle for 4th or 5th can be interesting when 1st place is sewn up. The series based nature allows teams to come back from technical deficiencies and improve technology continually. I think this maintains the interest of the spectator. The time between America's cup events makes it harder to hold spectators attention. In addition, continued coverage would allow new spectators to learn about sail boat racing. This is essential if its popularity is to expand outside those who already race sail boats to a more general public interest. All in all I think the Blue Riband event for sailing has to move away from the match racing basis. America's cup technology racing every two weeks with multiple competitors: that is something I would definitely follow.
  • KingMonkey 22/07/2010 - 16:18

    As pointed out by Andyn above - the thing the public will tune into most are crashes. This may make good car crash TV, but it won't make a good competition and sponsorship doesn't come with crashes. "Your logo on this sinking boat" won't sell. BO are doing this the wrong way round. They should be picking the boats and then working out how best to film them. In any case, it is hard to see what the huge numbers of cameras on the RC44s and X40s during their normal series have missed. I would rather they got on with the rather more pressing issue of choosing a venue and a date so that some of the other teams might have a chance in competing.
  • andyn 22/07/2010 - 12:46

    Regarding the 'sailing for the masses on tv' debate. Just searched YouTube for the most popular sailing clips: First - 18secs of a sailing boat cutting infront of a ferry and being run down 4.7m views, Second - a collection of boat crashes 2.2m views, Third a bunch of girls in bikini's Dolphin watching...

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