Amory Ross / Team Alvimedica

The OCR's role

Team Alvimedia's Amory Ross talks us through the media crewman's role

Saturday October 25th 2014, Author: James Boyd, Location: none selected

Along with Yann Riou on board Dongfeng, Team Alvimedica's Amory Ross is the only repeat offender among the MCMs, rechristened On Board Reporters for this Volvo Ocean Race (to emphasis they are definitely not ‘crew’).

Ross made a name for himself with his excellent MCM work with Ken Read's team aboard Puma in the last race. After this he moved to San Francisco to work with Oracle Team USA for the 34th America’s Cup, initially in a similar MCM capacity, but ultimately joined Philippe Presti, working within the defender’s ‘performance team’ as videographer. “Then,” he says he got lured back into the round the world race because “I started to miss the people and the adventure and being part of a small team, where you get to know everyone.

“If there was one doubt in my mind, it was the notion of telling the story again would to be a lot harder, because everyone talks about ‘the first time you do something - that is when it is at its most visceral’. The second time does it lose any of its impact? The reality is - it would be a different boat, a different team and a different race altogether and I couldn’t be happier to be back here.”

Ross' signing with Team Alvimedica occurred smoothly as he already had his foot in the door having previously sailed with skipper Charlie Enright, Mark Towill as part of the Oakcliff All-American Offshore Team, competing with them in both the Transatlantic and Rolex Fastnet Races in 2011. These escapades were largely responsible for Ross originally getting the Puma gig. “I owe my first race to them – that was a really good training platform for me,” he admits.

In another of the Volvo Ocean Race media department’s ill-conceived decisions, the plan for the OBRs this time was to recruit people from the ‘outside’ who could bring ‘fresh perspective’ to the race. But they seemed to ignore issues such racing around the world on grand prix yachts being potentially all the more lethal for the inexperienced. Plus there is the requirement of having a cast iron stomach to cope with spending prolonged periods down below, confined in a small cuddy towards the back of an often violently bucking and crashing carbon fibre boat, accompanied by the full pantheon of nausea-inducing odours, ranging from diesel fumes to crewmen’s rancid undergarments. So for example while several Chinese OBRs were trialled with no success for Dongfeng, there they ended up with Yann Riou, who went around last time with Groupama. Team Alvimedica also went through some trials before opting for the safe option of their old friend. 

This Volvo Ocean Race is being dubbed the ‘human edition’ by its media marketeer commanders – as a result this ‘race’ has been dubbed the ‘Volvo Ocean Life Experience’ (VOLE) by critical sailing fans, unable to fathom why the VOR has abandoned its core audience with its near non-existent coverage of the ‘racing’ side of their event. Despite this Ross says he doesn't feel his job hasn’t been affected. However a fundamental change is that rather than the OBRs ‘driving the story’ reacting to what happens on board, this time the main story lines are being co-ordinated by a team of ‘watch producers’ back in Alicante (we imagine them being like the guy with the beret in the Truman Show), among them the eminent Mark Covell, one of the few people in the VOR media team with any sailing experience…

Ross explains how this works: “It is all being driven by the watch producers, 24/7, and they have got a whole ‘script’ and a very well thought out progression of story lines. Leg 1 is about the first chance to look at performance and jumping into this race, the butterflies at the beginning – predictable stuff – but they understand that there has got to be room for stories to develop that they didn’t anticipate and they are not telling us what to do. But they place a lot of emphasis into their weekly show and just trying to create a consistent time line among all of the boats.”

The daily output OBRs must deliver he says is similar to the last race – typically a 200-300 word story, four or five still images and around three minutes of video, which is at a little higher quality than in 2011-12. “They have found some extra bandwidth in the system which is courtesy of Inmarsat,” says Ross.

The OBR’s job is made easier because the camera shy, monosyllabic sailors of the past have mostly been replaced by a younger generation more willing to, and understanding the necessity of, communicating what is taking place on board.

“Three races with it [OBRs] and two things have happened - you either have veterans who have done three races of living with cameras. They are very comfortable with having someone record and send that off the boat - it has been long enough that they see the value in it. Then you have the younger guys who have spent the last three races watching from the outside and they are part of the ‘new generation’ everyone talks about. As a whole our jobs have become a lot easier as people are more comfortable with the sending more stuff off because they know that is what people want to see,” says Ross.

However Ross says that it still takes the crew time to acclimatise to being in front of the camera, even the stars of the Disney Morning Light film: “My biggest struggle with Mark and Charlie is that they have just spent a year and a half being really professional and mature, trying to convince people that they were ready to do this race and now I am asking them to be fun and casual and to take down that barrier. At the moment they act differently in front of the camera to when they are not. But fortunately we are very good friends and I have done a lot of sailing with them.”

On board Puma in the last race, Ross typically worked from his bunk on the VO70. “There was technically a media desk just aft of the engine box, but it was nothing I could sit at or work from. In fact the well I was supposed to sit on was covered with a Cuben sheet so they could slide things across. More than anything it was a place to plug in a computer when it was time to send. I did all my work from my bunk, so I was outboard and it was fairly protected from people standing over me. The 65s have a dedicated desk which has a well where I can put the laptop case and a proper seat - it is super slick and very nicely done.”

While the laptops at the nav station are plumbed in, the OBR’s remains portable and Ross says he still does a lot of work from his bunk "to be a good Samaritan and keep my weight out.”

In terms of the hardware he has – the organisers supply him with a fully pimped MacBook Pro. “It is super quick and the battery consumption is good. If you have a slow computer everything takes longer and you are using more energy, charging more often, then you have to bring more gas [diesel] and it all adds up.”

He takes good care of his Mac, but carries a spare just in case. During the last race one computer was trashed four days into the Southern Ocean when it was open and ‘sending’. One of the crew accidentally drowned it when he came down below soaking wet and was waiting to speak to someone at the nav station. So why not get a waterproof laptop? “It is hard to find one that is powerful and fast enough to do the editing, especially with the bigger and bigger [video] file sizes,” explains Ross.

On the VO65 the fixed camera set-up is similar to last time with five: Two on the spreaders one on the transom, a new one which is looking forward from the rig, while the camera which was on the instrument pod has been transferred to the coachroof. The coachroof and spreader cameras have pan, tilt and zoom functions which can be controlled remotely.

“This time they have added some other devices like an iPad, so you can drive all the cameras from up on deck and do a lot of the live interviews up on deck too. So these are subtle, but significant changes,” says Ross.

Oddly there are no fixed cameras down below because it is deemed too dark – why didn’t they paint the inside of the boat white? They are all one designs. To get down below images Ross says he has to use a full frame camera capable of picking up the maximum amount of available light.

As those who watched the last America’s Cup will recognise, the audio side is also a vital part of the experience. The VO65s have a microphone in the hatchway facing aft, plus two more on the helm stations. Ross says that this is similar to the set-up they had in the last race, only that the mics are better protected. In addition the helm and nav station below decks are connected via an intercom which the OBR can tap into to record conversations. There is also a two way radio that, for example, allows a crewman going aloft to communicate with someone on deck – which can also be recorded.

“There are many different sources you can pull from, they have added to the audio more than anything else,” says Ross. “It is a very complex system, so it is going to take some time to figure out.”

In terms of their portable gear, for this race the initial idea was for all of the OBRs to use standard kit. However as each has his or her own personal preference for equipment, this was subsequently amended to ‘Volvo approved’ gear. “It allows you to bring what fits your style. It is good – everyone has a slightly different approach,” Ross explains. “I came from a photography background, so I like nice lenses and good cameras. In fact this group of OBRs is much more artistic than they were in the previous couple of races. We get to see some incredible conditions and the lighting is a cinematographer’s dream. So people are using nice SLRs and good lenses, but I try to remind myself that you don’t really need any of it. Story telling is about the story and you could do it with an iPhone.”

Ross has with him two SLRs, one mirror-less with autofocus for video and is capable of shooting 4K.

While there have been complaints about the tiny amount of video sent from on board each day, the reason for this is that the OBRs are obliged to send footage back in broadcast quality hi-definition. Ross explains: “We export it in Apple ProRes 1080, which is uncompressed format and it gets churned up in the meatgrinder of CODEC processing and compressed into a small package. Most of our files are about 2GB when I export them but the sent file is probably about half that.”

Sending 1GB of data from the depths of the ocean is no mean feat, so the limitation to the amount of video sent back daily is in fact the available satellite airtime, even with sponsorship provided by Inmarsat. “It takes about 45 minutes to send this video through the Inmarsat Fleet Broadband 500,” Ross continues. “They are Cobham/Inmarsat products and very reliable. In the last race there was only one part of world where we had a problem and that was because the signal the satellite was trying to receive was directly in line with the rig and signals and carbon never work out so well. Otherwise it is super reliable - you hit ‘send’ and 45 minutes later it ends up back in Spain.”

However one wonders why they can’t send a few seconds less hi-def footage in order to send back longer videos at lower res for people to watch on line.

For this race, there is also a deal with GoPro and all of the boats are carrying the latest GoPro3 cameras. “GoPro has had years of promoting themselves through guys jumping off planes and skiing and surfing, etc,” says Ross. “Now they are looking for a lot of the same things that Volvo is, like audio and people and characters and story telling, etc. The challenge is going to be getting good audio into the cameras.”

In fact the GoPro material could end being better than the material sent off the boat. For while the unused footage shot for Volvo seems to end up in a vault never to be seen again, GoPro has apparently got a whole team of editors who at the end of each leg are going to plough through the vast amount of footage taken on the seven boats and extract the best bits. “The biggest problem with GoPros is that you hit ‘record’ and 10 minutes of something is already too much. It doesn’t matter how much good material is in there, it is still gigabytes worth.”

One of the thorny topics from the last race was that of the ‘crash button’, much publicised as being able to capture the previous two minutes of video with the idea that if something dramatic occurred on board, such as a wipe-out or a dismasting, then the footage could be retrieved. However in practice this video seemed never to reach the public domain, which many believed was down to the teams/Volvo sitting on this potentially sensitive/embarrassing material.

In fact there were technical issues with the ‘crash button’, states Ross. “They had a lot of problems with water ingression - it turned out that the buttons weren’t as tough as we hoped they’d be. The buttons either shorted and never registered in the system or they would short and constantly trigger and it would fill up the hard drive without you ever knowing. For example when we lost our mast on Puma, I hit the button and nothing was ever saved.”

For this race the ‘crash’ buttons are better protected, mounted in the companionway, while the system now records the previous four minutes rather than two.

However Ross confirms that in the last race teams were often keen to hide some things that were going on on board, but points out that this time, with the one designs, there is less to conceal. Teams still can veto what gets sent off the boat, however there are way around this. For some reason there is a delay between what gets sent and what goes out on the weekly show (Sunset & Vine have the immense task of churning out thirty nine 26 minute long programs during the race), “so if we blow up our J2 I could earmark something I send off and say ‘here’s this story, but I’d rather it only went to the show’. Volvo understands that.”

Ross says that thanks to his long term relationship with Team Alvimedica’s skipper Charlie Enright, he is trusted to decide what footage ‘stays on board’.

So “was that the reason we didn’t get to see any of winch handle throwing or Ken Read’s tantrums on Puma in the last race?” we put it to Amory slyly. “No! Our team got along really well….just no!”

In part two of this article Ross tells us about his other chores, the cleaning and the cooking…


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