Committed to making yacht racing and the Cup easier to understand for a wider audience BMW Oracle took the first steps to find ways of turning sailing into a crowd puller - David Glenn was there

So just what has BMW Oracle Racing been up to in Valencia this past weekend? In their efforts to re-invigorate the America’s Cup the holders are confronting myriad issues not least the disappointment evident among once loyal followers and even sponsors. Following the debacle leading up to the last multihull event there is much to be done and Larry Ellison and CEO Russell Coutts recognise the need for a wholesale shake up prior to 2013 or 2014.

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To ‘to do’ list is long but near the top is a commitment to turn sailing into a more compelling, understandable spectator sport for a wider, uninitiated audience. That’s a TV or online audience. Finding ways to achieve that began last weekend.

By looking at new boats – the fundamental question of whether the next America’s Cup will be sailed in multihulls or monohulls is still wide open, but should be announced before the end of the summer  – new courses and new ways of giving yacht racing mass appeal, BMOR are challenging convention. As previously reported pairs of RC44 monohulls and X40 catamarans have been used in a series of ambitious and unique experiments with a plethora of racing, media and technical experts providing input.

But why change a formula that, in terms of the racing, couldn’t have been closer in monohulls in 2007? The problem was it didn’t suit TV. Among other things there were too many race delays due to weather, not enough action and races, which were too long for time sensitive broadcasting schedules.

With no ongoing TV funding, the new defender has had to start from scratch, establishing the competition business plan and paying for it. It’s easy to say, well Larry Ellison can afford it, but this time Ellison and Coutts are aiming to create something that will last, a legacy that will give the America’s Cup a life beyond the next match – even if they lose. “The America’s Cup must move on,” said Tom Ehman, head of external affairs for BMOR.

To get sailing fit for live broadcast either online or via TV (‘what will be the difference by the time of the next Match in 2013 or 2014?’ many ask) BMOR have looked at stock car racing (NASCAR) in the USA, the National Basketball League, the NFL, ice hockey and other sports to see how live yacht racing coverage can be progressed to appeal more, much more, to the viewer.

Among the technical firepower in Valencia last weekend were ace navigator Stan Honey and Ken Milnes who in former lives ran a company called Sportvision. They are now members of the BMOR team and are bringing some remarkable technology to the table. They worked out how to track ice hockey pucks using graphics and get that live on screen. They provided the same technology for NFL and other sports. Now by using incredibly accurate gps positioning and being able to integrate onboard boat data with live footage they are bringing this remarkable tool – one which could be the key to attracting bigger audiences – to yachting.

The current process is also very much about Larry Ellison and Russell Coutts wanting to end the stop/start nature of the America’s Cup and they believe that the only way to do this is to appeal to television and online viewers so that funding isn’t at the whim of a handful of multi-billionaires every few years.

So in Valencia the emphasis has been on how to make yacht racing a must-view sport. More effective onboard footage and audio, the aforementioned annotation of live footage, faster, more demanding boats that work across a wide wind range, improved commentating, even re-directing budget to promote sailors as screen personalities at the expense of sailing boat hardware, like sails perhaps – it’s all on the agenda. Crew numbers will certainly be down on the new 72-footers in an attempt to make the sport more athletically engaging. Rail ‘lard’ and just sitting around are clearly out.

In short it’s about re-packaging yacht racing for modern media consumption. It is one of the hardest nuts to crack in a sport always at the mercy of the elements, but for starters BMOR are spending Euros 250,000 a session (and there are three) just to experiment with ideas.

Valencia was about testing cameras, camera angles, HD and 3D footage so that when the protocol and the class rule for the next Cup are finalised, challengers as well as the defender will be aware of what they will need to turn up with. Gyro stabilised 3D cameras (on chase boats and in helicopters for now); fixed cameras at the masthead; on the spreaders; slung beneath the sprit (on the cats); strapped to the deck; remote control cameras on boom ends and hand-helds were all used then footage analysed back at the BMOR base. Special masthead equipment will be a must to transmit sailing data to gyrostabilised 3D cameras in helicopters  (on deck kit generates too much interference for sailing and navigation instruments) so that Honey and co can work their magic with live on-screen annotation.

Up to a dozen microphones were fitted to each boat in Valencia and the importance of having all crew ‘audio live’ was emphasised. Getting viewers ‘onboard’ the boats with 3D live footage and cinema-style surround sound, warts and all, is imperative and Valencia showed glimpses of what could be achieved.

It also showed how difficult it is to dream up new angles, have kit that will resist the toughest environment (€30,000 worth was lost on a choppy day this weekend) and how professional race crews will now have to bow to the demands of media. In fact the new AC boats will have cameras and sound equipment built in from the design stage with ‘fox holes’ for at least one onboard cameraman. The sailors, at least those with BMOR, appear to have accepted this and the media tech teams are delighted that this nettle has, at last, been grasped at their end.

Experiments have just concluded in Valencia using RC44 monohulls and Xtreme 40 cats and more work will be done at the imminent 1851 regatta in Cowes between Oracle and Origin (being sailed in Oracle’s version 5 AC boats) during Cowes Week and at another RC44 event in Puerto Calero in the Canaries this autumn.

Over the weekend one could detect signs of concern at BMOR’s central office, even a faint whiff of paranoia. It’s born out of a combination of the need to get it right this time, deadlines and, frankly, exhaustion in the camp as they work to get their ducks in a row so soon after the monumental effort of the trimaran back in February – yes, it was only February!

As CEO Russell Coutts told me: “We’ve set the bar very high.”  With deadlines for the 34th America’s Cup final protocol (the rules for how the event is run), the class rule (the type of boat), venue announcements and the opening of the challenger period coming up fast – all this autumn – the race is on to present America’s Cup competition in a different and more commercially savvy light. “If we have to delay things we will just have to say sorry to people (i.e. challengers).” Russell Coutts told me.

But the mood in Valencia was great. Team members seemed really keen on examining the whole process of how the racing might change and the exchange of ideas was prolific in a convivial atmosphere. Are we seeing a new attitude of openness too, something pioneered to an extent by Alinghi?

It’s worth looking at some of the issues facing BMOR in detail.

The boats

When they get to the start line in three or four years time the teams will certainly be in new boats but no one yet knows if it will be a monohull or a multihull. We know it will be 72ft/22m maximum loa but it must be one that in 5kts of breeze is powered up and ready to race. The mantra that if there’s enough wind for an Optimist then there should be enough to run an America’s Cup race is deadly serious because it demonstrates to TV that the likelihood of disastrous delays can be avoided.

If BMOR choose a monohull it will have to be effective through a massive wind range powered up in 5 knots and controllable but very fast indeed – 30 knots plus – in 25. The only way to do this according to some in the BMOR camp will be to design monohulls with canting keels and Tom Ehman even suggests that with engines and fuel onboard there will be extended opportunities for sponsorship!

But a canting keel will still present draught problems if these yachts are to be used for the six or eight America’s Cup Championship regattas per year leading up to the Match, which is what is now being envisaged by Ellison and Coutts. The first of the new breed won’t be seen until at least the beginning of 2012 although BMOR must have advanced ideas up their design sleeves.

In Valencia the cats came alive far more readily and one can’t help feeling the case for choosing multihulls with wing power is growing steadily. There remains, however, a convincing school of thought that supports monohulls, giant lightweight canting keel-ers that can produce some, but perhaps not all, the excitement of a multi. Ultimate skiffs if you like. It’s a hard one to call but if Ellison is really serious about re-invention for TV wing driven multi-hulls must be in with more than a shout.

But how about using both? Multi one day, mono the next with the same crew. That’s the sort of discussion that was underway in Valencia.

The courses

Valencia was also an opportunity to test new courses, many of them devised on a simulator at the BMOR base and fully experimented with by skipper James Spithill. Out on the race course last week end the yachts were given much smaller starting boxes, shortened pre-start times – two minutes or less is being mooted for multis – very short (like a few hundred metres) beats before rounding a weather mark and then playing the angles downwind through mandatory gates. Races must be over in minutes not hours. Long pre-starts with dial ups and never-ending, long-tack beats won’t wash apparently.

Running starts are being considered, time limits on tack lengths are being experimented with (basketball has similar rules for holding the ball before passing) – in fact, almost anything that makes racing more exciting is being looked at. Some of it has been tried before (remember the Ziplock Ultimate 30s of the 1990s) but more than anything, said Russell Coutts: “The idea is to provide more overtaking opportunities.” This, he believes, is what fires up the media adrenalin.

However, on the day Murray Jones and Austrian multihull maestro Roman Hagara were out trying to overtake each in the cats. They managed it only once. But, like everything else last week end, it’s early days. The important point is that everything is being looked at.

Suffice to say that while you and I might be enthralled by dial ups and long tacks on long beats, these are the sort of esoteric bits of yacht racing BMOR are seeking to eliminate. Ouch!

This is not, insists Coutts, dumbing down but looking at ways of matching yacht racing with the demands of mass audiences.

TV/online presentation

As explained earlier Ellison and Coutts want to make yacht-racing viewer friendly and more understandable. They envisage annotating live pictures with lay lines, boat speed, wind speed and angles all displayed as the action happens. It’s like having the virtual eye blended with live pictures – Live Eye if you like. Commentators will be able to point out elements of the live pictures by highlighting with pointers and other devices, crew can be identified, manoeuvres explained graphically – in general the esoteric element of sailing can be explained more readily.

Stan Honey told me that when this is done with NASCAR, for instance, cameras are positioned in known, fixed positions around a track making it relatively easy to get the technology to work. In yachting, cameras will have to be in a helicopter, the first time this technology has been used with cameras on a moving platform. But exceedingly accurate gps – to within millimetres rather than metres – can be brought into play apparently.

The Venue

Would Ellison ever be forgiven for not defending the cup on home soil – ie San Francisco?  Perhaps not but he might not have a regatta either if it went to the Bay. The truth is teams and their money are largely Europe based – at least that’s where the action is and the physical infrastructure lies.

The financial infrastructure is, perhaps, more able to cross oceans. But company boards planning sponsorship need to start making decisions now about what happens in four years time – it’s another part of the stress factor for BMOR. I was told that the City of San Francisco is completely up for it but there are big issues over getting the permissions to re-develop docks and if you believe the local newspapers in California the political baggage is heavy. The Bay though would be a magical amphitheatre – 72ft wing-powered multis in 20 knots of afternoon breeze!

I am told there is a front-runner in the Mediterranean. No names, no pack drill, but look back at press conference venues in recent months…

There’s another issue. The following pack. Will superyachts, and all they bring to the gig, trek to SF? Half the sailing yachts can’t make it through Panama anyway because of air draught so that too is an issue. Again, I was told that the superyacht factor is an important part of the mix. That along with the professional yachting community could swing it slightly Europe’s way.


Final protocol – end of August 2010
Class rule – end of September 2010
Challenger period – opens October 1 2010, closes January 31 2011.
Venue decision – December 31 2010

If even part of what BMOR are trying to achieve succeeds, the implications in the longer term for yacht racing as we know it are considerable and in the short term could help regain much needed credibility for the America’s Cup.