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WMRT Monsoon Cup - Real-time coaching makes debut in Malaysia

by Dobbs Davis on 28 Nov 2011
Torvar Mirsky coaching Bruni and Damien Iehl coaching Berntsson - WMRT Monsoon Cup 2011 © Chris Davies/AWMRT
Monsoon Cup, final stage of the World Match Racing Tour, was held in Kuala Terengganu, Malaysia. Borrowing from the motor sports world, where the driver is in constant contact with his crew via radio comms, real-time coaching made its debut in the Quarter-Finals yesterday, 27th November.

Rule 41 of the Racing Rules of Sailing which normally prohibits ‘outside assistance’ has been amended here, so that coaches have been allowed to give advice and insight to their team via radio. Positioned on the third-floor balcony of the Ri-Yaz Heritage pavilion adjacent to the race course area, the coaches have an elevated view of the current and the wind, and can provide, when prompted, their insight on which side of the course to favour in each match.

Having been out on the water themselves and felt the pressure of having to read the course while under fire, the natural choices of coaches were from among skippers and crew who did not make the cut to the Quarter-Final round. When these choices were revealed on the evening prior to racing, it provided great entertainment, as erstwhile enemies now became allies in the fight that lie ahead: having just won his last deciding match by mere centimetres, Francesco Bruni naturally chose his hapless opponent, Torvar Mirsky, to be his coach, and Matthieu Richard was tapped by rival skipper Peter Gilmour YANMAR Racing to help lead him through his next round.

Kidding aside, this shows the depth of respect and trust the teams have in each other’s abilities, even as they have been battling each other throughout the season.

'The concept of prohibiting outside assistance goes back to racing on the Thames in the 19th century,' says Gilmour, who proposed to try this at the Monsoon Cup. 'Back then when the tide changed, a boat could hand off their anchor line to someone ashore, who could then tow them up the course. So the principal of being self-reliant became rooted in the game, and not until recently has this changed.'

And the change has been considerable: few yachts venture anywhere now without a GPS, most offshore races now allow weather routing help through downloads of grib files, and the advent of sophisticated electronic tools and modern telecommunications has brought offshore sailors to all new levels of accuracy and access. Most aspects of our lives can now be influenced and enhanced by having access to information made readily available – look at the explosion in apps for iPhones, iPads, and the like.

So it’s not a long stretch to accept real-time coaching help to increase the performance level of the teams, and help allow the game evolve in some new and interesting ways, especially if adopted at other match racing events. Coach positioning, for example, can play a huge role, and not every venue will have the bird’s eye view afforded here in Kuala Terengganu. Will coaches then be allowed out on other areas of the course, on the water or even in the air? And what about at the lower levels of the game where teams are still learning: would it be right for the coach to tell them how to execute a difficult manoeuvre and provide detailed tactical advice, rather then just observations of the race course? If so, who will police this?

And once coaches are accepted onto the competitor’s boats, what’s to keep them off the umpire boats as well? Most umpires agree that the integrity of most calls are made based on good positioning, and even the best umpires can find themselves out of position when a good call is needed. Can a coach possibly help them as well? An electronic variant of this concept devised by Stan Honey and his team is already in play at the America’s Cup World Series, where umpire calls are made based on highly-accurate telemetry brought to match umpires pouring over their screens. Honey says the debriefs are no longer arguments about the facts of positioning – the telemetry settles this to within centimetres – but about the tactical options and rules that apply.

But here at the Monsoon Cup the input provided by coaches was more factual than directive: where the wind shift was seen to be, what side of the course seemed to have better current, etc., and not direct advice on what side of the start line or upwind leg to favour.

One team that enjoyed the most success from the coaching was newly-crowned World Champion Ian Williams Team GAC Pindar, who had already signed up 49er Olympic Silver Medallist Ian Barker to help them read the course area. And while not a match racer per se, Barker does, however, have tremendous coaching experience for Olympic aspirants, and was already on his way to coach at the ISAF Sailing World Championships the following week in Perth. With Barker’s help, Williams won the overall World Championship title in the Quarter Final, sailing a course area strewn with tricky current eddies and wind shifts.

Perhaps ironically, the teams with skippers as coaches did not fair so well: Mirsky’s Bruni went down 1-3 to Williams, and Richard’s Gilmour lost 1-3 to Johnnie Berntsson.

But not having a coach had its perils as well: both Will Tiller and Phil Robertson eschewed their option to take on a coach, and both lost to their rivals by close scores of 2-3.

How much will coaching be used in future Tour events? Probably more, as the Tour seeks to embrace new ways to enhance the excitement level even more, both on and off the Monsoon Cup World Match Racing Tour website

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