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34th America's Cup and magic buttons

by Leighton O'Connor on 1 May 2011
34th America’s Cup Leighton O'Connor © http://www.leightonphoto.com/
Last Wednesday, I was invited to a press conference in New Zealand wrapping up the third day of testing the AC45's. Unfortunately, I had to journey down under via a conference call. The kick off time was 4PM their time - midnight my time. I figured what the heck. Conan is all repeats this week and Letterman has been pretty lame lately.

I was late in getting dialled in because my land-line didn't like the conference call software. I joined the press conference in mid sentence of Principal Race Officer John Craig as he described how protests will be handled, 'Boats will have magic buttons. Skippers can press a button for a black protest flag or a button for a red protest flag . That request goes to the umpire booth, they review it and they will declare if there is a penalty or not and text the offender.' What? It was late but did I hear that right? Magic buttons? Texting a skipper?

America's Cup CEO and the Regatta Director, Iain Murray and Craig took turns answering questions about the weird high tech gadgets on the AC45's. The skippers will have four buttons. Two for protests, one for room to tact and one for new tacks. So if James Spithill wants to protest Terry Hutchinson, he presses a button. The umpires are notified instantly in their cozy booth on land that there is a protest. They would then take a look at the possible protest on one of their many monitors. If they feel the protest is justified, they issue a penalty to the offending boat's black box via a text message making lights blink on and off on the box and the skipper needs to take the penalty. Not only do the umpires get cues from the magic buttons, all the teams get a text about other team's protests and penalties via their own black box with blinking lights.

'The boats can be tracked within two centimeters and are tracked ten times per a second. We are testing the tracking this week to see if it's accurate enough for calling the line over or early' Craig said. Imagine calling the line from a booth on land and not even seeing the boats? Just a little weird. Just in case the umpire's tracking software goes bad, their will be umpires on two jet skies watching the action the old fashion way and reporting back to the land locked umpires.

I chimed in eventually and of course I wanted to know what was on board for cameras. Murray said' 'Their will be four cameras on each boat with live feeds back to the mainland. One camera on the bowsprit, one in front of the wing and cameras on the port and starboard. Also, each crew member will be miked upped and there will be five other mics on each boat. Depending on the number of boats racing, there could be as many as 100 channels of audio and 40 channels of video. Spectators will have more information than the teams during a race but all that information will be available to the teams after the race.' TV testing will start next week in New Zealand.


Over the last few years old time America's Cup fans seem to be very dismayed about the switch from monohulls. Until now I have been somewhat on the fence about high tech multihulls racing for the Cup and rather quiet about it. I lost interest in the 33rd after all the legal battles and the venue selection. I covered the last week of matches of the 32nd America's Cup in Valencia in June of 2007. AC32 was raced on what was then very 'high tech' IACC 82-foot monohulls with real mainsails. I don't even think the keels canted. I covered the matches from the sea and air and the action was 'somewhat' exciting but not totally riveting. Except for watching from a helicopter as Team New Zealand ripped through two spinnakers on one leg in a matter of a few minutes. But I wasn't in the cheap seats so the action was more than real and close.

Back then the press wasn't given a lot of access to the boats so I wasn't exposed to the any high tech gadgets they had on board. I saw some wireless tablets, a few cameras on board and saw that the foredeck guy was juiced into Skipper via a headset. But that was about all I saw for space gadgets. Based on what I have read and seen for videos over the last few weeks from the testing in New Zealand...I'm sold on these high tech wired-winged cat boats. These cats look a lot more interesting than what I have seen in the past Cups and look like a lot more fun. And I'm completely on board with the real time media coverage of what could be some very interesting footage. Especially if a boat heads down the mine with the cameras on and the sound cranked up.

I have photographed a lot of the old America's Cup 12 Metre vessels. They are beautiful sleek crafts but I have never had the chance to actually sail on one. If you gave me the choice to sail with Mr. Conner on a classic 12 or with Mr. Spithill on an AC45 at the World Series later this year, I'd be at the dock in a millisecond (with a helmet cam) waiting for James.

I'm looking forward to seeing the sidelines of San Francisco bay filled with thousands of spectators like a drunken NASCAR track. I'm especially looking forward to seeing the live action footage from the AC70's and seeing peoples reaction to the coverage. Let's face it, if we want sailing to be a bigger/more popular sport in the States, we need to kick it up a notch and show a lot more action and maybe a little harmless carnage once and a while. Mr. Ellison has taken a lot of crap for turning the America's Cup upside down but I think he is on the right track and has been right all along. It's all for the good of sailing...magic buttons and all.







Images by Leighton O'Connor - www.leightonoconnor.com!website!here

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