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An interview with Shirley Robertson on her media role at the 36th America's Cup

by David Schmidt 18 Jan 08:00 PST January 15 to March 21, 2021
Shirley Robertson at the 35th America's Cup in Bermuda © Image courtesy of theShirley Robertson Collection

British Olympic great Shirley Robertson (UK; OBE) is a household name to most high-performance sailing fans around the world, both for winning two gold Olympic medals and for her impressive work as a TV journalist who hosted CNN's Mainsail program for 12 years. Few highly competitive sailors have made the jump from winning Olympic gold in highly competitive events-in this case the singlehanded Europe class dinghy at the Sydney 2000 Olympics and the three-person Yngling keelboat at the Athens 2004 Olympics-to providing high-level commentary on the sport, but Robertson has more than proved her meddle in both pursuits.

Additionally, she hosts her namesake sailing podcast, which is a must-listen for anyone who loves competitive sailing.

While Robertson has previously spoken to Sail-World about her aspirations to pursue the Mixed Two Person Offshore Keelboat event at the Paris 2024 Olympics (www.sail-world.com/news/231496/Shirley-Robertson-on-her-doublehanded-aspirations), she is currently in Auckland, New Zealand, working as the on-the-water commentator for America's Cup Television. Her colleagues for this job include internationally renowned skipper and former America's Cup helmsman Ken Read (USA), who also happens to be president of North Sails, and Nathan Outteridge (AUS), who is a gold and silver medalist in the 49er class (London 2012 Olympics and Rio 2016 Olympics) and the former skipper Artemis in the 35th America's Cup (2017 in Bermuda; he also served as the team's helmsman for the 34th America's Cup in San Francisco in 2013).

While Read and Outteridge spend their time in the media room, Robertson can be found chasing after the AC75 foiling monohulls aboard a high-speed catamaran and providing an expert eye on the water.

Critically, given the global coronavirus pandemic, Robertson is one of a handful of international journalists who has seaboots on the dock for this America's Cup cycle, and while her day job is with the event itself, she has also been creating some highly insightful podcasts during her time in New Zealand. The most recent episodes of "Shirley Robertson's Sailing Podcast" provide great insight into what unfurled during the recent America's Cup World Series racing (December 17-20, 2020), and what the sailing world can expect as we move into the Prada Cup (January 15 - February 22, 2021).

I checked in with Robertson, via email, to learn more about what it's like to be part of the media team that's providing commentary for the 36th America's Cup.

You've covered a bunch of America's Cups, but what's it like to cover this one, amidst a global pandemic, where you are one of the few international journalists and commentators who have been able to travel to NZ for the racing?

Those of us who are here feel very lucky, both personally to be New Zealand at this time [of pandemic] and also that this event is actually happening as scheduled. It's hard not to look at the news from home every day and be reminded of that.

It is a different vibe to a normal Cup that's for sure, we miss seeing the usual faces.... our sailing fans from around the world, 'swapping notes' with other sailing journalists...here, well quite often there's only us (ACTV) and obviously Kiwi journalists at the mixed zone. There's no need to sharpen your elbows to keep your spot in the line up!

However, the sailing fans globally are thirsty to know what's going on, they are intrigued by the new machines, the daily technical developments and the caliber of the teams.

Those of us here feel the responsibility to share the stories and the drama as it all unfolds. There will be more podcasts, [I] promise!

You were on the water in San Francisco and Bermuda for AC34 and AC35—how does chasing the AC75s in New Zealand compare to these other Cups?

SF was incredible from the water, two massive flying catamarans coming together set in the theatre of the Bay...it was truly unforgettable.

Bermuda had its moments, too, but here [in Auckland] it all feels quite on the edge. The boats are extreme and in lots of areas on the edge of what's possible. There's a tension watching it, being close to the action, that something could happen at anytime.

Do the AC75s seem faster than the AC72s or the AC50s?

Short answer—yip..take your eye off them and they are somewhere across the horizon. We've also seen them get faster even in the short time we've been here, [and] there's a lot more to come!

How fast is the catamaran that you've been riding aboard for the racing typically travel at? Also, can it easily keep pace with the AC75 or does it seem like it struggles to go as fast as the sailboats?

The camera cat is a converted AC45 with a purpose-built pod on the top, and a bespoke mount for the Shotover gyro stabilized camera, it has twin 300 horsepower [engines] on the back. We do high 30s but you're absolutely right —sometimes we are not as fast as the AC75's.

Shout out here to the expert duo of camera operator Adam Brown and the driver Clint Jones. It's a partnership long in the making and very, very impressive.

Thankfully we have a lot of other assets to bring you pictures while we reposition—currently there are ten onboard cameras on each boat and the most amazingly clear and reliable audio system, the best yet in sailing coverage by a mile, two helicopters, a drone, and for the actual match a second camera cat with a Shotover [camera].

It's a very experienced broadcast team, with great assets. I'm thrilled to be a small part in it all.

In terms of understanding what's happening on the water, what's the better view—the one from the catamaran, or the view from the media center? Also, what makes this the better vantage point?

I'm pretty privileged. The cat is the best seat in the house! I can see what's going on in 'real life', and I also have a monitor with the broadcast on it.

But you also learn a lot from the commentary box, we see so much from every angle, and in this Cup we hear the communications on board. It's fascinating, and as it all gets hotter, when it actually really matters, it's going to be so revealing.

What are the hardest parts of conducting the on-the-water commentary during this Cup? What about the most rewarding aspects?

The hardest—at times hanging on! Well not very many people on the planet understand the nuances of how these boats work, we are looking for details in the differences and often that's hard to see. Much in the Cup is hidden away, [but] we have a great commentary team here. It definitely feels like we are working together to unravel the complexities for our viewers.

I love being on the water. You not only have a good view but you feel the emotion of the day, the tension of it all.

Given that there are so few journalists on the ground for this Cup, are you finding access to the teams and the sailors to be easier this time?

Well, I'd say on the whole yes, it's more relaxed than usual, although here I'm working for the host broadcaster so all the teams are pretty helpful—for sure they want the broadcast to be as good as it can be so [they] seem keen to facilitate that more than I've seen before.

ETNZ though are currently very much heads down, concentrating on the job in hand. Perhaps that may change when it's their 'turn' after the Prada Cup.

What's the general mood like in Auckland? Are most people that you encounter on the streets/coffee shops/pubs pretty excited about the Cup racing?

Ha, it's quite extraordinary here. Everyone in Auckland is an America's Cup 'expert', they are well aware of what's going on, who's doing what to their boats, who the main protagonists are, what's gone on in the past and [they] also have pretty strong views (and long memories) about some of the people involved.

You can't go to the coffee shop/hairdresser/gym without having a discussion about foil shapes or if Ben Ainslie [and INEOS Team UK] is going to get up to speed.

Do you think this will be a Cup cycle that sees a lot of boat development and speed and control advancements? Also, do you think that ETNZ will still appear as dominate by the start of the actual Cup as they looked during the ACWS racing in December?

Yes, fully, we're at the beginning of the [development and racing] cycle with these boats, [so] every day is a learning day!

Like in San Francisco [in 2013], once the teams have 'shown their cards' it's game on for the smarts in each team—the coaches, the analysts, the designers—I can tell you for sure none of them are hanging out in the coffee shops of Auckland. They are full on. The shed lights are [always] on, 24-7.

ETNZ look a long way ahead, polished in every way except the actual racing...and we don't know much about where they are in terms of their development. I'd imagine they have more to give.

Is there anything else that you'd like to add, for the record?

The quality of the broadcast is high, as a viewer you will be able to really live the drama. You can see the detail of what's going on onboard—you can hear (so clearly) the communication loop of the best sailors on the planet, and as it all begins to mean more, that is going to be more and more fascinating.

[Editor's Note: Check out Robertson's podcast here: shirleyrobertson.com/podcast]

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