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Gladwell's Line: Pressing ignition on the professional sailing circuits

by Richard Gladwell, 6 May 00:39 PDT 6 May 2021
New Zealand SailGP Team helmed by Peter Burling gets high out of the water whilst competing at Bermuda SailGP © Bob Martin/SailGP

The sail racing world is slowly spluttering back into life after over 12 months of being hostage to the COVID pandemic.

The Prada Cup and America's Cup were the exceptions to that 12-month time-out, but now we see other events taking place as the sport gathers some momentum outside club sailing.

So far, restarting the pro-sailing scene has been like listening to a car engine being turned over, after sitting idle for a year in a garage. The battery has some charge left, but will it be enough crank up the engine? Meanwhile it makes that dreadful turning and churning noise as the spark plugs try to coax it back to life.

Last week the SailGP circuit restarted in Bermuda amid a COVID lockdown. The Atlantic archipelago of just 71,000 souls has recorded 30 deaths, with 60% of the population immunised with one vaccination and about 15% on two.

Against that backdrop, it was fortunate that the event could take place - which only happened with some dispensations, restricting the number of boats allowed on the water for practice, and the usual social distancing and COVID restrictions which don't need restating.

There was a lot of empathy with the issues faced by the NZSailGP team, who are on their first regatta in the SailGP circuit, and in a boat that was sent to Bermuda, requiring finishing work. Peter Burling, Blair Tuke and friends had only one practice day on the water in their new F50 and suffered the usual gremlins expected when trying to race a foiling wingsailed catamaran straight out of the box.

Their practice issues were compounded when SailGP organisers elected to bring the first day of racing forward to avoid a predicted windless day on the scheduled opening races in the regatta. It was the right move, but of course, it creates a few issues when what is billed as a live event becomes a pre-recorded one.

Of course, those who followed the build-up to the 2017 America's Cup in Bermuda were well aware of a webcam trained right on Cross Island, the venue for both AC35 and SailGP. If your timezone was convenient, then it was easy to watch some of the action via the Port Bermuda webcam - and be able to work out the placings on the first day of racing.

Some media elected to report those results, and a couple of skippers gave media interviews on the outcome.

The bottom line, if flexi-race scheduling is going to be employed, then there has to be a total media embargo by organisers and the teams. To make the situation even more confusing, live images from Friday were shown on the media section of the event website - with no race report or video coverage - as both were embargoed.

All those issues aside, the SailGP, with its expanded fleet, has a lot going for it - and grabbed the spotlight while the America's Cup is on a time-out to decide the venue, who is challenging who for what, and when.

There was a second Kiwi skipper in the event, former world match racing champion Phil Robertson, who is sailing with the Spain SailGP team in this second season of SailGP. Robertson helmed for China SailGP in Season 1, and like Nathan Outteridge on Japan SailGP is one of those experienced skippers permitted to help bring new teams into the SailGP events.

Robertson is one of the few in the sharp end of the sport who can deliver a quick soundbite that sums up the racing action, breakpoints and action.

If you haven't already seen it, read a report from Phil, which gives an interesting background to the SailGP regatta in Bermuda and his take on the action and new features of the F50's - including the new 18metre rig.

Getting four skippers from the 2017 and 2021 America's Cups into the eight-team fleet was a masterstroke and certainly lifted the event several levels from the first season. Of course, we had some inkling of what SailGP could deliver with the false start to Season 2 in Sydney in January 2020BC - (Before Covid) when INEOS Team UK's Ben Ainslie gave the six F50's a sailing lesson, winning five of the six races.

For the fans, the expanded SailGP does take some adjustment. It was simple enough following just two boats sailing at 40-50kts in the 35th and 36th America's Cups. But trying to follow eight, racing on quite a tight course requires concentration. Look away from the screen, and you've probably missed something. The confusing coverage is not helped by shot selection which often flicks away at just the wrong time.

The gold standard of live TV commentary is still Peter Montgomery and Chris Law/Ed Baird covering the 2000 and 2003 Louis Vuitton and America's Cups aboard North Star. They talked to images pushed onto the water, but with the huge advantage of one commentator being able to look around and relate/fill in the gaps as the off-camera race unfolds.

With SailGP we once again have commentators trying to put coherent words to images that appear to be flicked almost randomly on the screen - making it challenging to develop storylines that the fans can follow. The America's Cup coverage wasn't much better but was easier to follow with only two AC75's/AC50's in the race instead of eight.

We also had that most annoying aspect of contemporary sailing coverage when the commentators insist on talking over key comments from an onboard audio or umpire explanation. Having the audio from race fleet used as background mood music is simply irritating and like trying to maintain a conversation in a noisy pub.

Trying to understand what had gone on took a couple of hours using the benefit of slow-motion replays, toggling back and forth and converting the kms/per hour to knots - the speed measure used by the rest of the sport. Once you have been through this exercise a couple of times, it is not so difficult to follow, but few fans and even less mainstream media would be prepared to make that time investment. It is too easy for deadline pressed media just to look at the leaderboard and come up with a half-baked storyline.

SailGP lacks having Virtual Eye, and what took only a few minutes with the use of VE and a constant onboard camera stream took three hours and several pages of notes to work out what happened and why. Running the onboard video and audio stream from eight boats might be a stretch. But the use of VE allows commentators and astute fans to focus directly on the breakpoints of the racing - for instance, explaining just how the Kiwis were able to drop from first to fifth in just two boat lengths during a mark rounding.

The other issue that has to be looked at with SailGP is the racing rules and umpiring. It is not a good idea for race boats to be coming into contact with each other - that comment applies equally the right of way boat which has an obligation to keep clear - Rule 14 of the Racing Rules is clear "A boat shall avoid contact with another boat if reasonably possible."

While there was much talked about the propensity of AC75's to have horrendous collisions - we saw more prangs in two days of SailGP than we saw in three months of AC racing. Those who follow F1 are well aware that bumping while racing is part of the sport - with some dramatic consequences - whether that is a good idea in SailGP is for the fans to judge. Most would want to see the eight boats sailing rather than a fleet of six finishers on the second day.

World Sailing gets its homework returned

The saga of the 2024 Olympic classes continues, with World Sailing being told to think again, by the International Olympic Committee over the Two Person Mixed Offshore Keelboat event. In fact, it is more than think again. Instead there is a direct request for alternative event options, along with priorities and reasoning.

After assuring sailors that Lausanne was happy with the ten events proposed for 2024 - including the mixed offshore keelboat. World Sailing's credibility has been severely dented by the contents of the IOC's letter of April 12 telling the world body to fix their homework, which was also a couple of years late in the delivery.

Quite how this all pans out remains to be seen, however it is never a good situation when the best slate of events that could be put forward by an International Federation is not accepted by the IOC.

Whatever happens it will be sayonara for the 85kg plus males of the sailing world after Tokyo 2020.

But World Sailing doesn't seem to be losing too much sleep over that piece of collateral damage.

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