Sunday, October 23, 2011


Stan Honey, Director of Technology for the 34th America’s Cup (AC34) and John Craig, Principal Race Officer (PRO) for AC34 talked to members of the San Francisco Yacht Club last week, reviewing the World Series events in Cascais and Plymouth and explaining the technology they’re using in their jobs - technology which is changing the way that races are being run and facilitating better than ever accuracy in umpiring, and for the viewer of the sport, making races easier and more interesting to watch across different platforms.

Craig also talked about the logistics of course building under the new regime and gave an overview of the different boats used in race management, from jet skis to rad camera boats

The following excerpts from their presentation were both entertaining (yes, there is stuff that perhaps wasn’t funny a few months ago but in hindsight…) and informational.

Bringing it HOW close to the beach?

JC: 117,000 people went through the viewing area in Plymouth during the course of racing there. My best memory is of Spithill saying: “This is the first time at any event I could hear the roar of the people cheering.” And this was on a day when it was rainy, cold & miserable - you could hear it going on from the committee boat.

That goal is something we keep trying to do and the venues we keep getting ourselves into we have to keep in mind that it needs to be on the beach, as Russell likes to say. One of the ways in which we do that is to set the course with the virtual boundaries or the limits within which the competitors must sail. Outside of those limits, the sailors get penalized. We can control the box that they sail in.

What changes will we see for the World Series in San Diego (Nov 12-20)?

JC: All activities will occur between Midway and Broadway Piers. It’s a very tight area and there’ll be a hub of activity there for sure.”

One of the things we’ve been looking at changing is OCS. With a reaching start at 35 kms, when the boats take off and you’re over, really your race is over. To come back to the other side of the line and re-cross the line, the rest of the guys are in a different time zone. The reality is that we’re looking at ways to look at maybe having a penalty for OCS - perhaps slow down to ¾ of your VMG and let everybody catch up.

Additionally, the format changes so much its pretty entertaining…it’s almost a daily thing, i.e. ‘We’re doing match racing today and this is how it’ll work out,’ - I think in Plymouth we ended up with version 60 by the time we were all done, so that’ll definitely change.

People like the speed trials so we’ll try to keep those in but that being said, a speed trial in 6-8 knots isn’t much of a speed trial so we’ll have wait to see what happens in San Diego.

Other observations of the new format?

JC: The ability to move around the course quickly is a critical requirement under the new format (ie, boats going 30 knots over a race that’s less than 20 minutes long), as well as being able to move the limits and everything else, like in a dropping breeze. All of the marks are boats. We don’t anchor them which gives us the ability to move them quickly. We have very skilled drivers that have a Garmin chart plotter in front of them and they can see all of these points that I have placed on the chart plotter. Mike Martin our rules guy decided it’d actually be okay if racers hit the marks…(LOL). Not only do you make sure that you keep that boat in place, but when someone is coming at you at 30 knots you can’t flinch!

The beauty of it all is that it’s really flexible. No matter what happens, if we have a boat break down (course boat) we can put another in its place and everybody that’s on those mark set boats can see what’s going on. The teams have a (computer) display so know what I’ve done to them, how I’ve committed the boundaries, whether I’ve made them tight for a specific race which means there’ll be a lot more tacking & jibing, or whether I’ve opened it up a little so it’s not as much of a physical fest for them.

About the new course boats?

JC: The camera boat is a first generation boat that will change but it is basically two Extreme 40 (carbon) hulls that make it a catamaran with very small, highly maneuverable engines. It’s allowed in the middle of the racecourse and with a sailor sitting on the back calling moves, has done a very good job of staying out of harm’s way so far.

The first of the new mark set boats has just done sea trials. 45 foot catamarans, these will be some of the best seats in the house with a VIP area with a bar, TV and seats for 12. The boats are run on Volvo IPS drives that can spin 360 degrees. Once they are engaged they will keep the boat on position, rather than the guys having to work to keep the boat in position. The first one will be delivered in San Diego - it wont be quite ready to work but it will be there. We expect delivery of one every month until we have our full complement of 8.

Is the AC45 just a one-dimensional crash and burn form of entertainment?

SH: The real question is, “How can we turn this into a sport with real intrigue and competition and unpredictability and the rivalries that you get in sport." The answer is, it’s a huge challenge. We know we have to do that but we can’t sort of coast this kind of thrills and chills although it’s a good head start! The good thing about it is that Russell had the sense to involve early on folks who have a really strong background in the business of sport - Richard Worth and Craig Thompson. They’re not sailors and that has pluses and minuses but they’re some of the most knowledgeable businessmen in the field of sports. If we’re going to make this work, one of the signs will be that the sailing athletes will be recognizable on the street - we’ll turn them into personalities then sailing will have the same sort of attraction that other sports do in terms of the rivalries between teams and individuals, the unpredictability and all of that.

Will there be broadcast quality improvements?

SH: There’s been a lot of improvement in the TV production between Cascais and Plymouth and we hope there’s a lot of continued improvement - in the directing and producing and commentating etc. The TV compound is really an astonishing set of equipment - 23 shipping containers and a total of 60 cameras and 120 audio feeds - it’s on the same level as an A-level football game. But what you have here is a TV crew that had never worked together before Cascais so it was pretty challenging to begin with. It’ll get better with time.

How do penalties do work?

SH: Once a penalty has been assigned, whether it's a limit penalty or whether its S-P tack penalty, the computer assigns a penalty line which is two boat lengths behind your boat and that penalty line is moving at ¾ the theoretical speed of your boat and you have to slow down until that penalty line overtakes you. The reason that penalty line is moving at ¾ of your speed is to give you an incentive to pay it off quickly. The idea is to keep you in the race so if a penalty hurts you, you’re still in the hunt, which keeps the race exciting and interesting. Plus, to have these boats do circles if it’s windy is just too frightening!

JC: It’s taken the teams a long time to get used to the penalty system incurred by the new electronic boundaries. “They would, say, it’s saying 80 meters then two seconds later I was done,” - yeah, you were doing 30 knots! It’s been a process and I’m happy to report there are very few limit penalties anymore. We really are able to keep the guys in the box.

Will the AC technology trickle down to REAL sailing?

SH: We have actually responded to an inquiry from ISAF to see if our tracking technology (tracks to two cm versus two meters as do inexpensive tracking devices often used in dinghy regattas) could be repackaged into a smaller device and the answer is yes but it’d be pretty pricey. You could package the device in a package the size of a paperback book that weighs less than a pound - we’ve done it for horse racing. It’d take a major sponsor to make it affordable in sailing.

When is it too much data?

SH: That’s really the determination that gets made by the professional story tellers - the director, the producer and the commentators. We build tools and they have the availability of these tools to tell the story - which is the key thing to sports, the story.

But what’s the most interesting thing about this whole project is what happens in the morning just after the skippers’ meeting (as an example of how the data is used). Mike Martin (Director Umpiring and Rules Administration for AC34) replays the previous day’s penalties on a screen and all the teams talk about them. What’s fascinating is it’s completely non-confrontational because there’s never an argument about the facts - the discussion is about the rules. Someone puts their hand up and says, “Yeah, I own it,” and in some cases it’s the umpire who’ll say, “Yeah, I called that wrong.” It’s fascinating how friendly everything is and there’s never a dispute about the facts.

What happens to the data?

SH: In other sports I’ve worked in, it’s been a very slow process for the sports to realize the best use for this data is to make it open. In sailing we’ve managed to persuade the Event Authority to allow us to publish the data so at the end of every race we post the log of all of the data and that’s all the positions of all the mark and race boats, all the wind measurements etc. By streaming the live data for free so people can access all that precision data from all the race and mark boats, our hope is that innovative technical folks and companies will come up with interesting ways of viewing this data - multi player games, automatic reality viewers - come up with things we haven’t thought of to make the Cup more accessible to more people. I think it’s a brilliant decision.

What info do the competitor’s have?

SH: The competitors don’t get anything during the race. The idea is to keep the competitors in the same test of skill that we all are at - they have to judge when they’re in the 3-boat length circle, they have to judge the starting line, when they do or don’t have an overlap etc. And they know whatever they do, whether they get it right or wrong, the umpires are going to make the right call so it’s a better test of skill. That was Russell’s vision and he’s been batting very high on those kinds of decisions.

How does this all scale up as far as the 72s go?

JC: That’s the million dollar - the multi million dollar question (LOL) - the 72s - take 3 of the 45s and stack ‘em beam to beam and that’s a 72, then take 4 of the mainsails from the 45 and that’s a 72 mainsail. There’re a lot of people spending a lot of time in design rooms right now trying to figure it out.

Pic 1: Stan Honey
Pic 2: John Craig
Pic 3 World Series Layout San Diego Nov 2011 (pic credit Paige Brooks)
Pic 4 World Series Course Area San Diego 2011 (pic credit PB)
Pics 5 & 6 - SH & JC at SFYC Wed Oct 19 (pic credit PB

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