Going Virtual

Competitive sailing enters the digital age with the launch of the eSailing World Championship.

Virtual Regatta
Virtual Regatta Inshore places up to 10 competitors on a short racecourse, inviting plenty of boat-on-boat interaction. Judgments are swift in this game, with instantaneous penalties and rule citations. You’re DSQ’d after two penalties.Virtual Regatta

“Hon? Are you staying up?”

“Um ... er ... no. Hold on. Just … uh … finishing something,” I yell up to my wife as I’m closing gauge with a starboard tacker.  What the? I can’t believe that guy just hunted me like that! What a jerk.

There I sit, alone in my living room in the soft glow of a small lamp, mumbling to myself and cursing someone I don’t even know, someone who has just suckered me into fouling them mere seconds into the first leg of the race. Whoever he or she is, they’re ruthless on this virtual racecourse. Because of my penalty turn, I lose another race — granted, a race that has zero consequences. But I hate to lose, even if it is a silly video game, a game I’m playing on my iPhone, against nine other people with avatars. At this late hour, it’s me and the gamers. Me? A gamer? No way. Games are for my teenagers.

After crossing the checkered finish line, I tell myself, “One more.”

Five minutes later, I do it again. And again. And again. Forty-five minutes pass before I finally close the app and open another, to check in on my Volvo Ocean Race Virtual Regatta yacht (I’m registered as “Sailing World,” for those of you who are also playing) to make sure I have the right sail and best VMG before going off-watch until 3 a.m., when I will wake up and check my boat again.

I admit it, Virtual Regatta has me hooked — me and apparently about a million other digital sailors, who are now brushing up their keyboard skills for the start of World ­Sailing’s eSailing World Championship. What’s this “eSailing” you ask?

The same question comes to me after reading a recent press release from sailing’s governing body, which announced from its annual meeting in November 2017 that it was launching its “revolutionary” regatta.

“A new set of World Sailing regulations will be used to allow the sport’s Racing Rules of Sailing to be adapted to the virtual world,” read the release, before explaining that “inshore regattas” would be held throughout the year, with players accumulating points that will establish their standings in the eSailing World Rankings. Those in the rankings will “have the opportunity to qualify for global playoffs, and ultimately participation in the live final.”

The final of the inaugural eSailing World Championships, it further states, will be held in Sarasota, Florida, in November 2018 (the site of World Sailing’s annual meetings).

Competitive gaming, or “eSports,” is a massive industry. Even ESPN added eSports to its X Games Summer lineup in Austin, Texas, in 2016, calling it “the next big thing.” Today, there’s Major League Gaming, just like Major League Baseball, the PGA and the NHL, with teams, competitions and players. MLG claims to have “one of the fastest-growing digital networks worldwide,” which connects to its diverse fan base through streaming competitions and packed venues, where audiences in the thousands stare wide-eyed at jumbotrons, rooting for players with headsets, controllers and tall cans of energy drinks.

According to Virtual Regatta — which develops the Inshore and Virtual Volvo Ocean Race games, as well as numerous other eSailing competitions — most of its current players are young, and not traditional ­sailors like you and me. This strange new world of competitive gaming, says World Sailing, “connects fans without access to sailing equipment or facilities to become engaged in the excitement of the sport.” “The unique qualities of sailing — combining sport, nature and technology — lend themselves to a virtual gaming environment,” says World Sailing. “The multiplicity of variables, with the combination of equipment and the forces of nature, make virtual sailing every bit as challenging and ­strategic as the real thing.”

On that last point, I beg to differ. ­Tacking from the comfort of a recliner will never be as challenging as going wire to wire on a foiling catamaran or grinding in a 150 percent genoa in a high-wind tacking duel. Still, speaking from my own experiences, Virtual Regatta Inshore is highly addictive and quite useful for understanding how the Racing Rules of Sailing work. The games are especially good at reinforcing ­tactical tenets, such as tacking in the zone is a ­high-risk move. Once logged in to Virtual Regatta (as a guest or registered player), you find yourself with an overhead view of your boat and the racecourse while you wait for other players to join. Once that happens, with a maximum of 10 players, a one-minute pre-start countdown begins. It’s a scramble to determine the favored end avoiding other boats. Control the boat using left and right arrow icons on the screen (or a keyboard). Tap one of three other icons to tack (or jibe), ease sails, and set or douse a spinnaker for races that use spinnaker boats.

The upper right corner of the screen ­displays windspeed, boatspeed and VMG, and apparent wind angle, which reveals the subtle windshifts. One tricky element of the game, particularly when playing on a mobile device, is when boats pile up at a mark rounding; it’s impossible to ­determine who’s who. Red exclamation points that pop up when penalties are applied only make the chaos more confusing, so a ­laptop or monitor is best for viewing.   The graphics and interface are good for what you pay (it is free, at the moment), and the game is simple enough for any sailor to understand and get around the track. The races themselves, however, can be extremely challenging to win, so much so that once I start, I can’t stop playing.

Virtual Regatta claims more than 1 ­million active players, myself now included, and while I don’t have any aspirations of gaming myself to the eSailing World Championship in November, or ­winning a leg of the Virtual Volvo Ocean Race, I do intend to give my thumbs a ­serious workout this winter.