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Bringing Key West’s Action To You

A different kind of crew heads south with the goal of delivering the action to an audience. "Jobson Report" from our April 2008 issue

April 7, 2008

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Tim Wilkes

Like hundreds of other like-minded crews, our team was heading south from all corners of the United States. Our anticipation was running high. Would the conditions be perfect-blue water, big winds, and waves? Would we get in 10 races? Would all of our pre-regatta planning come to fruition? When we all finally arrived on the eve of the regatta we assembled for our traditional crew meeting. But this wasn’t your typical racing crew; we had a much different agenda. As the ESPN sailing team covering Acura Key West Race Week, we had to deliver the excitement, which is no easy task.

The logistics involved are every bit as challenging as entering a boat. But once the regatta gets rolling, the hours for us are much longer. Key West Race Week is a big event to wrap your hands (or in our case, cameras) around. There are helicopters to book, onboard cameras to mount and dismount, interviews to hunt down, and of course, a lot of aggressive editing to create nightly Internet reports. As producer, it took me three months to prepare all the logistics, but like any television crew, we were on a mission to capture the essence of the event, report its highlights, and make even the most casual ESPN viewer appreciate the incredible sport of sailboat racing.

The best way to bring the action up close and personal, of course, is with onboard cameras or a cameraman. Every year our biggest challenge is convincing owners to allow our cameras and microphones onboard their boats. For competitive sailors, allowing onboard cameras to capture your every move-and every word-takes a leap of faith, but most skippers are happy with the results once they see the footage. There is plenty of salty language, which we’re careful to “bleep” over, but providing the viewer with a realistic onboard perspective during a race is a must. And racers can learn a lot by watching and listening to how others talk boatspeed, tactics, and strategy.

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I always look for close action, and then edit from several viewpoints. Our footage is shot from the air, onboard, and from the water. The backbone of the coverage is shot onboard. Rick Deppe, from Philadelphia, is a highly experienced blue water sailor, and skilled cameraman who is currently lining up to be the media specialist onboard Puma’s entry in the upcoming Volvo Ocean Race. He’s nimble and small, which makes him a natural choice as our onboard camerman. Deppe also sailed in the Transpac Race aboard Morning Light, filming the young crew for the soon-to-be released movie, and he knows what to look for and how to stay out of the way during maneuvers. Our philosophy is to shoot both play-by-play race action and beauty, and Deppe always comes back with something unique.

This year, our efforts were bolstered by the camera technology developed by Jeff Mootz, an eye doctor from Minnesota, who has developed a fantastic system of cameras with highly-dampened and gimbled mounts. His company is called Horizon True, and you can buy these units yourself, to mount on your stern rail or mast, and record your practices or your races (www.truehorizon.com). This year Mootz added an enhanced sound package, which allowed us to listen in on Terry Hutchinson while he guided Barking Mad to victory in the Farr 40 class. Hutchinson is quiet during the tight situations, and animated in open water.

Our on-the-water cameramen are Vince Casalaina, from San Francisco, and Keith Sandler, of Connecticut. These guys have remarkably stable hands to get steady footage while shooting with 35-pound cameras, which are attached to gyro lenses. The gyro lens they use is a 16-pound $15,000 unit, and is the key to getting footage that doesn’t make you seasick.

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We get our aerial footage by shooting from a helicopter. For this, Steve Cassidy, from Detroit, brings his $500,000 gyro camera with its special mount. Unlike the still photographers that buzz the racing boats at close range, our chopper hovers above 500 feet in order to get the steadiest pictures. From a high altitude we can easily read sail numbers, and boat names, and my job is to direct Steve and our pilot, Jean-Paul Robinson, of Miami. I divide my time between looking at the shot on a small viewing screen, and watching out the window to understand what is happening on the racecourse. You can see a lot from the air, and I try to anticipate how a particular race or scenario will play out. To coordinate with Deppe, we follow the boat he’s on, and all three cameras must shoot from the same side of the course for proper editing. We also have to keep the sun behind at our backs to make the boats look their best.

From my vantage point aloft, wind and current patterns are easy to see. Getting a good start also looks easy, but most boats are usually well behind the line at the start. In one IRC race this year, however, seven of eight boats were recalled. It was quite a sight seeing seven big boats restarting.

After the last race is sailed for the day our crew spreads out around the docks to interview the sailors. We always seem to find everyone in a good mood-how could you not be? It’s Key West Race Week. By 5 p.m. we are loaded with about 20 hours of footage. Our video editor, Scott Shucher, of Boston, writer Roger Vaughan, of Oxford, Md., and I convene in an 8 x 8 section of the media trailer, pour through the footage, and produce our nightly Internet report. I lay the narration track at about 6 p.m. Our webmaster, Suzy Leech, working offsite this year, posts the reports on several web sites, and usually we’re online by 8 p.m. During the week, 375,000 visitors from around the world watched at least one of our eight reports.

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Our 12-member production crew takes a lot of pride in our reports, our subsequent ESPN2 program, and a regatta DVD. After five days we all felt that we had experienced the sailing just like the race crews, except from more vantage points. And as far as we know, all the pre-regatta prep definitely paid off.

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