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Lessons from La Maddalena

The Louis Vuitton Series in La Maddalena provided some thrilling action and a great opportunity to consider what works best when it comes to televising the America's Cup.

June 8, 2010
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Hopefully you had better things to do this weekend than watch pixilated sailing footage over the Internet. It was too beautiful a weekend to spend it indoors, at least in the Northeast. Unfortunately, I did just that, but such is life with two children under two, one of whom has yet to establish a consistent sleeping pattern.

On the plus side, I caught quite a bit of the excellent coverage of the Louis Vuitton Trophy-La Maddalena from Italy. After a week and a half of Virtual Eye animations combined with commentary from Martin Tasker and Peter Lester, among others, they broke out the live cameras for the bitter end of the competition. As it was from Auckland in March, the action was engrossing, though plagued by annoying weather and equipment-related delays.

It’s a little challenging to work up too much of a froth over the results. Does it really matter who wins? The American team of BMW Oracle Racing—now with twice as many Americans!—had a shocka, finishing ninth and departing before the quarterfinals.

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I was pulling for the Swedish Artemis Team, with Americans Terry Hutchinson at the helm, Paul Cayard on tactics, and Kevin Hall navigating, and Kiwi ex-pats Morgan Trubovich and Cam Appleton playing prominent roles. They bowed out in the semis, victimized by some tough luck as much as anything else. The Kiwis won again, pulling off a stunning comeback in the finals against the Russian Synergy team. You can read all about that here.

Without a real horse to pull for, I spent much of the time analyzing the competition from a viewer’s perspective and trying to determine what would make for the best viewing experience for the 34th America’s Cup. How does sailing put on the best show?

1. Favor agility over speed: Much of the debate over the new class for the America’s Cup—BMW Oracle Racing has said they will announce the class for the 34th Cup at the end of August—focuses on speed. I don’t have anything against fast boats, but too much speed and too little agility—relatively speaking—is a recipe for boring, straight-line-to-the-corners match racing. One great thing about the current America’s Cup Class boats is their maneuverability. Because it wasn’t possible to gain too much of a speed advantage by sacrificing maneuverability, the boats were cat quick to ensure that could win the start. I did a few miles as the 18th man in various events and when the boat was spun into a dial up you had to hold on with both hands for fear of getting flicked out the back. This agility gave helmsman the confidence to maneuver the boat into tight quarters and this close boat-on-boat action, at any speed, is the most engrossing part of the sport. Take away the agility—or push the speed-agility balance in favor of the former—and the pre-start will become dull and the helmsmen reluctant to push their craft into tight situations further up the track. It’s also important to remember that as impressive as we find 25 knots, the average view will wonder what all the fuss is about considering that speed wouldn’t warrant a ticket on a quiet suburban cul-de-sac.

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2. Onboard mics required: It was so great during the LVT to be able to listen to the onboard dialogue. It was like being inside the huddle, or privy to the coach-quarterback radio transmissions, at a pro football game. The NFL would never allow such a thing. But the next America’s Cup should require lapel mics on the tactician, helmsman, and navigator, plus one or two general mics in the cockpit. The sailors won’t particularly like it, but it makes riveting even the tamest one-jibe-and-in run. I couldn’t get enough of Kiwi mid-bowman Richard Meachan crouched in the back of the boat during the starting sequence, eyes fixed on the Synergy bow, yelling, “Negative hook, Deano, negative hook.”

3. Challenging boats: It’s nice to see that while the current ACC boats may be tired and slow downwind, they’re still a bear to sail well. Boathanding mistakes were prevalent and pivotal in the LVT. The new boat should be as difficult to sail, if not more so. It should require big hulking grinders and trapeze artist bowman. Mistakes should decide races. Boathandling is the easiest thing for the lay viewer to understand and enjoy, short of boats crashing into each other.

4. Parity: Part of what has made the Louis Vuitton series so successful is the organizers have tried to even out the boats as much as possible. The Cup will be a design game, but it must be governed with a tight design box. This is a challenge with a new rule; it took 5 iterations of the ACC rule to get the great racing we had in 2007. It will also be more of the challenge with faster boats, as the same percentage of speed differential between two boats will result in an ever-widening gap on the water. It may be the same on the clock, but in trying to impress the uninformed viewer, closer distance-wise is better. Even the fastest Cup design would rarely go fast enough to get busted for speeding on a quiet suburban cul-de-sac. Outright speed is not the answer.

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5. The courses for the LVT felt too short to me. I heard one first leg distance was 1.3 miles and the races rarely took more than 45 minutes, often less. It wasn’t enough time for the game to play out and it seemed to make the first leg too much of a crapshoot, though that could’ve been due to the fickle wind. An hour-long to 1:15 race would be perfect: 20- to 25-minute beats, 10- to 15-minute runs. The PRO should be able to set the course length within a specified box—say 2 to 3.5 miles—to ensure a four-leg race will run about within that time frame.

6. Automate some umpire calls. During one race in the final, Synergy rolled over Emirates Team New Zealand on a downwind leg, then broke the overlap with a brief luff up. Or did they? A penalty followed shortly thereafter but it was hard to know what really happened, even after the umpire described the situation. Did Synergy think ETNZ was on layline and pressed down hoping to anticipate the jibe? With modern technology it would be possible to automate this system, with some corresponding lights on the helm station of each boat indicating whether an overlap exists and whether that overlap comes with luffing rights or proper course rights? In this case, one light, tied into some simple range-finding technology, could indicate that the Russian team had broken the overlap and then reestablished it. A second light, triggered from the umpire boat, could indicate that the Kiwi team was required to jibe for the leeward mark. Of course the real solution is probably to simplify the match-racing rules. But that’s a column for another time.

The discussion over how to take the America’s Cup to the next level often focuses on the boat. More speed, bigger masts, etc. But the most essential ingredient to any sports coverage is the human element. Give us good access to the sailors. Let us see them sweat, hear the stress in their voices, agonize with them when the fail, celebrate with them when they win. Whether they do that at 10 knots, 15 knots, or 20 knots won’t make too much of a difference.

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