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Lessons from Miami

Observing a recent world-class regatta gave me some ideas on regatta management that yacht clubs and classes might find useful.

March 29, 2011
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Gary Jobson 368

From 300 feet above the Rolex Miami OCR, everything looked finely orchestrated for the Olympic and Paralympic classes. It was a crucial event for more than 700 Olympic aspirants from 53 countries, so it was important that the regatta be run with incredible efficiency. While watching the action unfold, I wondered if the logistics involved in running such an ambitious regatta would be overwhelming, and whether there could be a few processes that our local regattas could benefit by learning about.

As usual at the OCR, and as it should be at any regatta, the attention was focused on the competitors. After all, there is a lot on the line for these young sailors. A good result helps meet requirements for funding, attracts sponsors, possibly serves as a qualifier for other big regattas, and, most importantly, builds momentum for the ultimate goal of earning an Olympic berth in Weymouth, England, in 2012. Behind the scenes were nearly 200 volunteers ensuring the regatta ran smoothly. Every race official understood the pressures the athletes were under, and therefore strove to deliver perfection.

The regatta’s co-chairs were past U.S. Sailing Team head coach Gary Bodie, Dave Johnson (U.S. Sailing Team Alphagraphics Olympic Coordinator) and Katie Kelly (USSTAG Team Director). They looked after endless details.

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This was not a practice event, for the regatta coordinators, but the real thing. It was important that it run extremely well, because, in a few years, the International Sailing Federation will be asking venues to bid on hosting an Olympic Classes Regatta. Miami has many strong elements in place, and is a likely contender, but Bodie knows he can’t take anything for granted. “It’s an incredible opportunity for American athletes, and also Canadians, to race in warm waters, with reliable winds in the winter,” says Bodie. “The best sailors in the world come to Miami, which is a big help for developing our sailors.”

At the awards ceremony I noticed a number of VIPs in attendance, including Lord Colin Moynihan, Chairman of the British Olympic Association, and U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun. Each had one eye on the competitors and the other eye on race management, and from what I observed, this event should receive favorable reviews. There were many facets to making it all run so smoothly, and surely, I thought, there are lessons any yacht club could learn from the Rolex Miami OCR. So I pressed Bodie to explain several innovations they developed.

“We have smart phones on the race committee boats so we can take pictures of the results sheets, and then e-mail them back to the scoring office at race headquarters,” he offered. “This saves considerable time because officials no longer need to dictate the results.” This technique is used at many clubs around the country.

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With seven circles using a combination of windward-leeward and trapezoid courses, it was important that each class had plenty of room to set up balanced courses. Biscayne Bay is a large but shallow body of water, so Bodie and his PROs agreed on racecourse locations well before going out on the water. One problem they discovered early on, however, was the small size of their signal flags, which, according to competitors and other officials, were difficult to see. On the advice of an ISAF representative, says Bodie, they quickly upgraded to larger signal flags that were basically 3 feet by 3 feet.

Race committee member Connie Bischoff was enthused about another innovation, one that is finding common use at other regattas as well: live commentary from the racecourse using Twitter. “Any yacht club can just post a Twitter feed so that interested parties can follow the tweets throughout the racing,” says Bischoff.

“We put a designated tweeter on each of our seven circles,” adds Bodie. “They provided real-time updates at mark roundings. It gives you something to follow, and you can stick in pictures, audio, or event sponsor advertisements. We also did race tracking this year.”

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Web traffic increased every day of the event, and the RMORC had a reported 195,432 visits during the week. This was up from 161,440 in 2010. “We were surprised by the large number of sailing fans who followed the regatta on Twitter,” said U.S. Sailing Team Chairman Dean Brenner.

In addition to the live tweets, and race tracking, my production crew provided two video reports each day. (They can be viewed at www.sailingworld.com or www.ussailing.org.)
Another feature that Bischoff was excited about was the use of a “leader” jersey, just as it is used in the Tour de France bicycle race.

“The daily overall leader in each class wore a yellow sailing pinnie over their life jacket,” says Bischoff. “Second and third place leaders also were given blue and red pinnies respectively. The pinnies create buzz on the water for sailors and spectators alike.” This sounds like an easy, and fun thing to do at any regatta.

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Running seven circles is a huge undertaking, says Bischoff, one that would not have been possible without the collaboration of all the area’s yacht clubs. Something other clubs should consider when their events become too large to manage efficiently.

“The yacht clubs around Biscayne Bay all played a role,” says Bischoff. “At night the boats were housed at Coral Reef YC, Coconut Grove Sailing Club, Key Biscayne YC, Shake-A-Leg Miami, and two public parks. Race officials were on hand during launching operations allowing them to run remarkably smooth.

“It’s important for a PRO to define the race committee positions so everyone knows exactly what to do,” adds Bischoff. “For example, Ann Edwards worked with PRO John Craig by collecting all paper work (scratch sheets, check-in, mark roundings, etc.) She verified the papers for accuracy and then distributed them to the appropriate people. This allowed the PRO to have more time to run the races.”

Despite a wide variety of weather conditions, races generally started on time. If there was little wind, the PRO would keep the fleet ashore until the breeze filled, and the time between races was short. Like most regattas I’ve experienced, every boat seemed to have one bad race. I came away feeling that one discard race is the correct protocol for important regattas.

There were 25 judges from 15 countries on hand, and Kelly and past US SAILING President Jim Capron sought out the best judges in the world to officiate. Capron also headed an ISAF working party to standardize the Sailing Instructions and Notice of Race, of which Bodie noted, “The lessons will likely lead to some helpful changes in the Racing Rules of Sailing booklet.”

Media is a key component of such high-level regattas, and should be important to local regattas and class championships as well. The OCR benefits from having a professional media company handle press operations throughout the week, and having a dedicated press officer has proven to build interest in the event, especially with local media. Every yacht club should recruit a press officer for its major regattas. Newspapers respond when good, timely information and pictures are provided.

I do have one item for the “Suggestion Box.” From the air I could see how coach boat wakes had a dramatic effect on the racing. A group of coaches would take off to one side of the course after the start. They would steer away from the fleet, but their waves would eventually affect the boats on that side of the course. It bothered me watching boats lose distance and speed as they pitched through waves. As an aside, it was interesting watching some boats make repeated tacks after the start and quickly fall behind—that’s one I’ll keep for my own notebook.

The Rolex Miami OCR now uses smart phones to facilitate scoring. What has your club or fleet done to improve and speed up the delivery of results to cometitors? Email us at [email protected]

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