Steve Sleight visited Plymouth for the AC45 World Series to find out if this new America's Cup spin-off lives up to the hype.
The Plymouth round of the AC45 World Series was the second event following the start of the series in Cascais, Portugal and was the first, and potentially only, time that the series would be seen in the UK. The opportunity to see the new boats and format in the flesh was too good to miss.
Plymouth is ideal for the type of stadium racing that the AC45 World Series has embraced in its effort to grow the audience and create a commercial event, and Plymouth responded well. There was good local advertising and the public, sailing and otherwise, turned out in reasonable numbers, encourage by some September sunshine and breezy conditions.
The mixed conditions, which included days with 30 knot gusts, showed off the AC45s to perfection. They are superb machines, perfectly demonstrating the revolution that materials technology has had on our sport over the past 30 years. Think wing-sailed Extreme 40s on steroids. No racing sailor could fail to lust for one.
And spectators could get close enough to lust with a vengeance, although few seemed to know about it. The race ‘pits’ were in the inner basin of Milbay Docks with the teams pit ‘garages’ along Clyde Quay. Boats and wings were craned out to be worked on otherwise the cats lay happily on moorings in the basin. You could get up-close and personal here but few did in the three days I was there.
The main spectator focus was the event village up on the Hoe with a big screen for the live TV broadcasts and speakers along the Hoe for the commentary. The graceful Hoe provides the perfect vantage point for the action laid out below in the Sound. With short courses laid as close to possible to the shore and with beats and downwind legs around a mile, sometimes less, the race committee was delivering the 18-20 minute races deemed to be the right length to maintain interest.
Small power cats are used as marks and they’re positioned using very sophisticated military-strength positioning technology. This system, called Liveline, is at the core of the whole event. Developed by the event’s director of technology, Stan Honey, it allows positioning measurement of the AC45s, mark boats, committee boat, marshals, course boundaries, and the TV boats and helicopters.
With Liveline, position can be measured to 2cm accuracy, and pitch, roll, and yaw to a tenth of a degree. It’s so accurate that it can be used to call OCS decisions. All this expensive kit gives the PRO drag and drop control over course marks and boundaries, information on which is transmitted to the black box in all the boats as soon as the PRO decides to ‘commit’.
Liveline tells each AC45 when it’s approaching a course boundary and it’s also used to manage the penalty system. Rather than taking a turn, a penalty in an AC45 is based on slowing down. When a penalty is awarded lights on the ‘dashboard’ inform the skipper and an imaginary line appears two lengths behind the boat and moves forward at 75% of the boat’s estimated VMG. To discharge a penalty, the boat must slow down to let the line catch up the boat. It is up to the skipper how quickly to slow down. It might make sense for the race management, umpires, and sailors but it sure doesn’t for spectators as you can’t tell why a boat is slowing down, is it a breakdown, an error, or a penalty?
Liveline is also central to the graphics which are overlaid on the helicopter shots, but to make this possible, and prevent the graphics jumping around on the video, the position of the cameras under the helicopters have to be measured to the same precision as the boats, while the helicopter’s attitude is measured to one thousandth of a degree.
Talking of helicopters - the noise, when they’re hovering above you, is deafening and must be hell for the sailors who suffer it most. With up to five helicopters at a fuel-hungry hover plus maybe 30 official RIBs and powerboats on the water, this is a long way from being an environmentally friendly event. You’d never again talk about sailing being a green sport if you watched this event. The organisers need to do something about the noise in particular, and the environmental credentials of the event in general, if sailing is to have any green credibility with sponsors and the audience.
So how does all this technology and innovation translate into a compelling event. Well, it certainly delivers a show. The boats are impressive, the racing close - at least in the fleet races - and the speed and edge-of-control sailing is compelling when the wind blows. But even when the leeward mark is right by the shore, the other end of the leg is around a mile away so binoculars are still needed for serious race watching.
With short legs and limiting course edges the decision on which way to go initially on each beat is made before the leeward gate. Whichever gate mark you take is the way you’re going, usually all the way to the course edge. The same is true at the windward gate, so upwind and down boats hit the boundaries and hope for better pressure or a favourable shift to go in their favour. With stadium courses this close to shore, shifts and pressure bands are frequent so place changes do happen.
Boat handling is high-pressure and the 5-person crew is stretched to the limit on this short-course, crash-and-burn racing so handling errors inevitably get thrown into the mix.
While the high-speed stuff is thrilling, tacking and gybing are, frankly, boring and take soooo long! The tacking and gybing angles are huge and it is often impossible to judge the laylines or gains and losses without the Liveline graphics. Also disappointing is the leeward mark action. When gennakers are rolled away the boats slow down and round the leeward mark at a pedestrian pace before accelerating away again upwind. Gone are the last minute spinnaker drops and interesting leeward mark action.
Top mark action can make up for it but only if it’s windy. Then the excitement of the bear away and gennaker set are fun to watch. Interestingly, it’s become very clear after the first two events that the impression of the speed of these boats is much stronger if there’s a backdrop to the view. If there’s only sea or sky behind a boat there’s less impression of speed than if the boat’s close to the shore, other boats, or the fixed navigation marks which littered the Plymouth course.
For spectators on shore the live commentary is essential and many spectators clustered near the big screen to get the benefit of close-up pictures, those live graphics, and the commentary. Spectators further away could still hear the commentary but that threw up a problem. In between races the screen showed replays with the appropriate commentary. The commentators were enthusing over replay images while most of the crowd were looking at boats milling around between races. Confusing!
The video commentary is an area that needs work as the presenters are clearly not at home with their task. Shouting is no substitute for quality presentation, expert knowledge, and real excitement. And why does sailing require a very dumbed-down commentary for the general sports audience. Which other sports dumb down to this extent in a desperate attempt to attract viewers? Give viewers the means to learn more but don’t insult the sport by ignoring the sophistication of the most complex sport in the world.
Many in the crowd, estimated to be an average of about 10,000 a day, were clearly committed sailors, eager to see the pros racing these extreme machines. They were armed with binoculars, long-lens cameras, and a natural enthusiasm for the event.
Others were couples, families, and school groups out to enjoy the sunshine and an end of season event that brought some cachet to the city. Many seemed confused by what they were actually watching - "Is this the America’s Cup then?" summed up the danger of trying to extend the brand into a run-up series that actually has no real connection with the main event in San Francisco in two years time. But the general feelings among the crowds were positive and excited and it’s likely that many of the serious spectators spent more than one day watching the show.
The fleet races were the most exciting while many of the match races were rather boring, although when the big guns come together, or a giant-killer appears, as in Plymouth in the form of Team Korea, the excitement does increase. But you get the idea of how difficult it is to explain match racing in catamarans to the general viewer when ETNZ’s skipper Dean Barker admits: "There is a very complicated format on how the match racing works from here and I will not even start to try and explain how things work. You would need a degree to do that!"
So, is there sufficient excitement and enough compelling reasons to be interested for this new format to be successful? Larry Ellison, team owner of Oracle Racing and current holder of the America’s Cup, is certainly hoping so. With no large sponsors yet committed to this series he’s footing the bill - reputed to be upwards of $300 million through to the end of the 34th America’s Cup, with the TV production alone needing $15 million.
When you see the scale of the operation, including the transport ship which moves the entire circus around, it’s not difficult to see where the money goes. Where it comes from is another thing entirely, especially in the current global economic climate.
With spectators getting to watch the action for free - and don’t expect that to change any time soon - the economic reason to choose host venues comes from the size of the contribution the city is prepared to make.
America’s Cup Event Authority (ACEA) hopes to secure significant funding from venues but it’s likely to be a tough challenge. Plymouth is said to have contributed less than £250,000 in set-up and in-kind costs and to have not paid an event fee. That’s why this event may have been a one-off as far as the UK is concerned. It’s not likely to return to Plymouth unless they pay for the privilege and it’s hard to imagine any other suitable UK venues doing so either, despite unsubstantiated claims that it delivered £10 million to the local economy.
With the sale of TV rights not expected to net huge sums, the bulk of the money needed to maintain and develop this series will have to come from sponsorship. But without large numbers of broadcast or online viewers and little other mainstream media coverage the main value of sponsorship will depend on it’s hospitality and PR benefits. These can be attractive, but the value of niche rather than world-scale events for effective hospitality is limited to its cachet and awareness. It’s hard to see sponsorship income that’s big enough to make this series viable.
So why take what is probably the biggest commercial risk yet seen in sailing? Ellison and Russell Coutts have a vision of the America’s Cup as a commercially-viable continuous event which is supported in each Cup cycle by the America’s Cup World Series. The series should be a training ground for aspiring teams and a commercial vehicle which provides on-going benefits to the sailors, teams, sponsors, and broadcasters.
To do all of that it badly needs to attract online and broadcast viewers as well as spectators at live events to prove to sponsors that there’s a real audience out there. However, although the live race coverage has had more money applied to it than any other event in sailing’s history the online viewer numbers are not encouraging so far. On the event’s YouTube channel the most watched video, posted three months ago, has had just over 1 million views while only four videos have exceeded 100,000 views. The majority have less than 20,000.
These numbers are just not high enough to interest sponsors or broadcasters or to justify the risk of buying into an event that might be history after the 34th America’s Cup in San Francisco. Ellison and Coutts believe, or hope, that the change to high-speed, stadium style racing will attract lots of new TV and online viewers from the general sports audience, but it’s a big gamble.
So far the only confirmed broadcast contract is with TVNZ, with that broadcaster’s deal including a clause that prevents online viewers in New Zealand from accessing the organisers’ YouTube programming for seven days from transmission. In the country with arguably the only nationalistic and most passionate interest in the America’s Cup these days that seems like a bizarre and unhelpful decision.
AMEA have two years to prove this concept and deliver a compelling Louis Vuitton Cup and 34th America’s Cup. The AC45 World Series has a major role to play and it will be fascinating to watch how the organisers further develop their fledgling product and whether they can deliver commercial benefits against the odds.
Whatever the result, if you get the chance to see AC45 racing in person take it. It’s a show worth seeing if only to judge for yourself whether this is the future of mass-audience sailing. And if you can’t get to one of the events, check out the coverage from the recent Plymouth round and from the next event in San Diego, starting 12 November, on the event’s YouTube Channel.
Steve Sleight is the author of The Complete Sailing Manual as well 12 other sailing, business, and IT titles including Sponsorship, what it is and how to use it.