America's Cup race operations 2 weeks before D-day
The 33rd America's Cup is right around the corner. In fact in two weeks from now the starting signals will be raised and the two giant multihulls will race what everybody hopes will be the most spectacular Cup ever. Valencia Sailing talked to Harold Bennett (Regatta Director and Principal Race Officer) and Niccoló Porzio (Race Operations Manager prior to the races and Course Marshal during the races) in order to know how their team is coping with the tight schedule.
The regatta preparations are exactly were they had initially thought and scheduled to be two weeks before the event. There haven't been any major surprises and barring some major unforeseen upset, everything should be ready for a great event.
One of the main hurdles facing the preparation of the regatta is not the very tight schedule per se but the setbacks caused by bad weather. One stormy day with 25 knots of breeze means one less day on the water, testing, practicing and simulating an actual race. On a forced off day, the team can always carry out other tasks and work on other issues, but its number one priority, by far, is time on the water. Yet. with only three days on the water so far, they have been able to achieve most of their goals and tick a lot of boxes.
Given the immense race and course areas of this edition of the event, communications will be one one of the most important, if not the most important, issues the race operations team will have to deal with. The two racing yachts, the race committee, the patrol boats, the course marshal, the umpires and the mark boats will need reliable and efficient systems in order to seamlessly communicate, spread over an area of more than 400 nautical miles. All race communication will be carried out on a private VHF system with satellite phones as backup.
While the umpire boats will follow the two giant multihulls, the race committee will, obviously, stay idle throughout the race and as a result, when Alinghi 5 and USA reach the weather mark in the first race, they will be 20 nautical miles away from Harold Bennett. While the race operation boats are mounted with antennas, the two racing yachts will communicate through handheld devices. As a result, two patrol boats, equipped with powerful electronic equipment, will be staying behind the two yachts, acting as relay stations.
Being such a crucial issue, communication systems were the first to be set up and tested in the early preparations of the race operations team. Bennett is happy that the first tests have been positive and at this stage it seems there is good coverage over the long distances required in a Deed-of-Gift match. They extended from the committee boat to a windward mark of 20 miles and communication was very good. There have been some "teething problems" but he's confident they will be eventually overcome. Next week will be devoted to more tests and during the final week before racing, full-blown simulations will be carried out, with ribs acting as the two racing yachts.
The Motorola DR3000 repeater. It will repeat and relay the signal from the handheld devices onboard the two racing yachts to the rest of the race operations fleet. Valencia, 23 January 2010. Photo copyright Pierre Orphanidis / Valencia Sailing
Safety - Security
Another major issue that results from the peculiarity of this event is that of safety and security, not only for the spectators but also for the race officials themselves, even if it will be same waters the previous match took place in 2007. The umpires, for example, will have to follow the two racing yachts, just like in any other match race. In a 3-mile race course and with monohulls topping 15 knots of boat speed that wasn't a problem. Imagine now, having to go upwind for 20 miles at 25 knots of speed, trying to stay in touch with Alinghi 5 or USA. Add to that some waves and without doubt the race officials will be fully tested.
So far, they have followed the two racing yachts in order to get a first hands-on experience but it hasn't been in full race mode. When they followed BMW Oracle's USA she was "drifting" in 2-3 knots of wind and the couple of times they followed Alinghi 5 it was more of a setup sail. The true test will come when they stay behind one of the yachts, upwind with 10-12 knots of breeze. There is a steep learning curve because race officials have to educate themselves and learn to anticipate what the yachts will do. It's always useful to watch videos and listen to what the team chase boat drivers say but the best exercise is to follow them when they are training in full earnest. Still, just by briefly following the two yachts one can see that a good way to anticipate the yacht's moves is to watch what the crew is doing with the daggerboards, for example if you see them starting to lower the windward one down and pull the leeward one up, it's time to move.
In respect to safety and security for the entire race and the spectators, things are coming together after a series of very constructive meetings the Race Operations team held with the Guardia Civil. The Guardia Civil has a very good surveillance program used to capture drug smugglers and illegal immigrants, coming with small but fast boats. According to Bennett, the Guardia Civil has indicated that no unidentified boat could get closer than 8 nautical miles from the two racing yachts (if that is necessary of course). This system, a "Big Brother" watching the Spanish coasts will be used during the races, together with airborne and seaborne support. There will be a number of fast boats and helicopters ready to intervene if necessary. Some of the details were not revealed but if a spectator wants to get too close to the two racing yachts he'd better be prepared to spend a fair amount of time at the police station in the port.
If now some small yacht, completely unaware a Deed-of-Gift race is taking place in Valencia, is located at the wrong place at the wrong time they will be immediately ordered to stop and remain still until further notice. Again, "Big Brother" will be watching them and they'd better not move. The Guardia Civil, together with the Port Authority and the city of Valencia will take all necessary measures to guarantee the safety and security of everybody in the race, whether participating or simply watching it.
Graph depicting the race area and course diamonds of the 33rd America's Cup in Valencia. The graph on the left corresponds to the upwind and return race while the one on the right corresponds to the triangle race. These diamonds are for illustration purposes only and don't represent the actual course the match will take place.
In order to further ensure the race is safe, some boats used by Race Operations will be equipped with an Automatic Identification System (AIS) device in order for all transiting commercial ships to be aware of their exact positions and, more importantly, their speeds. Not all container ship captains know that Alinghi 5 and USA are approaching at a speed of 30-35 knots. If you are curious, during racing days you can easily locate all these yachts at www.localizatodo.com.
If this edition of the America's Cup is claimed to be the most spectacular ever it is logical to wonder why the organization would make it difficult for the spectators to watch it. The issue here is not whether spectator boats can or cannot move into certain areas. It has more to do with whether they meet the current Spanish rules and legislation, especially in winter time. Of all the vessels that provided spectator and hospitality services in the 32nd America's Cup it is believed that only 5% would be allowed to do so this time, unless they underwent major modification. Just the fact the starting line could be located at a distance of up to 25 miles from the coast will mean that the vast majority will not be able to go there. Spanish rules have very stringent requirements for passenger yachts that go over 3 miles from the coast and very few of the current spectator yachts meet them.
Following a Deed-of-Gift race of two giant multihulls is undoubtedly thrilling and exciting but it is similar to running downhill. Once you've reached the bottom you will have to climb back. Imagine doing 100 miles in one day, at an average of 30 knots and then at 5pm you realize you ran out of gas. This is just one of the scenarios the authorities want to prevent.
Part of the race operations fleet, ready to run the 33rd America's Cup. Valencia, 23 January 2010. Photo copyright Pierre Orphanidis / Valencia Sailing