34th America's Cup Media & Race Trials - Full report
Note: You can find all of the day's photos here
I have to admit I was skeptical about BMW Oracle's "34th America's Cup Media & Race Evaluation Trials" that started on Thursday morning in Valencia. What kind of uncommon wisdom does the Defender of the America's Cup hold in order to find in just four days the magical TV formula that has eluded for years dozens of experts in the Olympics, the America's Cup, the Volvo Ocean Race or any other major or minor regatta?
After spending the entire day on the water aboard the race committee boat with PRO Peter Reggio and getting to see first-hand the entire procedure, I realized the key word in what took place today was "trials". This is exactly what they did; try all possible TV positions and configurations in order to check how they work out. The official press release talks about a total of 16 cameras and 25 microphones onboard and around the two yachts. I didn't obviously count all of them but judging from what I saw and then from the pictures it is true that there were cameras in every possible spot one could think of. There were cameramen onboard the yachts (two on one of them), there were cameras on the bows, the booms, the stern scoops, the masts, the spreaders, on helmets worn by some of the crew, on a helicopter and, obviously, the handful of TV tenders. I spotted two 3D cameras, one onboard Russell Coutts' yacht and another on the helicopter.
So what is so extraordinary about that one might wonder? BMW Oracle took two RC44 yachts, a class created four years ago, stuffed them with cameras and match raced them. It's true the boats have been around a while but the priority isn't to try a new boat but to try getting the best possible TV result by combining what is available. Take the TP52's for example. Since the start of this season they have been producing a very interesting daily TV feed, streamed live through the internet, but there is neither video nor audio from onboard the yachts.
One way to better describe it is that up to now the TV and photographers had to find their way around the race while now it is the other way round. The race is probably molded around the TV and photographer needs. This was evident as well in the way the TV tenders were crisscrossing in front of the two yachts and even the helicopter was flying unusually low, not more than 10-20 meters high. One side effect is that you get easily soaked, like we did on the race committee boat, and I'm sure the guests on the VIP spectator boats won't find it to their taste.
Do we have to get used to helicopters flying close to the masts? Valencia, 22 July 2010. Photo copyright Pierre Orphanidis / Valencia Sailing
It is probably the first time an America's Cup defender spends the time and money to properly do this, as it is my understanding this is the just the first in a series of three media & race trials. The next one will take place in Cowes two weeks from now, during the 1851 Cup and the third one will be in Puerto Calero right before the RC44 World Championship. In addition, even if trying to innovate, both the TV producer and director are veterans in their fields.
The Valencia trials last four days, from Thursday to Sunday. Thursday and Friday are dedicated to testing as many TV and camera configurations as possible with conventional race formats, the first day on the RC44 sloops and the second one on the Extreme 40 catamarans. On Saturday and Sunday the focus will switch to the race format, testing the various innovations and alternatives the Defender has in mind, again alternating between the RC44 and Extreme 40 boats. As Peter Reggio commented, "Saturday and Sunday we are trying the crazy ideas...", like downwind starts or upwind starts but with a weather mark situated as close as 300-400 meters from the starting line.
As a result, Thursday's program was quite conventional format wise. The two RC44 yachts, one helmed by Russell Coutts the other by James Spithill, spent almost five hours carrying out multiple prestart procedures and a handful of full upwind-downwind races, four if I counted well.
Things became more interesting as the afternoon progressed when they tried a couple of prestart procedures with a twist. First the starting line was made very short and then the two yachts were obliged to stay within the starting box once they had entered. As a result, conventional match racing was not entirely possible, so the two yachts were circling for more than 2 minutes before heading to the starting line.
The two yachts circling around for more than 2 minutes as they were required to stay inside the starting box. Valencia, 22 July 2010. Photo copyright Pierre Orphanidis / Valencia Sailing
During the last 45 minutes of the day, the two yachts practiced a number of what they called "downwind drills", basically consisting of sailing downwind, extremely close to the breakwater. The commercial port of Valencia being expanded, the new, extended breakwater must be at least half a mile long and at times the two RC44 boats were a few meters from its rocks.
So, what's my conclusion? I do believe it's a genuine, open and open-minded attempt at making the America's Cup and sailing much more accessible to the media, in particular the TV. The footage produced every day will be freely available on the internet and feedback will be possible. At the end of the day, if BMW Oracle wanted they could have just held those tests somewhere else, keep it as low profile as possible and then simply implement the results. Or even simpler, not do anything at all!!