Friday, 5 February 2010

America's Cup: Umpiring the 33rd America's Cup Match

by Anne Hinton

Whilst there has been match racing in large monohulls, the giant multihull machines of the 33rd America’s Cup are an altogether different kettle of fish. Match racing in smaller multihulls, say X40s or D35s, certainly involves faster action than similarly-sized monohulls, but does not present a lot of the issues that both the sheer size and speed of USA and Alinghi 5 may provide for the umpire team of the 33rd America’s Cup. Nonetheless, as Russell Coutts said, for BMW ORACLE Racing, “we are in a match race and while the yachts are large, we plan to match race them. We want to race using any design advantage as well as any sailing advantage.”

The America’s Cup has always been more than just a match race, which is conventionally run between two one design boats. As indicated in Coutts’ statement, it involves the entire sailing industry in the design, construction and sailing of the boat. The design and construction differences may be used to enhance specific features, to benefit the sailors while racing in the Match.

In the 33rd America’s Cup match, there will be differences in straight-line boat speed, manoeuvrability and close-windedness between the boats. Ability to deal with wind shear (the change in direction and strength of the wind with height above the water surface) – the USA mast stands 68 metres tall; Alinghi 5’s is believed to be about 8 metres less – with rig differences (the ‘wing’ versus ‘soft’ sails), and hulls and foils better or less able to cope with given sea conditions, will also vary between the boats. Differences in all these ways will set up variations in responses to any one set of conditions or on any given point of sailing. Both the competitors and the umpires must assess the differences in the boats in this regard, especially in relation to opposite tack convergence situations (RRS 16), in order to make good judgement calls while racing.

In umpiring, two boats are used in each match. One is the official umpire boat from which decisions (green flags, meaning ‘no incident’, or penalties) are handed out. The other is the ‘wing’ boat, which assists the umpires in the official boat for each match in making decisions. Usually, one boat follows each competitor in a match. In an opposite tack convergence (RRS 16) situation, the umpires in the wing boat may assess whether the boat they are following has had to take avoiding action and inform the lead umpire boat of this. The wing boat may also assist judgement calls by the umpires in other ways, for example, by calling overlaps between the competing boats, which may affect luffing rights.

The 33rd America’s Cup umpire team is taken from amongst the world’s most experienced international umpires. Bill Edgerton (GBR), Chief Umpire, Gerard Bosse (FRA), John Standley (AUS) and Roger Wood (NZL) have plans as to how to tackle umpiring this event, which are essentially the same as conventional umpiring: “We have fast boats and revised seating to cope; 4 umpires: 2 umpiring in a lead boat, going with the left-hand boat and sticking close, the other 2 going with the right-hand boat. In case of a problem with the lead umpire boat the other will take over, and we have a spare boat on the course as well. Communications will be in accordance with Appendix C (flags) [to communicate ‘penalty’ (yellow/blue flag) or ‘no incident’ (green flag)] and radio communications are mandatory,” said Edgerton.

The first task of the umpires will be to keep up with the competitors – quite probably at speeds in excess of 30 knots; for comparison, a monohull ver. 5 ACC boat would generally travel at around 10 knots. An Alinghi chase boat has been seen with twin 250HP outboards, although it is not yet certain what size engines the umpires’ boats will have. The size of the Deed of Gift course, as well as the speed the boats will be travelling at, is likely to raise fuel consumption issues for the umpire boats too, and generate the need for considerable reserve fuel supplies on board. Whilst it may also sound from this as though the 33rd America’s Cup Match may not be the greenest, this is only one event with a maximum of three races.

The main challenge for the umpires may well be in judging opposite tack convergence situations (RRS 16), as mentioned above. The sheer size of the 90 foot multihulls (fore/aft, as well as beam) and their manoeuvrability, means that the space need to manoeuvre with safety will be huge and, given their speeds (over 30 knots), avoiding action will have to start being taken when they are at considerable distances from each other if there is any chance of close proximity in passing. Edgerton has acknowledged the issue for the 33rd America’s Cup match: “obviously RRS 16 has a lot more relevance with these boats,” he said. Clearly, from an umpire boat following in behind (and already probably at least 130 feet from the bow of each of these boats), the distances needed in the prevailing conditions will not be easy to judge. On top of this, the fact that the two boats have never lined up against each other before means that neither the teams nor the umpires have had practice in this situation with these boats.

With RRS 16, the safe distance apart needed for commencement of avoiding action in opposite tack convergence varies according to both the conditions (e.g. wind speed, currents) and the boats being used. On the World Match Racing Tour, light wind conditions with the long-keeled IODs (similar to Dragons) used in Bermuda are probably the most difficult for both competitors and umpires to judge in regard to RRS 16, as these boats are considerably less responsive under such conditions than most conventional monohulls. In the 33rd America’s Cup Match, the speed/ manoeuvrability of the boats and the considerable distances are likely to present the biggest judgement issues, for both the teams and the umpires. Asked whether the novel situation may produce new Calls (examples of situations to guide umpires through the rules to the correct penalty/no incident judgement in a given on-the-water incident), Chief Umpire Bill Edgerton replied: “No, there are unlikely to be any event Calls on this; we are not planning any at this stage.”

In order to award a penalty, both umpires in the lead umpire boat have to agree that the same boat should be penalised. If there is doubt, ‘no incident’ is indicated. The means of arriving at the decision is that each umpire takes on the persona of one of the competing boats and talks through the action being taken on that boat with his colleague, who is talking through what happens on the other boat in the same manner. This means that the umpires talk through any rules situations as they arise, e.g. to determine when avoiding action needs to start being taken, so should be ready to make a decision on any incident fairly promptly, if asked to do so by a competitor raising a red and yellow striped ‘Y’ flag.

The relative speed and manoeuvrability of the massive USA and Alinghi 5 boats means that taking a penalty will be proportionally a greater negative, time- and distance-wise, for that competitor than in a conventional ACC ver. 5 monohull event, as one boat would slow down to manoeuvre through the penalty turn, while the other may be making 30 knots or more towards the finishing line. While trapping a competitor into a penalty situation is a tactic often employed to win a match race, the unknowns connected with these two boats racing against each other, plus the potential of damage to boats and people from manoeuvring at close quarters, mean that there will be a premium on penalty avoidance for the competitors in the 33rd America’s Cup Match.

The size of the course (race one is a sausage course with a 20 mile beat; race two is an equilateral triangle of 39 miles; and race three, if needed, reverts to a 20 mile sausage course) means that there is the potential for one competitor to sail very many miles in a different direction from the other on any leg of the course. In practice, unless there is definite knowledge of a very favourable wind pattern in one location, in match racing it is best to stay in close proximity to the other boat, even if in the lead, in order to ensure that the opponent does not take off on a flyer. Australia II sailed around Liberty to win the final race of the America’s Cup in 1983 by being in very different wind conditions from her opponent. Hopefully, therefore, the competitors will remember that close racing is not only good for them but also good for the spectators of the 33rd America’s Cup!

N.B. Spectators need to stay well away from the giant multihulls, especially while they are racing. This is not only to ensure fair racing conditions for the America’s Cup match, but also a significant point of safety for all involved. Therefore, anyone planning to go out on the water as a spectator will need to remain at all times outside the restricted racing area for the 33rd America’s Cup match. The vessels are huge, so seeing them, especially at the start/finish line and marks of the course, should not present any issues. For those not out on the water, in addition to television broadcasts, the America’s Cup website will be transmitting the racing live.

I am grateful to Wayne Boberg (NZL), one of the 32nd America's Cup umpires, for discussions in relation to some of the points in this article, but take full responsibility for the content. AH

33rd America's Cup

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