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America's Cup 34 & its magic buttons
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Apr 28, 2011, 2:22 PM

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America's Cup 34 & its magic buttons Log-In to Post/Reply

FOR THE GOOD OF SAILING...MAGIC BUTTONS AND ALL
By
Leighton O'Connor, photographer

(April 28, 2011) - I was invited to a press conference in New Zealand on Thursday where they were wrapping up the third day of testing the new course configuration and technical systems for the AC45's. Unfortunately, I had to journey down under via a conference call. The kick off time was 4PM their time - midnight my time. I figured what the heck. Conan is all repeats this week and Letterman has been pretty lame lately.

I was late in getting dialed in because my land-line didn't like the conference call software. I joined the press conference in mid sentence of Principal Race Officer John Craig as he described how protests will be handled. "Boats will have magic buttons,” explained Craig. “Skippers can press a button for a black protest flag or a button for a red protest flag . That request goes to the umpire booth, they review it and they will declare if there is a penalty or not and text the offender." What? It was late, but did I hear that right? Magic buttons? Texting a skipper?

America's Cup CEO and the Regatta Director Iain Murray and Craig took turns answering questions about the weird high tech gadgets on the AC45's. The skippers will have four buttons. Two for protests and two to announce tacks and room. So if James Spithill wants to protest Terry Hutchinson, he presses a button. The umpires are notified instantly in their cozy booth on land that there is a protest.

The umpires will now be using monitors to determine protests. If they feel the protest is justified, they issue a penalty to the offending boat's black box via a text message making lights blink on and off on the box and the skipper needs to take the penalty. Not only do the umpires get cues from the magic buttons, all the teams get a text about other team's protests and penalties via their own black box with blinking lights.

"The boats can be tracked within two centimeters and are tracked ten times per a second. We are testing the tracking this week to see if it's accurate enough for calling the start line," Craig said. Imagine calling the line from a booth on land and not even seeing the boats? Just a little weird. And in case the umpire's tracking software goes bad, there will be umpires on two jet skies watching the action the old fashion way and reporting back to the land locked umpires.

I chimed in eventually, and of course, I wanted to know what was on board for cameras. "There will be four cameras on each boat with live feeds back to the mainland,” explained Murray. “One camera on the bowsprit, one in front of the wing and cameras on the port and starboard. Also, each crew member will be miked and there will be five other mics on each boat. Depending on the number of boats racing, there could be as many as 100 channels of audio and 40 channels of video. Spectators will have more information than the teams during a race but all that information will be available to the teams after the race." TV testing will start next week in New Zealand.

Old time America's Cup fans seem to be very dismayed about the switch from monohulls to multihulls. Up to this point, I have been somewhat on the fence about high tech multihulls racing for the Cup and have been rather quiet about it. I must admit I lost interest in the 33rd Match after all the legal battles and the venue selection. I did cover the last week of matches of the 32nd America's Cup in Valencia in June of 2007, which was raced in the IACC 82-foot monohull. I covered the matches from the sea and air and the action was "somewhat" exciting but not totally riveting. The highlight for me might have been when I watched from a helicopter as Team New Zealand ripped through two spinnakers on one leg in a matter of a few minutes. But I wasn't in the cheap seats so the action was more than real and close.

Back then the press wasn't given a lot of access to the boats so I wasn't exposed to the high tech gadgets they had on board. I saw some wireless tablets, a few cameras on board and saw that the foredeck guy was juiced into skipper via a headset. But that was about all I saw for space-age gadgets.

But based on what I have read and seen for videos over the last few weeks from the testing in New Zealand, I'm sold on these high tech wired-winged cat boats. These cats look a lot more interesting then what I have seen in the past Cups and look like a lot more fun. And I'm completely on board with the real time media coverage of what could be some very interesting footage. Especially if a boat ‘heads down the mine’ with the cameras on and the sound cranked up.

I have photographed a lot of the old America's Cup 12 Metre vessels. They are beautiful sleek crafts but I have never had the chance to actually sail on one. If you gave me the choice to sail with Mr. Conner on a classic 12 or with Mr. Spithill on an AC45 at the World Series later this year, I'd be at the dock in a millisecond (with a helmet cam) waiting for James.

I'm looking forward to seeing the sidelines of San Francisco Bay filled with thousands of spectators like a drunken NASCAR track. And I'm especially looking forward to seeing the action live from the AC70's and what people’s reactions will be to the coverage. Let's face it, if we want sailing to be a bigger/more popular sport in the States, we need to kick it up a notch and show a lot more action and maybe a little harmless carnage once and a while. Mr. Ellison has taken a lot of crap for turning the America's Cup upside down but I think he is on the right track and has been right all along. It's all for the good of sailing...magic buttons and all.





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