A Revolution in sailing – but would you even know it?

James CloseAmerica's Cup, Ben Ainslie Racing, Thoughts

Our sport is confusing and technical to anyone outside of it. But like many things in life, once you know what is going on it becomes more straightforward and the more you find out about things, the more interesting they get. In the final article of James’ 3 part series on the latest revolution in sailing (see part 1 and part 2) we look at how our sport is being covered by the media. Or not!

Our Revolution

Is there an Audience?

Sailing is a sport that could be of interest to the general public, but only if it is made accessible to them. The people, the technology, the conditions and the tactics. A great combination for sporting greatness and many facets to hold the interest of the spectator. But for those who haven’t sailed it can seem confusing, random and unclear who is performing well and what makes the difference in a race. So it is frustrating that when it is portrayed in the media, particularly on the TV, we always seem to miss the opportunity to educate and entertain. But we argue it goes further than that and we are not even getting things right for those who understand and enjoy this sport. It should be quite easy for a talented production team to be able to explain what is going on to non sailors. Something is clearly wrong!

But rather than generalising, lets look at some examples of where we get things wrong.

Example 1 – Vendee Globe

One of the most important parts of any sailing race is the start. Those that get away first and in clear air will sail at 100%, those behind will be in dirty wind and wakes and will only be able to sail at 90%. They are on the back foot and have to move themselves into a clear part of the race course to try and do something about it. Who is too close to the line, who is too far back. What tack is each boat on, what sails do they have hoisted, who is to windward? All these factors can make or break a boat’s chances and the tactics take years to learn and perfect.

Okay, the start of a 25,000 mile race such as the Vendee Globe is less of a factor than normal yacht races, but it still marks the climax, 4 years of hard work has been building to this one moment where the clock starts and the race is underway. With that in mind, why do directors of the live media feed cut away to the flags dropping at that very moment? Who was over the start line? Who did well? Who was miles behind?

Yes the flags are going down the mast, yes they mark the start? But are they important? NO! It appears that the reason is because the person lowering the flags is the Prince of Monaco. With the greatest respect to him, has every one tuned in to watch him? No. They tuned in to watch the START of one of the biggest races on the planet! We missed it.

Example 2 – The Olympics

Most sailing I see on TV makes me cringe, it comes across so badly. The Olympic sailing coverage was generally awful. This should have been one of the pinnacles of the sailing calendar but from what was shown on the TV you wouldn’t have known it. Would there be discussions about the future of Olympic sailing if the coverage had been better? Well, there are some other things that need fixing that I won’t go into here, but the coverage doesn’t help sell the sport! Let’s look at why…

The Course

Firstly, they only filmed the inshore course, which is where the wind was most variable. There was a nice looking beach, people waving flags and banners of support and some stunning views of Rio. But unfortunately, it didn’t provide the correct conditions required for fair sailing. It was a farce.

To those watching the events on this course it looked like sailing was a lottery. Who could catch the wind, some people were stationary, with no wind, while others are in 20knots screaming along. It makes it very hard to explain what is going on and the usual tactics employed in sailing races, when it is so random. But even if the course being filmed was a good one, would the coverage have been good?

Mark Rounding

Mark roundings are where crew work can make a difference to the results of a race, but unfortunately they were poorly covered. The important parts to see are:

1. How long does it take to hoist spinnaker.

2. How long to set spinnaker and get up to full speed,

3. What course are they on and do they need to gybe clear, how will they deal with crossing situations.

In the footage they just showed the boats flashing past so they could count what position each boat was in. Then cutting away to the next boat just as an interesting manoeuvre was about to happen. That was the limit of what the directors thought was important. Running order, they would cut away just at the worst moment making me shout out loud with frustration. I couldn’t bear to watch it, AND I LIKE SAILING! Obviously the director is not a sailor.

Speak and We Will Listen

And then there is the commentary. Often non-sailing commentators are drafted in, from other sports, who may be good at talking, but if they have little understanding of the sport, they serve to confuse the viewer with wrong information. Personally I prefer to use a sailor, who has a passion for the sport and a deep understanding of what is going on. They give insight to the thinking, can pre-empt things, are very good at explaining and have contagious enthusiasm. Ian Walker was great during the Olympic coverage, but had to spend time correcting the main commentator. Dee Caffari did an amazing job in the commentary for the start of the Vendee, but the person alongside her was so negative, so uninformed, he didn’t sell our sport at all. With a sport as complicated as ours you need informed people communicating it in a way that explains what is going on. More importantly they need to deliver excitement, passion and enthusiasm about our sport to the viewers.

The News is no help

Outside of the big sporting events is sailing included in the general mix of news? Is there good sailing journalism in the mainstream news media? It seems like the media are only interested when there is a disaster, so true of all news and not just sailing, but the only time sailing gets a mention in popular press / TV, it is seemingly when something bad happens.

For the general public it is therefore a very negative image of sailing that confronts them. We need a way to explain it is not all about disaster and struggle and adversity. Sailing creates special moments, exciting moments, moments that are risky, but when you manage to pull them off by working together a sense of euphoria and adrenaline, it will be great if we can celebrate the successes of our top sailors. Communicating that could inspire people to get out and give sailing a go!

What does Good Look Like?

The America’s Cup has put a lot of effort into developing on screen graphics which can illustrate to those who haven’t sailed what the wind is doing, and where everyone is going. With the advent of camera drones, we are able to get stunning imagery to illustrate what is happening. Combined with onboard footage, audio feeds and chase boats, we have all the ingredients to tell our story. The introduction of foils, increasing speed and drama, looks spectacular. It’s taken a few iterations of the coverage but BT Sport is now doing a good job of capturing this. But how many people can watch BT Sport?

The general public could be interested in this hi tech sailing spectacle, it is imperative that we don’t screw it up by cutting away from the action at the wrong moment or confusing people with uninformed commentators, annoying those who know what is happening and scaring off those that are looking for the first time. Sailing has some huge characters, get them on the telly, their enthusiasm and knowledge may rub off on people and provoke a new generation to have a go at our sport!

Using the UK as an example, 2017 could be a huge year for sailing in this country. The finish of the Vendee Globe with British sailor Alex Thomson in the mix. Ben Ainslie looking to capture the America’s Cup, with the latest in British technology and innovation in many fields on display. Let’s embrace these stories, tell them to an audience who have the intelligence and desire to understand them and use them to open our sport up to a world that could gain so much from it!