Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Flip side of high tech

America's Cup teams are always buzzing about high technology, but what happens where the rubber hits the road? The start line. The finish line. How teched-up are they?

The answer, from the man in the hotseat, is teched-up NOT.

Principal Race Officer Peter Reggio tells us that starts and finishes in Valencia are governed by eyeball, and he's fine with that.

Here's "Luigi," as he's known: "People have talked about using telemetry to track the boats at the start and finish, but things move around so much out there—the race committee boat on its anchor, the pin on its anchor—that telemetry introduces issues of its own. The navigator will ping the RC boat to get a position for his prestart moves, but he won't just ping it once and forget it. He has to keep on pinging."

"Pinging" with a laser range finder, that is, to get a position for the tactical navigation software that's an important component of prestart maneuvers. The laser is the same piece of equipment that the navigator or someone uses to track relative bearing to the opposition as the boats make their way around the course.

It's a sure bet that if America's Cup Management demanded it, and the money was on the table, someone would come up with a way to make a transponder system work for tracking starts and finishes. We could, for example, go straight to Stan Honey, who is not only a genius ocean-racing navigator. Stan (his company is Sportvision, Inc.) developed the software that "paints" the yellow first-down lines on NFL broadcasts, outlines the strike zone for baseball games, and has some very interesting angles cooking with NASCAR. But to bring those technologies to the sailing racecourse, Reggio says, "It would be incredibly expensive. Some people want a system like that, but on an NFL field the lines are static. On the water, with everything moving around, the human eye can probably read a start/finish line better than any device.

"Also, if you had an electronic system, there are other things you'd have to get the teams to agree on, ahead of time," Reggio says. "Think about a finish—Cup races finish downwind—and the part of the boat that finishes first is 40 feet in the air. You can't put a transponder on the spinnaker, so you'd have to pick a spot on the hull. Then you have to ask about the sampling frequency."

Okay, Luigi, we get the idea. So what's it like to live under the pressure of running races for the America's Cup?

"I sort of laugh when people ask that," he answers. "We don't get too fussed up about it. It's what we do."

Reggio has been PRO for scads of top regattas, and he was one of the leaders in changing the relationship between sailors and the race committee. I remember once interviewing him for a SAIL story I called, Talk to 'em. The theme was open, uniform communication. He says, "In the old days there was sort of an 'us against them' mentality, Race Committee versus the competitors. But I provide a service. I deliver the fairest and best racing that I can, and that's it."

During the opening stages of the Louis Vuitton Cup races to choose a challenger, Reggio will be working with Race Chairman Dyer Jones as PRO along with three other race officers, five "team leaders," four course marshals, 25 umpires, and more support boats than you could count on your fingers and toes.

And that says nothing about spectators. Having the Cup in Europe changes the entire race-fan equation. When the America's Cup went to Perth, Australia, it was a big deal to Australia, but Perth is just a wee bit remote. When the Cup went to San Diego, the USA got excited, then circumstances changed. When the Cup went to Auckland, New Zealand, the world cheered, and you couldn't ask for a place where the locals care more about sailing. But that can't compare to Europe, with its huge, concentrated population.

"The 2000 competition in Auckland was a nice little regatta," Reggio recalls. "2003 was a bit more ramped up, and now here we go . . . "

Thanks, Luigi, and as I like to say at the beginning of any regatta, good luck, Race Committee.

— Kimball         (Unveiling day minus 4 and counting)

Photo Credits: "Luigi" courtesy of ACM2007