I have always been a bit leery of Practice Days – never quite sure whether they are for the benefit of the racing crews, the Race Officer, or the ever-observant media. This morning there was a press conference at which Jimmy Spithill was enthusiastic and Ben Ainslie was polite.
After that there was a conversation with Sir Russell Coutts. When asked about why the AC World Series events are disappointingly small two-day four-race cough-and-you-miss-it affairs, he said that it was all about “quality not quantity”.
Further questioning reinforced the opinion that ACWS events have little to do with sailing, and everything to do with sponsors, commercial interests, and the Great God TV. One of the reasons given for staging the 2017 America’s Cup in Bermuda is because of time zones – it fits right in the middle between Europe and North America – which doesn’t take Australia and New Zealand into account, but you can’t have it all ways even if you are the ACEA.
Races are 25 minutes long, for the benefit of TV, meaning that the race course fits easily on to a Bermudian postage stamp. And who wants to watch the same stuff day after day through a five days’ or a week’s regatta? Hell no, knock off a couple of races a day for two days and vall the score. Sponsors and corporate guests happy, and game over.
The danger, of course, is that a two-day regatta can very easily fall victim to the elements. Remember ACWS Portsmouth. Lose one day and you are down to a two-race event. Lose two days and… you get the picture.
It happens: this year’s Phuket Raceweek involved four racing days, and the first two were a write off on account of lack of breeze. Sailors are patient animals – they will sit out the calms and understand why the racing is suspended.
Non-sailors expecting to turn up, or turn on the tv, and see the spectacle that they have been promised – between 14.00 and 14.25 on Saturday – may well be disappointed, along with the commercial sponsors.
So now we are back to asking the how-do-you make sailing into a commercially attractive spectator sport? It’s a tough one, and we don’t have an answer – unless the answer is ‘don’t’, and you just leave the sailing to the sailors. (The Extreme Sailing Series makes a pretty good job of it, though).
Back to the race course. On Press Boat 5 we had a pamphlet and a map (chart?) of the course, and the brains trust of five photographers and two local drivers figured out where everything was. Start. Windward mark. Red gate. White gate.
And there was a RIB cruising round bearing a big digital clock displaying the countdown in red numbers (which turned green and became a stopwatch after the start). “The start will take place in 23m 12s, 11s, 10s…” No room for timing error here and I am willing to take bets that the RO’s gear bag does not contain an AP flag.
At the appointed time the fleet of six crossed the line (4 kts of breeze? Certainly not as much as 6), and cruised sedately around the made-for-tv T-shaped course.
Someone flew a hull for a few seconds. Dean Barker and Softbank Team Japan crawled across the finish line first. I think.
Second race, more of the same, except Ben Ainslie’s Land Rover BAR led for most of the race until they got lost and ended up at the back of the fleet with Softbank Team Japan leading towards a grandstand finish in front of the crowds on Front Street – but there was no breeze, the race was abandoned at Two Rock Passage, and the boats were towed to their moorings in front of the Fan Zone.
Tomorrow, Saturday, the gloves are off. No more practice stuff. The weather forecast currently calls for scattered thunderstorms on Saturday and morning showers on Sunday.
As Sail-World’s US Editor, David Schmidt, points out, “this should hopefully not have a huge impact on the ACWS racing, as the event is only running two 25-minute races each day. And while this “abbreviated” racing schedule works well for the ACWS’ television-broadcast ambitions, it’s worth noting that most local Wednesday night beer-can chases feature more racing action and far less posturing than this ACWS event.” As a sailor, I just can’t get my head around the “two races a day (at specified times) for two days”. Sailing doesn’t work like that. Square pegs and round holes spring to mind.
However, Bermuda is gorgeous. There is sunshine, clear water, and lots of smiling people. The environs of the harbour and the Great Sound are straight out a set of picture postcards, with ice cream coloured houses tripping down to the water’s edge, and in the morning I will catch the diminutive Salt Kettle Ferry across to Hamilton. A delightful way to start the day.
Race 1 of the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series Bermuda starts at 14.10 Saturday, local time (GMT -4). Precisely. Stand by to roll cameras.