How a Few Cal 40s Transformed America’s Cup

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OK, I’m not above stretching a headline to get your attention. But history should record that on February 11, 2011, the first tests of the new America’s Cup sports graphics system were conducted in South San Francisco Bay, using volunteer Cal 40s and a rented helicopter.

They woulda done it on the cityfront, in America’s Cup-racing waters, but the City of San Francisco is not helicopter-landing friendly, and you gotta be able to confab, while relaxed.

The maestro of the occasion was Stan Honey, who will be on West 44th Street, New York City, on Friday to receive his award as the Rolex Yachtsman of the Year. I reckon the proud spouse will be there too. Sally will want to watch as hubby halfway catches up to her two Yachtswoman of the Year awards.

Honey and his longtime business partner, Ken Milnes, are both retired from the sports graphics company they founded together—Sportvision—which transformed sports on TV. Because of them, Sportvision lays down the electronic first-down line in football, displays the path of the pitch in baseball, and tracks cars for NASCAR. But Misters Honey and Milnes were summoned from retirement (relative retirement; I believe Stan Honey navigated a 48-day round-the-world sailing record last year) by one Larry Ellison. You’ve heard of Larry Ellison; he’s famous for winning the 2010 RC44 season, and he’ll be racing an RC44 next week in San Diego. Ellison asked these two to work their magic on the sport of sailing.

Stan’s been ready for years, waiting for takers.

In an interview conducted on behalf of SAIL Magazine, Stan told me about the work and the Cal 40 test, in detail, before it happened. But he’s been quiet since.

I should say, I think that’s just the nature of the America’s Cup game, not a sign of anything negative. Stan explained, “It’s a test, not a demo. Things will go wrong.”

The demo is scheduled for April in Auckland, when there’s an AC45 catamaran fleet to play with. And no, Stan says, it doesn’t matter that the catamarans will be a tweak faster than Cal 40s. That speed difference is nothing when the demand is to geo-locate a helicopter and two or more boats to a tolerance of two centimeters. And yes, you heard me right. No more Computer-Graphic environments with CG water and CG backgrounds and CG boats sailing toward CG laylines. The vision of America’s Cup 34 is nothing less than a transformation of sailing, and a huge component of that is a transformation of television broadcasting, with laylines “painted” on the water—when relevant—and lines showing who’s ahead or behind, who’s pointing higher, all the elements to help sailors and nonsailors understand the race.

If we’re ever going to hook a larger public, this is a basic requirement.

This is also the system that America’s Cup Race Management CEO Iain Murray was talking about, when he gave an interview to Richard Gladwell of Sail-World (Richard is on-site with Murray in Auckland, New Zealand) and Gladwell went away and wrote, in part:

“The Racing Rules have been simplified and electronic umpiring introduced after trials in San Francisco. Murray says that the accuracy is now down to 20mm and the Umpires for the 34th America’s Cup and Louis Vuitton Cups will now operate from a booth ashore and communicate to the competitors electronically.

“Murray says the intention is to use only live TV images with lines overlaid over the screen. Quite how this works in reality remains to be seen, as the animation which has become an integral part of television coverage over the last twenty years, allows the viewing of the racing and incidents – including an upwind perspective which is not possible using helicopters [sic] mounted cameras.”

Well, the answer is that, yes, there will be a half-million dollar TV camera mounted on a helicopter, but the geo-locating is so Stan-Honey precise that the tolerance is roughly the length of that line, as it displays on my laptop screen. It does not depend upon the camera-angle view that an audience is seeing. The intent is that PRO John Craig will use the electronic system, rather than eyeballs, for close calls on the start line or the finish line.

And Stan’s “two centimeters” is, ah, rather close to Iain’s “twenty millimeters.”

The revolution is coming.

How long it will take to reach a race committee near you, that’s a different story. But it’s an old story how things start at the top, in the America’s Cup. There might even come a time when somebody needs to remember to say, Thanks, Larry.

NEXT: ABOUT THAT UMPIRING

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