Friday, July 1, 2011

Sailing as a Spectator Sport

Like many avid sailors, I would love to see sailing become a more popular (probably too strong a word) spectator sport.

As a high school coach, I get to watch a lot of races from the water, but that is an opportunity limited to a few, and very limited by your position near or on the course and freedom to move around. I was on a spectator boat at the America’s Cup (back in the 80’s when it was in Newport, RI) and saw very little of the race. I was on a mark boat at the Laser Olympic trials and saw lots of windward mark roundings and nothing else. In coaching team racing, I am usually on the start boat or the finish boat, and from either perspective, I miss some of the action. It seems that short of having access to a helicopter, competitive sailing is usually just too hard to see to get a real sense of the overall sport.

Non-sailors compare watching sailing to watching paint dry…

(This is actually gel coat, which might be more interesting than standard paint. Is it going to cover? Will the sprayer spit all over the work or coat it evenly? Did I put in enough catalyst to make it dry or will it stay sticky forever? Fascinating, once you get into it! Sort of like sailing?)
The Extreme 40 racing series is trying to change all that. They have come to Boston this the Fourth of July weekend for Act IV of their series, and in my view, they are making it work. How?
  • Fast boats – 40 foot catamarans that can really fly – at least one pontoon at a time.
  • Large boats – visible from a considerable distance away.
  • Differentiation between boats – unique and colorful graphics on the sails.
  • Possibility of crashes – who doesn’t like a good NASCAR wreck?
  • Expert sailors – much scrambling around and perfect spinnaker sets every time.
  • Short races and many of them – about 20 minutes apiece – 43 races in five days at their last stop.
  • Knowledgable and entertaining play by play commentary over a loudspeaker – identifying the players, explaining the courses and sailing tactics, and generating crowd enthusiasm.
  • And the really critical factor, stadium viewing – the race is as close to shore as possible and bleacher seating is available. You can finally see the whole race, not just a couple of boats for a small part of the course!
Yesterday at Fan Pier, the wind was up and down and very shifty. (Being close to shore probably ensures this some degree even if the wind isn’t shifty in general.) For catamarans that can go from zero to full speed in about five boat lengths but can find themselves practically in irons during an almost perfect tack, being in the wind is everything. Consequently, the racing is very exciting with surprising and dramatic changes in position. Even with world class sailors in shifty conditions, it is nearly impossible to be consistently in the front. In consecutive races, there was a lot of movement from first to nearly last and vice versa.

I’ve seen a couple other instances and venues where it all works as a spectator sport. The world team race championship held on the shores of Newport a few years ago was similarly great viewing and exciting racing. Events held at MIT are close to shore on the Charles River and the roof deck of the boat house provides just enough height to see the entire race. Although I’ve never been there, the Hinman team race event in England reportedly provides stadium sailing better than anywhere else and draws crowds that pack the grandstands year in and year out.
Newport Team Racing Championship

Charles River Regatta

For me, all of these examples make sailing more viewer friendly than the highly touted America’s Cup which is progressively becoming more about politics, technical feats, and money than sailing. Maybe the new graphics with NFL style yellow lines on the field will help next time around. Like most other sailors, I will be watching the televised drama, but in comparison to attending the Extreme 40 racing, the viewing portion of the spectacle will be like watching gel coat dry.



  1. Radio controlled yacht racing has all the elements on your list, - and noone is injured if there is a crash ;-) Besides that, it is a bit more affordable.