That was an interesting/fun day yesterday.
I was invited down to Cowes (Isle of Wight) by Oman Sail to watch their boats racing.
Being Cowes Week, I was expecting to see their Extreme 40 catamarans out with the other classes racing around the Solent (I was even trying to explain to a non-sailor on the way there, how sailing courses are laid out in 'sausages' & 'triangles'), but no.
Extreme Sailing is a recent innovation - an independent racing series, now in its 4th year, with its own purpose-designed boats and its own rules, all designed to combine top-level competition with spectator-friendly showmanship, even allowing spectators to participate.
Instead of spending a few hours thrashing around a course a long way offshore, Extreme 40 races last around 10 minutes each (there can be as many as 8 in a day), and are deliberately run close in along the shoreline so spectators can watch.The Extreme 40s are 40ft high-speed racing catamarans with a 4-man crew. In sailing terms, they move like lighting - up to 40 knots! By comparison, traditional 40ft yachts, like the hundreds running past us down the Solent with their spinnakers up in the Tuesday afternoon sunshine, were getting close to max hull speed and broaching (losing control) somewhere around 12-15 knots. What's more, being very light, Extreme 40s are extremely skittish. They slow down & accelerate very quickly, they can manage speeds of 25 knots in only 15 knots of wind and they can fly a hull in only 8 knots of wind. So you can imagine these things, close inshore on a small circuit, provide lots of colourful action!
And spectators can get in among it. Race rules provide for some races to be run with a fifth crew member - a passenger.
Here comes the clever bit. They describe it as a "sport, a show, and a VIP experience". The whole event is organised as an integrated sports, media and corporate hospitality package.
The boats, display & merchandising areas, floating service pontoon, VIP hospitality lounge, balcony, bar and catering facilities are shipped around the world from venue to venue and re-assembled for each event. The routine is standardised. In the morning VIP guests mingle with crews in the lounge, watch presentations, and those who want to try it out get kitted up and taken out to the boats for a spin. After lunch the races start. Newly knowledgeable VIPs with first hand experience under their belt, watch the races start and end right in front of them, and a lucky few get to be the fifth member.
It's all clever, glamorous stuff and seems to work at every level - as a sport, as a business model, and as a media event. Newspaper & tv coverage is extensive. Why's that then? Well no need to hire powerboats and helicopters to get cameramen near to the action. Anyone onshore can photograph it, film it... and understand it - three times round the course, first one back wins. So, what was the Daily Telegraph's main Cowes Week report about on Monday? Not any of the dozens of official Cowes Week races. It was one of the Extreme 40s having a crash.