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How watching paint dry became gripping sports entertainment

2016 October 1

One acquaintance said he spent the better part of a weekend binge-watching the drama unfolding on his computer screen. Another told me he lost sleep, unable to resist getting up in the night to check the latest developments. A number of people I hardly knew regaled me with arcane details of a sports competition they barely understood but followed avidly on the internet.

Summer Olympics junkies? Wrong. Dyed-in-the-exhaust-fumes NASCAR followers? Wrong again. They were newly minted sailboat racing fans.

“Sailboat racing fans” sounds like an oxymoron—spectators enthralled by something that has been likened to watching paint dry?—and it was, until some very smart people figured out how to produce a graphic representation of long-distance sailboat races by combining GPS position finding with satellite transmission and computer animation.

For promoters of our sport, creating an audience by attracting people to sailing events as spectators was long regarded as the holy grail that would release sailing from the tiny niche in recreational activities it has been stuck in forever. The reinvented America’s Cup has found an audience attracted to thrills and spills in a spectacle akin to waterborne stock car racing, but for the more prosaic forms of sailing the secret remained locked.

Then came the wizards of a company whose name was inspired by a wizard—“The Wizard of Oz.” Yellowbrick Tracking designed a system that uses small, portable devices to transmit a boat’s GPS position along with course and speed data by satellite to a land station that translates the information to images on a computer-visualized map, and in the process built an engaged, enthused audience for a number of sailboat races worldwide.

The audience was a bonus. Race organizers contracted with Yellowbrick (a British company now calling itself YB Tracking) mainly to keep track of their entrants. As word spread and the on-screen presentation became more sophisticated, the numbers of YB app users grew—fans watching sailboat racing on their smart phones, tablets and computers.

Visually, the graphics are rather simplistic. Boats in a race are represented by boatlike shapes of varying colors. But click on one and the fun begins. Up pops the boat’s name, its speed and course, distance to the finish and its place in the race, not in the boat-for-boat sense, but by handicap.

Yellowbrick, which downloads data from the rating rule in effect for a given race, provides instant corrected time calculations and displays a leader board ranking competing boats. It even puts a little crown on the boats leading their classes.

The app provides details about the competitors—owners, skippers, boat specs—along with a photo of the boat. Tracks of the boats can be shown, wind direction and strength can be overlaid. The information is refreshed every 20 minutes or so. Viewers can “see” the race in something like real time.

Beyond attracting an audience for offshore yacht racing, tracking has changed the sport. For one thing, it’s made it safer. Requiring entrants to carry transponders—now the norm for long-distance races including the Bermuda and Mackinac races, the Transpac, Fastnet, Sydney-Hobart and dozens more—means that in an emergency the position of every boat is available to race organizers, rescue agencies and other competitors (assuming they can receive data by cellular or satellite networks). 

When the ID48 WhoDo sunk in minutes after losing its rudder and a chunk of its hull in this year’s Chicago-Mackinac race, crewmembers took the Yellowbrick transponder into the life raft with them.

It wasn’t that long ago that race organizers had to resort to primitive methods to keep track of their fleets. The Chicago-Mackinac race used to require boats to call a Coast Guard vessel accompanying the fleet by VHF radio to report their position on a grid imposed on a chart. While this provided only a rough idea of boat positions, it did have considerable entertainment value.

Everyone in the fleet listened in to the calls, of course, to learn where their competition might be, but also for amusement. Depending on the tactical advantage of being perceived to be far ahead or bringing up the rear of a section, reporting skippers often engaged in some guffaw-worthy creative navigation in reporting their positions.

Some salty seat-of-the-pants sailor types dislike having a nanny like Yellowbrick watching over a race fleet, but I like it for adding the challenges that come with showing us where the enemy lurks. This intel can be painful, as when you’re becalmed and Yellowbrick shows a competitor sailing at 9 knots, but it also enlivens afterguard discussions about tactical decisions.

As in many things about yacht racing, the well-heeled programs benefit more from tracking than the more basic ones. Every boat can receive YB tracking information when in range of cellphone networks. Out of range, only boats equipped with expensive satellite data receivers can get it. And boats with routing programs such as Expedition get the bonus of being able to download YB data to show all of the boats in the fleet on navigation monitors. 

The instant corrected time calculation is a nifty feature, particularly for someone who recalls the days of having to wait hours or even days to learn one’s fate as race committees toiled over the math. I picture people in green eyeshades with pencils and adding machines surrounded by a  blizzard of paper. With tracking, the news is often known as you cross the finish line. Good or bad, the knowledge relieves stress that could inhibit the post-race libation ritual.

A powerboat-owning marina neighbor said to me after last year’s Mackinac race: “What on earth were you thinking going outside the Manitou Islands? You should have gone inside; there was plenty of breeze there.”

I didn’t mind the advice from a Yellowbrick addict who by his own admission had never set foot on a sailboat. After all, he’s a fan of sailboat racing.