Racing in your lounge: chasing America’s Cup pictures

Apr 18, 2017 Technology

Capturing close-up, high-resolution video of AC50 cats travelling at 40-50 knots demands a special kind of chase boat, writes Lawrence Schäffler.

For the millions of America’s Cup viewers around the world, there’s nothing quite as thrilling as the high-tech, foiling catamarans duelling at high-speed. Few will consider how that footage – sublimely clean, crisp and stable – is delivered to the global TV audience.

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One man who knows more about it than perhaps anyone else on the planet is Auckland’s Clint Jones – a veteran of multiple America’s Cup regattas. He was responsible for developing the chase boat for the era of catamaran racing – and integrating its sophisticated video equipment.

“In the years before the cats, shooting video and stills at AC events was straightforward because the monohulls travelled at relatively modest speeds. With cats the speed has nearly quadrupled.

“The TV networks needed a chase boat that could not only keep up with the cats, but also provide a stable platform for delivering a live video feed to the international audience.”

No such vessel existed – and in 2011 Clint became part of the team tasked with developing one and, when it was finished – her skipper. That boat is Cambria, and six years later she’s become something of an institution at high-level yachting events around the world.

Cambria’s design was a collaboration between America’s Cup Race Management and America’s Cup TV, with input from her Dutch builders, Extreme Ribs. She uses existing Extreme 40 hulls equipped with four displacement-reducing foils. Only the rear foils are used in action to settle the stern of the boat at high speed.

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She’s also fitted with a custom-built deck and wheel-house, and was designed for easy assembly/disassembly, conveniently transported around the world in two 40ft containers. Clint had plenty of input during the build for the cabin layout and operating systems. “Because she uses displacement hulls with a lot of rocker, she provides a very soft ride in a seaway – particularly when the hulls are trimmed correctly. Stability, obviously, is crucial for steady camera work.”

Cambria is also very fast at changing direction, a key element, Clint points out, in holding a shot when the boats you are shooting are travelling at 50 knots.

There are three separate electrical systems to support the sophisticated technology on the boat – in particular the, US$540,000, gyro-stabilised FLIR camera – as well as the transmission equipment sending the images from the boat to the shore-based studio.

The high-definition FLIR camera – 1920 x 1080, with a 42X lens and a ‘doubler’ to deliver 84X zoom – is one of only 12 ever built. The boat has two, one serving as a back-up. While fully gyro-stabilised, it’s been mounted it on a custom-made suspension arm using a motorcycle shock-absorber to further soften the camera’s ride.

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Images are sent via microwave transmission to two receivers set up usually at opposite ends of the race course – on the closest bit of land. As with VHF radio, Cambria has to be in ‘line of sight’ of one of the receiver towers at all times.

The towers feed the signal – usually via fibre optics cable – back to a truck studio where the director puts the show together in real time and sends it ‘live’ to the global audience.

As driver of the high-speed chase boat, Clint has to keep his wits about him, striking a fine line between avoiding the race boats and remaining close enough to capture dynamic footage.

“We are very close to the race boats, and apart from the onwater umpires, ours is the closest boat to the action. I am allowed to be just about anywhere on the course, with one major rule – don’t do anything that might affect the race!”

The boat carries a crew of three.

“My usual cameraman is Adam Brown, a Kiwi living in France. He is a co-director of AMIS Productions and the owner of the camera equipment. AMIS has the world’s most experienced sailing camera operators and works on just about every major yachting event worldwide – including the Volvo, Olympics, Fastnet and Rolex Events.

“I also run a ‘spotter’ – usually a local from each event who has a good yachting knowledge. He works as my ‘safety’, always watching out for me. I’m driving at 30-plus knots watching the screen on my dashboard, trying to hold a shot, and I’m not always able to look forward. My spotter is trained to watch where I can’t, and call out items that may be out of our line of vision which may potentially pose a problem.”

Cambria also carries two official stills photographers. They work on the aft deck, but due to the Gs she pulls in turns they both wear safety harnesses, working very hard in a fast-moving, wet environment.

“Over the past five years I’d like to think I have built up a high degree of trust with the race teams. My job is to get the best shot – which is great for the teams and their sponsors – but also to read the race and stay out of the way. A key component of Cambria is her very small wake profile, so we can get close without disrupting the race boats.”

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With her ability to deliver high-definition video, Cambria and her crew have covered racing all over the world. One of Clint’s favourite events was racing in Venice’s main canal.

“Though the wind was light, there is no denying the history and scenery of running this event in this very iconic city. Our camera boat was the only vessel given a permit to speed on the main canal – the first such permit issued, incidentally, since the filming of the James Bond movie in Venice.

To date, in 700 hours of broadcasting, Clint’s team has only lost 12 minutes due to technical hitches. And the enormously innovative technology has delivered a completely new level of graphics and enhancements, giving non-yachting fans an insight into and understanding of AC yacht racing.

The innovative coverage delivered by Cambria and her technology has earned numerous accolades – in 2011 the TV team picked up a coveted Emmy Award.