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The Man in the Tower

by Mark Jardine 28 Nov 2022 21:21 GMT
Craig Mitchell in the Umpire RIB during the 34th America's Cup Match © ACEA / Ricardo Pinto

Back in August it was a frustrated Sir Ben Ainslie who suggested that the onlooking Duchess of Cambridge should "send him to the Tower", referring to the Chief Umpire following a rule call at the Great Britain Sail Grand Prix.

While the comment was made in a half-joking manner, the irony is that this umpire is already in one, although not the famous Tower of London, but a building 16 kilometres west in Ealing, London, where the umpiring and commentary for all SailGP events take place. As it is, 'The Man in the Tower' is Craig Mitchell, a good friend for many years, an accomplished sailor, and someone who is extremely knowledgeable about the rules of sailing and their application.

Craig first start sailing with his father at Denholme Sailing Club, a 19-acre reservoir in West Yorkshire, where he crewed from the age of 5 in a Mirror, and then got his first Topper at the age of 9, which he shared with his brother. His sailing progressed, winning the Topper Junior World Championship in Southern Germany, and finishing sixth in the Worlds, then progressing on to the Laser, where he won the RYA Youth Nationals in 1990, and in the process was selected for the Youth Worlds, where he finished tenth, racing against some legends of the sport including Dean Barker and Robert Scheidt.

It was during his time at university, where he captained Southampton to two BUSA Team Racing wins, that he first 'got into' the rules, leading to his first umpiring experience.

He then moved on to keelboat sailing, in classes such as the Etchells, and events such as the Fastnet, including winning the J/24 UK Nationals, crewing for an obscure sailing website editor.

His big break in umpiring was at the 2007 America's Cup in Valencia, where having qualified as an International Umpire, he was selected to be one of the juniors on the team of 24. This gave him a huge opportunity to learn the craft from the likes of Brad Dellenbaugh, Brian Willis and Bill Edgerton, in what was the final event for the IACC class of traditional monohulls.

Professionally he's worked at ISAF (now World Sailing) from 1999 to 2006, and then moved on to become World Match Racing Tour Director, working with Scott MacLeod, which gave him valuable experience of the administrative and political side of the sport.

The America's Cup has of course evolved beyond recognition since his first event umpiring in 2007, with high speed foilers now the name of the game, and this has presented challenges for both the rules and the umpires.

I spoke to Craig to find out more about the evolution of umpiring:

"The 2013 America's Cup in San Francisco was the first event with what we call the high-speed rules. The first challenge was 'how are we going to be able to follow the boats?'. We were finding even in powerful RIBs we were only just keeping up with the AC72s on the reach, but were able to catch up downwind as our VMG was better than theirs as we could go straight downwind at 40 knots. As the boats started foiling, we had more and more of a challenge. We were OK then as the boats were 'only' going upwind at 26 knots, and our main difficulty was when the sea state got a bit bouncy."

2013 was also the year that tracking took a quantum leap forward, with positional accuracy and sensor data being fed off the boat to the shore in real-time, leading to what is known as 'booth' umpiring on land:

"It's been an interesting development over time since then. In San Francisco it was very much calls coming from the umpire team on the water, with the booth passing the data on to the team on the RIB. As we moved to Bermuda in 2017, the calls were then coming from the booth, assisted by the team on the water.

"The tracking and UmpApp came out of the LiveLine technology, which was developed by a team of very smart people lead by Stan Honey and Ken Milnes, and software developer Tim Hidemann who wrote the code for the UmpApp, which is what we use for umpiring; he's still involved to this day. We can use the data for seeing if a boat is OCS or had crossed course boundaries. We know exactly where the boats are, and what speed they are going. Teams just press a button to protest rather than raising a flag, as that would just go flying out of the back of the boat.

"Richard Slater then put the high-speed rules together, working out which traditional rules we needed to get rid of to make things simpler, and have fewer grey areas. The tacking rule was removed, rule 17 with proper courses was removed, which also made it all easier to explain to the viewers. This also made it better for the race officials: the more certainty the teams had, the more they knew what was going to happen in different situations."

Rules are often a point of contention in sailing, and so anything you can do to make them easier to understand is a benefit to all sailors:

"Often the fewer rules you have, the better. You essentially have three basic rules: port/starboard, windward/leeward, and clear ahead/astern: rules 10, 11 & 12 respectively. If you break any of those, then that's easy, but in terms of a penalty, do we have a reason not to penalise, such as when entitled to room, and should you then penalise someone else?"

Certainty becomes more and more important as the SailGP and America's Cup yachts get faster and faster, and nowhere is this more important than those key moments of a race when the boats come closest together:

"One great part of the high-speed rules is with the mark rounding rules, which basically say that if you're on the inside you take the mark no matter if it's upwind or downwind. The complications of tacking within the zone are removed. More recently it has become a bit of a tactical weapon as the boats lose so little speed through the tacks, but both boats know how to respond to a situation. If they're on the inside you have to give them room. There's not much ambiguity."

One comment that Craig said to me during our chat that made me raise my eyebrows, was when he said that, "The race officials should be in the background, getting on with their jobs and making their calls," but, as we've seen in both the America's Cup and SailGP, the umpires are often brought into the limelight by the commentary team:

"For the last couple of America's Cups that's been Richard Slater, as he's the voice from the booth, whereas myself and the rest of the team were very much in the background. I think that comes mainly from the commentators pulling the officials into the game. In SailGP I've probably got Stevie Morrison to thank for naming me at opportune moments, either putting me under the bus, or helping me out, as he makes some pretty good calls and is usually correct in what he's saying. There is actually a team of five people for SailGP, covering the incidents. I'm just the voice that delivers the bad news!"

The SailGP umpire 'booth' itself has now moved from shoreside at the event to Ealing, London, so is often not even on the same continent as the race track, which is all thanks to cloud data:

"More and more the technology allows you to become remote, which reduces the travel needed for both the umpires, commentators and TV crew, and it has quite a few positives. The technology is amazing, with the data coming to us from the race course in less than a second. It all goes via the Oracle cloud, and we have a direct fibre connection to the data centre in London. In reality the further we are from the data centre, the slower things get, so in many ways it's quicker to be in London, than it is to be on-site."

As we've mentioned, despite the simplification of the rules, and having all the data possible to hand, there will always be times when the sailors don't agree with umpiring decisions, which of course created the 'Send him to the Tower' headlines in the British newspapers. This is where the rules continue to evolve, and discussion with the teams is vital:

"It comes back to the point of discussing facts. Back in the day in Valencia, when there was an incident, it was written up on a piece of software called TSS (Tactical Sailing Situations), and you'd draw the diagram of what you thought you saw, then you'd go and talk to the team, and they'd produce the diagram they thought they saw, and then you'd argue about which one was right.

"The great thing about today's technology is that as soon as it is in UmpApp, you have the facts, and you aren't discussing how different people see a situation and their position. You're always going to have difficult situations, and let's use the 'Send him to the Tower' one as an example, where we had discussions leading up to that call where we said: if we're not certain a boat will cross, then we'll penalise. That leads to the question of how you get to certainty, so we use the tools such as position prediction (we call them ghost boats), the distances between the boats, and then show the teams that if you're a certain distance away, then there's going to be a penalty.

"The discussion then becomes around the conditions, and 'should you allow teams to get closer', or 'should they be further apart'. In my umpiring career, certainly in keelboat match racing, it was too often the umpires that created the collision, because the green flag kept coming out as the boats got closer and closer, and eventually one sailor gives their opposition a tap. You never want to get into a situation where you go 'green, green, bang', you want to go 'green, red, bang' (green being no penalty, red being a penalty and bang being pretty obvious). That's what we're trying to aim for in our decisions, as the last thing we want is boats hitting each other, as in SailGP there's a very high price for hitting someone in terms of your overall season performance as we impose scoring penalties pretty rapidly.

"So, we talk to the teams and ask, 'In 5 knots of wind how close are you comfortable with? In 10 knots of wind how close are you comfortable with? In 20 knots of wind, when you're doing 50 knots down that reach, how close are you comfortable with?'. This is what we need to work out, and make sure the teams know the distances we're talking about."

It's a constant balance between keeping the racing fair and exciting, and avoiding a massive accident, where the consequences are very high if these margins are wrong. In this high-speed world of sailing, there's a lot riding on what the umpires decide on those distances. Sir Ben may not have liked that call, but the umpires will always protect the team who are entitled to the room.

"The door is always open for the teams if there's any kind of discussion or feedback. From the last event in Dubai there was some pretty straight feedback, so we have to go away and look at it, decide whether we are going to continue to make calls go the same way, or are we going to change to do a different call in any given situation or wind condition."

Craig has been very good at engaging with fans, responding to questions on the SailGP Fans Facebook group, which has met with a very positive reaction:

"If someone asks a polite question then I'm happy to give an answer. When you start getting into trolling - and I've seen some pretty hefty trolling - then you just step away. But a polite question deserves an answer, and I'm happy to give those answers. I think if you engage with the fans and explain it, then hopefully they'll come to enjoy the sport more."

Penalties themselves in the America's Cup and SailGP are very different from those you and I have in our sailing, with the penalised boat told to give up a certain distance, or get behind a certain boat, but sometimes this can lead to situations where the punishment doesn't seem to fit the crime, especially when boats are over the line at the start:

"The 'get behind' penalty started back in San Francisco, and that's developed over time. The discussion rages on, and there is still talk about the size of the penalties and in SailGP our aim is to give a penalty that fits the crime. On the face of it, it's hard to gain an advantage when you have to go behind the boat that you infringed; however, if breaking the rule and getting a penalty is less costly than the option not to break a rule (such as pushing in at the start mark) then you need to increase the penalty to discourage rule breaking. I think some people would like the 360-degree penalty to come back, but at the same time you want the racing to be close."

Craig still returns to umpiring at less high-profile events, such as the Eric Twiname Junior & Youth Team Racing Championship, and I wanted to know if he's seeing the next generation of umpires coming through the ranks:

"Yes, there are. The UK in particular has a well-developed race officials programme. The key is getting people interested early, so when other time commitments enforce a break, they may come back to being a race official when they have a bit more time. The landscape has also changed with World Sailing appointing fewer umpires to international match racing events which used to give some structure to opportunities for up and coming officials, but there is a big rise in league sailing and other fleet racing, so there are still many opportunities out there. As a young race official, you've just got to get out there, talk to people, expand your network, and develop your skills. There will always be senior umpires out there who will lend an ear to answer questions."

The Racing Rules of Sailing are available for free online, but I asked Craig if there was any one resource he'd recommend for understanding the rules better:

"There is a rules app, produced in a partnership between World Sailing and the RYA, which gives you the cases, calls, and all the associated documentation for free, but there is also a premium version which has full search functions and isn't that expensive. That's a great resource."

Then the umpires are themselves tracking their calls:

"Tracking your own development and performance is the next step. With SailGP we have an incident register, where we note down the times, the rule numbers, who made the call and why we made the call, together with the relevant video clips and tracking data. I think we now have 500 incidents for the season so far; being able to track that helps you with development, as you can go back and reflect on why you made any one call. I've started taking a 360-degree video camera with me on the water and, if there's an incident, I can go back to it and look at how I came to a decision, what my conversation was with my fellow umpire, reviewing my own performance, to make better decisions."

So we find 'The Man in the Tower' is reflective and always looking at how to make sailing fairer and more understandable. Umpiring is evolving and is another diverse way to enjoy our sport. Why not look into opportunities to do it yourself? Maybe you could end up being a part of SailGP and the America's Cup?

Mark Jardine and Managing Editor

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