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Selden 2020 - LEADERBOARD

The VAR of sailing, and it actually works!

by Mark Jardine 12 Dec 2023 20:00 GMT
Close sailing between Australia SailGP Team and New Zealand SailGP Team during a practice session ahead of the France Sail Grand Prix in Saint-Tropez, Sept 8, 2023 © Ricardo Pinto/SailGP

Anybody who follows football knows about VAR, or Video Assistant Referee. They don't just know about it, they obsess about it, they complain about it, and endlessly debate its rights and wrongs. Whichever way you look at VAR, it's controversial.

One of the biggest criticisms that people have of VAR is how the game stops when the Video Assistant Referees are called upon. The flow of the game is ruined as a few people in a box with some big screens make a decision on a handball, offside or foul. The players mill around, the fans get restless in the stadium, watchers at home make a tea, while others just switch off, saying that 'VAR has ruined the game'.

Sailing has its own version of VAR, and it's used to great effect in SailGP. It's called UmpApp, created by software developer Tim Hidemann, following on from the LiveLine technology, developed by a team led by Stan Honey and Ken Milnes.

If you have a read of 'The Man in the Tower' you'll see how umpire calls switched from on the water in the 2013 America's Cup in San Francisco, to in the booth during the 2017 event in Bermuda. It was all down to the accuracy of GPS and positional data improving so much, that the calls could be made from ashore.

The timing was ideal, as it was getting harder and harder for umpire boats to actually keep up with the foiling speedsters. Making a judgement call on the water when you're trying to keep a RIB under control at 40 knots, and getting slammed up and down, was becoming impossible.

As SailGP's Chief Umpire Craig Mitchell said, "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."

So all is clear surely? Doesn't dealing with facts and real-time data mean decisions are either right or wrong?

Not in the world of social media.

Let's take this weekend for an example. In the final fleet race of the Emirates Dubai Sail Grand Prix, new USA SailGP Team driver Taylor Canfield decided to shut the door on Sir Ben Ainslie's Emirates Great Britain SailGP Team at the start.

The rules are clear on the start line. If you come in high, then you are risking being black flagged from the race. Was Canfield's move aggressive? Yes. Was Ainslie in the wrong? Also yes.

Some of the keyboard warriors on the SailGP Fans facebook group took a different view, calling for Mitchell to be sacked from umpiring. To be fair, there were a far larger set on the group who defended his decision.

What is very interesting now is the debate. Fans of SailGP are now arguing in the same way that football fans have since the offside rule was introduced in 1863. It started off in taverns, then on phone-ins, and continues on the internet.

We haven't quite reached the heights (or is that depths?) that football has, but these decisions, and their ramifications, are now gaining serious column inches in mainstream publications. Sailing news is back in the wider world.

Ainslie, while of course defending his stance, was pretty philosophical about the whole situation: "It was a difficult way to end for us. We had a really good first race. The team did a great job and that second start we were in pole position, and it was really 50-50 with the USA. They were obviously gunning to try and shut us out and eventually the umpires decided that was the case. It was a really tough call for us because I felt we were sailing really well in the second half of yesterday, and today we were going really well with the bigger wing. But that's sport. Sometimes it's going to go against you, and you just have to take it on the chin."

Let's hope we don't ever reach the point that Turkish football saw on Monday night, with a Club President punching a referee, and the entirety of football being suspended in the country as a result. Maybe another reason that having the umpires in Ealing, London is good...

Jimmy hangs up his SailGP helmet

An occasion which went very much under the radar was Jimmy Spithill's retirement from SailGP sailing.

After the big shake-up and purchase of the US SailGP Team, Jimmy was helming for the Australian team with regular helm Tom Slingsby absent as his wife prepares to give birth.

Spithill said: "This was my last race as a SailGP athlete. It's time for me to let fresh young blood into the competition, with the new Italian team, where I'll take the role of CEO. And, what a way to go out with the Aussies.

"It's been one hell of a ride and I'm going to miss the battles and the competition. It's a full circle moment for me as it's been over 20 years since I raced for Australia, so it feels fitting that I end my SailGP athlete journey on board with the Aussies."

Of course, retirement seems to be one of those terms which has become very flexible in sport, so it would be no surprise to see him make the odd appearance or two with the new Italian team...

Happy Christmas to you all

It's been a tumultuous 2023, with turmoil throughout the world. War, climate events, financial upheaval, and political pandemonium have had ramifications for us all. Sailing provides us with moments of calm to cancel out the noise, so be sure to get out on the water, clear your head, and come back ashore a happier person.

I'm going to take a break from writing a newsletter on Christmas Eve, so wishing you and yours a fantastic Christmas, and thank you for reading your sailing news on and Without you and our advertisers these websites wouldn't be possible and it's why we do what we do.

I raise a glass to your time on the water in 2024.

Mark Jardine and Managing Editor

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