Coffee with the umpires – a good way to get future calls right

The Extreme Sailing Series has been responsible for some very good innovations such as stadium racing, where they have brought the contest to within metres of the public. But a small, almost unseen initiative is one that could be worth considering by many regatta organisers around the world.

Every morning skippers, tacticians and umpires meet for coffee to discuss the calls of the day before. It's an informal atmosphere and results in great communication and understanding between the two groups.

This morning I watched as ETNZ tactician Ray Davies made a point about a tacking call from yesterday. He used the green and red models to demonstrate his point and asked why he hadn't received the call he was expecting. The umpire whose call it was didn't try to gild the lily. Using the model of the umpire's boat, he showed where he had been and said, “I was in the wrong position. I didn't see it.”

Morgan Larsen, skipper of series leader Alinghi, described 'Coffee with the umpires' as a “must do” in this format.

“It keeps better relationships between the sailors and the umpires… there's less abuse on the water,” he said with a grin. “And it's good for us to see their perspective.”

World match racing champion and coach of GAC Pindar, Ian Williams, agreed. “The rules (of sailing) aren't really meant for these boats, they're for smaller boats that can tack faster,” he said, “So it's good to know how the umpires are interpreting them.”

Chief Umpire Ewan McEwan said that the concept began about three years ago. Match racing events had debriefing sessions at the end of the day where decisions were discussed and the playbooks updated, but that didn't work at the Extreme Series.

“There's so much going on at the end of the day with repairs, media interviews and the like. So we decided to do it the next morning in an informal atmosphere,” he said. By the morning-after, tempers have cooled and a more rational discussion can take place.

Ewan agreed that the umpires probably get more out of it than the sailors. “They (the Extreme sailors) probably know the rules better than we do,” he admitted frankly. “The key thing is that the umpires listen and learn from what the sailors are telling them.”

Another Extreme Series initiative welcomed by the sailors is the use of the pink flag to indicate that the umpire doesn't have enough information to make a decision.

“In match racing we have what we called a 'pale green',” Ewan explained. “It's a call when the umpire shows a green flag because he doesn't have enough information to make a red call, but the sailors on the boat know it should have been red. So we decided to come up with another colour for the Extreme Series and chose pink.”

The pink flag basically allows the umpire to say, “I don't know – I don't have enough information to call it definitely one way or the other.” The sailors then get on with sailing the boat and put the incident behind them much quicker than if a bad call had been made – a 'pale green', for example.

“The sailors are in combative mode,” Ewan McEwan said. “It's tight in space and in time, with only five minutes between races to recover. Anything we can do to improve communication between us and the sailors has to be good.”

For once, the sailors and the umpires are in total agreement – 'Coffee with the umpires' is a good idea.

– Roger McMillan

Jeanneau JY55
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