unintended consequences

The ‘outside assistance’ rule in offshore racing has become increasingly problematic. Rapid advances in digital technology and mobile communications make it difficult to frame effective restrictions. Whatever limits are set soon prove virtually impossible to police.

A generation ago, just switching on a transistor radio to hear weather reports during a race was grounds for DSQ. The principle that a boat and its crew should be totally self-sufficient underpinned the whole sporting ethos of blue-water sailing.

But more recently the internet and wireless connectivity have meant that even boats racing on modest budgets can monitor sophisticated weather websites and sea surface temperature data throughout a race – and superimpose that information onto their chart plotters to plan tactics and calculate the fastest track.

Up to now, the bulk of that data has been commonly available to all competitors. So, in the sense that it is ‘outside assistance’ it is accessible to the whole fleet. Anyone with a laptop or smart phone can, theoretically, view the same tactical information. No specific advantage is enjoyed by individual boats.

Nevertheless, the technology represents a clear subversion of the traditional prohibitions on ‘outside assistance’. As such, it must be met by changes to the Racing Rules of Sailing as signaled in any Notice of Race or Sailing Instructions. For example, here’s how the NoR for the last Sydney-Hobart dealt with the issue:

11.3 Changes to RRS • RRS 41: A boat may obtain assistance in the form of any readily available commercial meteorological or hydrographical information regardless of cost.

Of course, that little qualification “readily available” is open to interpretation. Specialist marine meteorologists in private practice sell their analysis and predictions to ambitious yacht owners, and there seems little doubt that an undeclared extra payment might yield additional information that may not be so “readily available”.

But there is now a new, perhaps unintended, development that threatens to upset the whole ‘outside assistance’ applecart. Last week the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia released their Notice of Race for the 2019 Sydney-Hobart. Tucked away in the Media Rights and Restrictions section is this single-line entry:

15.7. A boat may during its race use a drone flown from and recovered by the boat in accordance with the Sailing Instructions.

Drones? Why was it necessary to formalise permission for yachts to fly one of these ingenious devices? Presumably, it is because the media have alerted race organisers that they wish to use aerial video and still pictures taken from drones in their coverage. Anything to keep TV, newspapers – and the sponsors – happy.

But unless the Sailing Instructions (which are usually not published until shortly before the race) somehow manage to place tight restrictions on their use, legitimising drones in offshore racing will have profound tactical implications.

These miniature, remote-controlled helicopters are no longer just toys for geeks. Their development has been astonishingly rapid. Long-range drones now weigh less than two kilos, can fly at close to 60mph, stay aloft for 30 minutes and have a range of up to 8 miles – all the while transmitting high-resolution ‘live’ pictures back to their controller.

For an acquisition cost of around $4,000 a top-of-the-range model of these ‘eyes in the sky’ can make the lifelong dream of all tacticians and navigators come true: they will be able to see over the horizon.

Send up the drone to search ahead for better wind or to spot the holes.

Send up the drone to check out what your competitors are doing. What tack are they on? What breeze do they have? What sails are they using?

Send up the drone to its maximum altitude and look for the cloud patterns up to 30 miles down the track.

That level of information is priceless during a tight race and, with a re-charge interval of around 90 minutes, a drone can provide real-time updates every two hours.

The Sydney-Hobart race is often won and lost as the leading yachts negotiate the notoriously fickle winds around Tasman Island on the final day. The odds in that annual lottery will be significantly reduced if crews are now able to launch their drones to help navigate them through the puffs and avoid the ‘parking lots’. The sky above Tasman could be thick with these lithium-powered humming birds.

Perhaps, in an attempt to prevent such obvious applications, the Sailing Instructions for the Hobart will limit the use of drones to the first and last hours of the race when media attention is at its peak, and to a short radius of operation around each boat.

Good luck with that. The spate of recent scandals and protests associated with the line-honours contest suggest we should not place too much faith in the sporting instincts of hyper-competitive owners and crew.

Will the drones themselves be subject to the rules of the NoR and SIs? Can you shoot down an opponent’s drone? Can you deliberately crash your drone into an opponent? Can you protest if another yacht’s rig accidentally downs your drone? Etc etc.

The possible permutations and grounds for dispute are endless – and none of them good. Imagine more than 100 drones all fighting for airspace in the Transpac, or skimming back and forth across the Irish Sea during the Fastnet Race. Chaos.    

And hovering above all this is a fundamental question: is it truly outside assistance if the drone is launched and recovered from the same boat?

– anarchist David