Chris Draper on Professional Sailing

Stadium sailing with Chris Draper

Luna Rossa helmsman Chris Draper is a veteran of the America's Cup on a relatively young team of sailors. An Olympic gold medalist, Draper has been sailing professionally for over a decade, watching the sport go through changes across many different circuits outside of the America's Cup.

Draper explained what it is like being a professional sailor, in the past and now.

When was your first professional race?
In 1999 was the first time I went full time and started sailing professionally. I stopped university and was basically sailing as my living. Sailing a 470 Olympic Class and then I moved onto the 49er Olympic Class shortly after that and continued to sail full-time from then basically. So ‘99 to 2000 was when I first started professionally sailing.
For Olympic campaigns and then, around 2003-2004, I started doing things like Mum 30s and stuff like that on the side of doing the Olympic stuff.

Was that a big decision for you? To sail full-time?
Yes, to leave university without finishing my degree especially. But I had an amazing opportunity to sail with the guy who had won the silver medal in the 49'er in the UK. So I gave up university to take up the opportunity to sail with him. It was a great decision and one that I am very pleased with and I wouldn’t change it.

Can compare the professional sailing climate in 1999 to now?
I don’t know really, it is difficult to say. It is probably broader. When I first started doing professional sailing there were things like Far 40s and Mum 30s. Those were probably the two areas that you would go and sail in. And now there is things like TP52s Soto 40s Maxis, Melges 32s, Melges 24s, there is the Extreme 40 series, AC45s, there is America’s Cup, there are so many different avenues that you can go down. Sailing lots of different kinds of boats. So, there is a lot of opportunities there now and I think that probably, while there isn’t as much money in the world, with regards to the economy there is still a lot of people sailing and there is a lot of opportunities.

What is it like for you as a sailor to watch in-shore sailing and stadium sailing become more popular?
I think it is great to have sailing a bit closer into the shore. I mean I grew up sailing in really shifty venues you know. Sailing in lakes and things like that where the wind is moving all over the place so to me that is kind of the norm. Going out and sailing in the middle of the ocean where there is tiny little 5 degree wind shifts is a bit boring you know, or I find it quite boring. So I think it is great to see racing happening in-shore. Lots of races, lots of place changing, lots of starts, and I think that is a good thing. I like the way the sport is going. Obviously there are people out there that don’t, they are a bit more traditional and I think it is about finding a balance.

Are most professional sailors for the direction this is going?
Yes I think there are certain types of racing that have to happen offshore. If you are racing a keel-boat in a fleet of 40 then um, I think you need to have a bit of space and a bit of open water. Just because those boats are quite often owned by individuals and you don’t want to crash them up. But the stadium sailing, Extreme 40s and things like that is a lot more crash and burn. People go into it knowing that and that environment is perfect for it. So I think there is for and against for each area of the sport.

What do you think is driving this move inshore?
I think as with any sport it is the sponsorship. We are reliant on sponsorship and can you really get sponsorship through advertising and media exposure and that comes from television and the stadium racing helps that. Its all about getting people into the sport that weren’t into it in the past. The sailing community is large but the general population is who we want to get the sport to.

When you look at something like the America’s Cup which has been going for 162 years, why the rapid change right now?
I mean I guess they have taken the approach with the America’s Cup to make it like that stadium format that you have seen working in some other areas of the sport. And I mean, I think it is a great thing to have it nice and close to the shore and for people to be able to go and watch it. I think it is awesome you know my family are here and they are loving watching it. I think it is really cool and really exciting. But at the same time I can understand the traditionalists saying ‘the wind is all over the place’ and stuff, but it makes more opportunities and it makes it exciting so as I say before it is just a balance. I think with this race area we have got a nice balance. There are plenty of opportunities but there are also plenty of features that are the same as you would find on any race-course. So yea, it is a good balance.

Do you think it is going to become less risky to be a professional sailor?
I don’t know. You know I have many friends who have worked in the industry who have stopped and had to go back to a normal job so as to speak, or change profession. Because they haven’t been able to find work and they have been been very talented sailors. A lot of it is luck and if you find some good owners, some people that you work well with then you get some good opportunities. But if luck doesn’t go your way it is easy to find yourself out of work for long periods. It is risky for sure and I mean we are very lucky in England because we have lottery funding that helps us do our Olympic sailing. If we didn’t have that then you wouldn’t be able to build a profile and you wouldn’t be able to get on the boats that we have got onto.
It depends on where you come from and it depends on the people that you know, in many ways unfortunately.

What direction do you want to see sailing go?
To be honest I don’t mind. I just want to sail fun boats and go fast. If I get to do that, than I would be happy.

So thats the AC72 in a nutshell...
Yea that is the AC72 in a nutshell, but at the same time, if it was in a Version 5 boat and I was doing something different on the boat than I would be perfectly happy doing that you know. So it is apples and apples, I don’t really mind. I love going sailing and I love racing and I love winning and doing everything I can to win races and that is what it is all about for me. I don’t really mind what the boat is but the avenue that I have taken through the sport has been about faster boats and closer to shore racing, that is my forte. While it stays in that area I stand a much better chance of having a great job and having fun at the same time.

What are you going to do after this?
In October I’m gonna sail my moth lots through the winter. I am going to sail that tons and do some match race stuff over the winter and try and really develop my skills there. Then see how the ground lies with the cup, see what kind of boats it ends up in and go from there.

Do you think foiling is going to be the norm?
I think foiling will be the future of a lot of sailing but I just want to go and sail that boat because it is a lot of fun. I think it is a nice opportunity to learn more about development and put some development in place while doing that and that is what the America’s Cup is about. My background has always been in one design boats and refining small details of those one design classes. It is nice to do some development and that is what we have had to do in the cup. I have learned a lot about the way you develop things and I would like to go and put a bit of that in place myself and learn from that process. Then come back into [the America’s Cup] with the same team or with another team depending on how the land lies for the future.

Is garnering sponsorship always a really big part of sail-racing?
Yea for sure, I have got a few friends right now who are working really hard to get themselves some funding to try for different things like Volvo [Ocean Race] and stuff like that. There are some incredibly talented people out there that don’t get the opportunities because they just can’t find the funding. That is a difficult thing to do, that is a huge part of it for sure. We are so lucky as Luna Rossa to have Patricio and Artemis are very lucky to have Torbin and those people that are passionate about the sport are what makes a big difference for all of us and gives us the opportunity to do what we love doing. So we need to look after those people and make sure they get what they want out of it.

Can you compare funding now to 1999?
I think there probably has become more opportunities. I think the thing is, is that as the playing field changes, the cost of it changes and I remember when in 1995-96 there was this series in England in a boat called the Ultra 30 and it had sponsors like Land Rover and Voxel Fronterra and other big companies. But the cost of doing a campaign was probably 150,000 pounds or something. But now if you wanted to do an Extreme 40 campaign well then it is 700,000 pounds and that is just a fact of inflation but also a way that the series change and become global and alot more expensive. There is penalties because it is harder to find 700,000 then it is to find 150,000 but at the same time I think sponsorship is thriving in the sport.

Sunday Night Sailing with Stan Honey

Stadium sailing is the mantra of the 34th America’s Cup. A new venture to bring sailing into your living room and create the world’s next great television sport and; the quest for Sunday night football status.

Who better than Stan Honey then to bring sailing to life on network television. Honey is most well-known for the work he has done through his company Sportvision. This is the man behind augmented reality on television sports – hockey’s glowing puck, football’s yellow down-lines, and all manner of other televised sporting events. He is a two-time Emmy winner for his work on sports broadcasting.

But Honey is a regular renaissance man, a world-class sailor and former Rolex Yachtsman of the Year. He first gained international respect for his sailing in 1983, when Nolan Bushnell approached him to outfit his 67’ sloop, Charley, which he was entering in the Transpac. Bushnell is the inventor of Atari and at the time was flush with money having just sold it to Warner Communications.  

Honey was working at Stanford Research in geographic information systems and radars. Bushnell wanted onboard computers for his sailboat and Honey provided. He invented the first onboard computer, creating systems that calculated max speeds and told Charley’s crew how to win. Bushnell was a relative newcomer to racing, and he won with Honey’s computer.
Stan Honey- Sailing for Television

How did you get involved in the AC34?

I navigated for Larry on Sayonara from about 1995 until about 1997 and so I knew Larry from that and I also knew Larry because when I was head of technology at newscorp I met with Larry a couple of times.

Then when I was navigating on Groupama III for the around the world record, which was in early 2010, Larry won the America’s Cup. There was a Fortune magazine article with an interview with Larry Ellison in early 2010 in Fortune where they asked him, well you’ve won the America’s cup, you say you are going to do great TV, what are you going to do? Larry’s answer was he was going to look up an old sailing friend of his, Stan Honey, and they were going to put yellow lines in the water. And, that was actually the first I heard of it. At the time I was in the Southern Ocean navigating Grouphama, but thats when I figured out what came next.

Then Larry Ellison approached you?

Yea, well once I got in, I was at sea, there was a couple of messages from Ian Burns and Jimmy Spithill and so this project came out of that.

What specific things are you trying to do for the America’s Cup coverage?

Well you know, sailing, has, well all of the augmented reality systems whether its the first outline of the hockey puck or the down lines has the characteristic that there are important things to the sport that are hard to see.

Sailing has many of those. The boundaries, the wind direction, the identification of who is ahead and who is behind. So thats the thing about sailing that makes augmented reality compelling, there are so many things that are important to understand the event that are hard to see.

Have you made recommendations to the layouts of the courses?

I haven’t, the television executive producer, Dennis Harvey certainly has. So the race course design as it has evolved, has definitely taken into account suggestions from the television. Specific suggestions have come from the professional story tellers, you know the executive producer etc.

So what is your role in America’s Cup in terms of Director of Technology?

Well the original project was to help the T.V. story-tellers, the director producers, commentators, and reporters. To help them tell the story of the event. So to that end we built the systems to track the sailboats and the mark boats and then to be able to superimpose the their information on the live video. Showing where the boats are, where the wind is, who is ahead, who is behind, the boundaries the marks all that.

Having measured all of that data. We were then asked to build an umpiring system for race management and a race management system for race management. We also make that information available on the internet. So its used for mobile apps.
But the initial requirement was to enhance TV, and the subsequent requirements were the systems for umpiring, race management and the systems for mobile data.

What are you hoping to bring to the event, or help the event itself achieve?

The principal objective is to make it accessible for non-sailors. So that they can, very quickly, embrace the event. To get interested and be able to understand the competition.

Are there signs that you’ve been successful?

The ratings have been good. The shows on NBC have been given a ‘one rating’ rating. Even more importantly, the ratings have increased during the time it has been on air. So what that means, thats something TV Executives care a lot about. So that means that people who have just been browsing through the channels and come across the America’s Cup actually stop and watch. That’s a critical thing for TV executives.

Was it hard to get networks to pick up the coverage?

Well, any major sporting event you do a rights negotiation. In our case the major rights holder was NBC. It’s always a big drama to negotiate the major rights deal.
It’s a very important business decision for an event. So events take a lot of care in negotiating their major rights distribution arrangements.

So, is it going to be the next football or NASCAR?

That would be great, the jury is still out on whether sailing can be made a popular media sport like those other sports. But that is certainly a goal.

Its a beautiful sport, its outdoors, the boats are spectacular its complicated and there is a lot of technology involved, a lot of culture, a lot of terminology, alot of history. You know, sports fans tend to like all of that. They like a sport that has a lot of texture and depth to it and sailing certainly does.

The America’s Cup is a tricky event because every time someone wins it there is a new trustee. So its not a conventional sport like the NFL where there are professional managers year in and year out. So the AC is tricky in that respect. But certainly one of the hopes within the AC and the media is that sailing will become a more popular sport on TV.

One of the big challenges is the cameras in the helicopters, so thats more difficult than any of the other systems we have done where the cameras are mounted on tripods. Another challenge is the salt water. so all the equipment on the boats is more difficult to maintain because of the salt water. so technically its much more difficult than say NASCAR or Football. or baseball.

Every boat does it, so its like NASCAR in that respect.