The high-speed yachts racing towards the America’s Cup require quick thinking from sailing’s version of the Television Match Official.

The high-speed yachts racing towards the America’s Cup require quick thinking from sailing’s version of the Television Match Official.
Photo: Studio Borlenghi
The regatta’s chief umpire, Australian Richard Slater, describes himself as a “rugby tragic”, however the experienced sailing official does not have the luxury of time that the TMO does.
The AC75s taking part in the Challenger Selection Series and next month’s America’s Cup have reached speeds of 50 knots, equivalent to just under 100 kilometres per hour, on the Waitemata Harbour and Slater’s decision-making has to keep up.
“You look at what they do with their technology and in those sports the game can stop while they review, in sailing we don’t stop the racing is still going on, so we’re still going to be reliant a lot on time precious decisions and I think we are still at risk of having mistakes,” Slater said.
Slater is back in the hot seat after being chief umpire at the last America’s Cup in Bermuda in 2017 and is part of a new way of officiating.
Previously all umpiring was done on the water with between two and four umpires in boats chasing the action.
For the 36th America’s Cup in Auckland alongside two umpire boats there is three umpires in a booth watching the racing on a live feed with data to adjudge protests between the boats and penalties handed out to boats which cross the boundaries.
The move to off the water umpiring is a direct response to the increase in speed of the racing.
“While we can do great speeds [on the umpire boats] there are points in time where we can’t keep up with the yachts,” Slater said.
Chief umpire Richard Slater. Photo: Studio Borlenghi
The sailing teams are still ahead of the officials when it comes to race technology and tracking their AC75s but the umpires “happily tap into” the data the teams produce and what the broadcasters put on television.
“I think what we’ve got by being able to be in the room and watching it electronically, suddenly we’re not chasing them.
“It also means we’re watching something with a lot of the emotion taken out of it, a computer screen will never show the conditions it will just show the facts of speed and angle and stuff like that, so we’re getting used to umpiring that way and making calls just based on the facts.
“That’s why we do need the umpires on the water to give us an idea that sometimes it’s rough and sometimes you need to take those factors into account when making decisions.”
Despite having greater access to technology Slater said it was still humans making the decisions at crunch time and he acknowledged the umpires do not always get it right.
In 2017, Slater penalised Sweden’s Artemis Racing in their costly loss to Team New Zealand during the Challenger Selection Series – a call which Slater later conceded was incorrect.
“I don’t need too much reminding about the Bermuda and Artemis call, but what we’ve recognised is what as humans we need to prioritise on our list.
“So we had that recent call with Luna Rossa and INEOS at the finish line and I was quite happy to see the umpire team had picked up the relative speed of the boats where I think in Bermuda we didn’t recognise that soon enough and quick enough.
“So it’s quite an interesting management exercise, the humans have all these assets, have all this data, how we manage that data – that’s where improvements have been made and we all recognise we’ve got to be on our game and mistakes still can happen so we’re certainly not thinking we’re perfect that’s for sure.”
So far the teams have not made as many protests as Slater was expecting during racing.
“Although, now that I say that I’m trying to find some wood to touch because I’m expecting the final to be the start of a couple of really good series of match racing and some fireworks.”
Between the semi-finals and finals of this year’s Challenger Selection Series Slater reminded teams that umpires can overturn their decisions if they believe they have made an error. But only when the error is based on facts or incorrect race official communications, not on the application of the rules.
“We don’t want to play a game where we are going to keep changing our mind, I think because the sailing is still going on we have to be reliant on sticking with the umpire’s decision but I think there are times when a fact is clear or even if the wrong button is pushed that we have the ability to rectify that in the race.”