If you asked a sailor to name the top venues in the world for racing, many glamour spots would come to mind. But probably not Plymouth on the south west coast of England.
But that all changed after the America’s Cup World Series came to town a few weeks ago, in large part due to the natural amphitheater offered by the geography of Plymouth Sound. Not only was the racing first class, with a range of challenging conditions, but the sight and sound of the crowds up on Plymouth Hoe firmly established the appeal of 'stadium sailing'.
"It was unreal," said James Spithill, the skipper of ORACLE Racing, the winner of the final day's fleet racing. "I think we've all been surprised by how good the event has been. From a spectator point of view…the crowds have really got behind it and it's proved to be an exciting race venue."
The Hoe, the public park at the top of the limestone cliffs, attracted tens of thousands of spectators to look down at the racing taking place little more than a hundred metres away. Sometimes the boats were tacking or gybing less than 10 meters from the shore.
Dean Barker has grown up in an America’s Cup environment where the racing always took place far from land, out of sight of all but the keenest of water-borne spectators. Bringing the racing close to the land, to within a stone’s throw of the spectating public, is a new phenomenon for him and everyone else competing.
“It’s a fantastic atmosphere,” said Barker after one of the match race days in Plymouth. “There were so many people watching today, and it’s the middle of the week. It’s great for the sport to see such support.”
Regatta Director Iain Murray is one of those who admits to being pleasantly surprised just how well the stadium sailing concept has worked out: “The racing in Plymouth was first class. The capacity for crowds to sit in an elevated position on The Hoe is something we'll be challenged to replicate in other events. And the TV pictures we've been been able to send out are unprecedented in the history of sailing coverage.”
Stan Honey, the director of technology, is one of those who can take credit for the great response to the live TV coverage of the racing. His AC LiveLine graphics are helping to explain the racing to a non-sailing audience like never before.
But Honey is also excited by the response of the live audience watching the sailing from the shoreside. “After that first weekend in Plymouth, I was talking to some of my friends who were operating the mark boats, and when the boats were sailing along close to The Hoe they’d hear this swell of noise, and they’d look around asking themselves, ‘What is that?’
"And it was the crowd cheering! These are guys who’ve sailed all their lives and they have never, ever heard a crowd cheering for the sailor. To hear the crowd cheering and then to realise, that’s our sport! That’s sailing! It was amazing. I’ve never heard a crowd cheer like that for a sailing event.”
A similar sentiment comes from Loick Peyron, one of the oldest skippers at the America’s Cup World Series. The Frenchman is respected so much he could have become involved in the Cup many years ago, but was never attracted to its older, more traditional form.
Now he is childlike in his enthusiasm for the new racing format, and what it can do to promote his sport to a wider audience. “Everything changed a year ago. New teams, fast boats, near the shore, near the public. Everything is changing. The future of the Cup will be absolutely perfect. With multihulls, it’s a new way of thinking. In the past, the boats were heavy, and the Cup was a bit ‘heavy’. Today, everything is lighter.”
The next stop on the America's Cup World Series is San Diego, from November 12-20. And as in Plymouth, spectators will be able to get up close and personal to the racing, which will be held on short courses inside the Bay.
"San Diego is going to be a fantastic place. It's got a harbor that is laid out perfectly, much the same as in Plymouth," said Russell Coutts, the skipper of ORACLE Racing Coutts, who won his first America's Cup in the city in 1995.
"When San Diego previously held the America's Cup (1988, 1992, 1995) the racing was a long way out to sea. That's not going to be the case this time. The racing is going to be right inside the bay.
"For those who enjoyed Plymouth, I'd encourage you to come to San Diego. It's going to be great."