Cowes Week: Radio rocks the boats
Written by: Richard Lambley | Published:
Race officials aboard one of the 'committee boats' monitor the lineup at the start of a race

Richard Lambley discovers the roles radio plays in managing one of southern England’s most popular summer sailing events

Above the seafront terrace of the Royal Yacht Squadron’s clubhouse in Cowes, on the Isle of Wight, a vast canvas awning shields the bustle beneath from the sun. Behind the battlements powerful binoculars scan the waters of the Solent, and a flurry of instructions breaks out as event officials prepare to start the next race.

“Ten,” announces a voice, reaching the final moments of a lengthy countdown. “Five, four, three, two, one” – and the hush is shattered as a gunshot rings out with a puff of smoke. The race is on.

This is Cowes Week regatta, one of England’s largest annual outdoor gatherings. Supported jointly by the island’s sailing clubs, it attracts yachts and crews from around the world for eight days of challenging racing. More than 800 boats, divided into 40 classes, take part each year, crewed by some 8,000 sailors who range from amateurs to Olympic champions. Around 100,000 visitors come to watch and revel in a festival atmosphere that mixes sport with entertainment, cocktail parties, receptions, live music, exhibitions and special attractions such as an RAF flying display. Often royalty is present: Prince Philip, a former commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron and now its admiral, toured Cowes on the Wednesday of this year’s meeting.

With traditions stretching back nearly two centuries – the then Royal Yacht Club organised its first race at Cowes in 1826 – the regatta has accumulated an unusual range of communications technologies. Besides the unmistakable contribution of the William IV brass cannon, race officials use hand signals, pen and paper, signboards, horns, signalling flags and orders bellowed from the deck, alongside VHF marine-band radio, tablets and even text messages.

Reliable communication is indispensable for managing this complex event. With dozens of races beginning each day from three separate starting lines it’s essential to avoid tangles. In each race, long or short, competitors follow a defined course, rounding a succession of buoys and special inflatable marks until they cross their finish line. With a mixture of private and open channels, radio plays a key part in communicating all the details between shore-based officials, the moored ‘committee boats’ that mark certain start lines, and the competitors themselves.

Radios for courses
“The thing about sailing is it revolves very much around the radio,” explains regatta director Phil Hagen, who is a keen racer himself. “Radios are important for courses, for communication with committee boats, and for committee boats to communicate with competitors. There’s the safety element as well: if anything happened to a boat the most effective and efficient way to call up the coastguard is on VHF. It’s a core part. If we didn’t have it that would be quite a thing to have to contend with.”

Hagen has a deep knowledge of communications gained from a career that included running global businesses for Cable & Wireless. “I used to sell two-way radio before cellular came on the market, PMR and things like that,” he explains. “I was one of the radio salespeople for Securicor Communications back in the early stages when the mobile phone was actually System 3, System 4. And then I spent a lot of time putting mobile networks into places like Colombia, Panama and Singapore – so I understand about propagation and things like that.”

While a certain nostalgia may persist in some circles for ‘pure sailing’ untainted by modern technology, Cowes Week competitors are required to carry radio, even though it’s not the prime medium of command. “The flag, being the visual signal, is the controlling signal,” Hagen emphasises. “If the radio is late, if the gun malfunctions, it doesn’t matter... the flag being broken out is the key thing.

“We use the radio to radio the courses out, but in addition to that we also text courses to competitors. These last two years we’ve developed our own app for iPad, for race officer management. It tells all the various race officers the courses that are going off any one start line, and the courses for any one group of boats, then gives them the marks that they go round. Next year I’d like that to be rolled out for competitors.”

Holding the line
We sail out to one of the moored committee boats. With its complement of seven officials, including chief race officer George Chapman, the Gemini Breeze is stationed at the seaward end of a start line. The other end is marked by a second boat in the distance, referred to as the pin-end boat, with the island’s coastline beyond it. Line officer David Giddings is watching it from the committee boat and getting ready for the next race. “I have another officer at the pin- end boat,” he says. “...we’ll be talking to each other on the radio, working out which boats are on the wrong side of the line and then calling them back.”

From the mast of the boat a horn sounds and a Blue Peter flag is hoisted, warning that the next race will start in 10 minutes. A burst of activity begins. “Clear the line please, you are in the way!” yells someone at a crew cutting through the water close by.

Radio operator Anthea Weekes aboard the committee boat. Marine-band VHF radios, fixed as well as handportable, are relied on heavily during the regatta

Inside the cabin radio operator Anthea Weekes, fist microphone to her lips and iPad on her lap, has been relaying the course details over to the competitors. Each buoy or inflatable mark is listed by its reference code, using the phonetic alphabet for clarity. Chapman explains that Weekes’ base station radio has been specially configured: her announcements on VHF channel 22 go out in simplex mode. “The competitors can hear it but they can’t say anything back,” he smiles. “You’ve got to be crafty about these things!”

But now it’s time for a warning from Weekes. “To all Black Group boats on the Black Group committee vessel line, this is the committee vessel,” she says. “Please keep well clear of the line unless it is your start. We should only have IRC class four at the line at this time.”

“If they are blocking a start and are in a different class we can protest them, which means they get a penalty,” comments Giddings. “Here you are not going to get commercial traffic but, for example, if a large ship appeared just before one of our starts then we would postpone to allow it to get past.”

If too many boats are on the wrong side of the line the race officer can recall them or even order a full restart, allowing a 10-minute interval for competitors to reposition themselves. But postponements are not undertaken lightly because they can cause the racing timetable at all three start lines to be delayed. The timetable is an interlocking grid of long and short races, and last minute changes could lead to different race groups ploughing into one another, or even trying to round the same buoy in opposite directions.

Because of the complicated underwater geography of the Solent and its sometimes treacherous winds and currents Chapman is inclined to allow competitors some latitude. “This is a difficult place to be because it goes from shallow to very deep, like a wall,” he says. “If we go further in to make sure we are on the shallower bit the competitors are getting too near the rocks. So you have to be a little bit generous to keep people reasonably behind the line.”

Wireless technologies
One innovation this year has been a trial of GPS tracking, based on mobile phones. This is aimed at helping prevent collisions by showing whether the boats are following their course at the expected speed.

While note-taking and record-keeping at sea still rely heavily on pen and clipboard, tablet computers have earned their place as an easy-to-use readily updateable reference and management tool. “If we withdraw a course it will take it straight off the iPad and we can put another one straight on there,” says Hagen when we’re back on land at the RYS clubhouse. “The benefit of iPads is that they provide information to race officers that you would have to have on a stack of paper constantly re-issued – and then it would almost be out of date the minute that you’ve handed it to them. [On the iPad] it’s an up-to-date menu of information that we are improving and improving. Tablets manage the process but the communication is still mostly radio.

“It’s quite inconceivable to see what we would do without the radio,” he adds. “And for very many reasons. One of the biggest is that sailors are used to VHF. Whatever you do or don’t do it’s almost like a comfort tool! They know what it is – they trust it.”

In particular, Hagen values the Icom radios supplied to the regatta. “We’ve used Icom radios here for many years, but I think the proof of it is quite simple: it wouldn’t be here now if it wasn’t fit for purpose and doing a good job. We couldn’t afford to entertain it for five minutes. We are very pleased with the brand, the radios and the support that we’ve had.

“We’ve had other radio manufacturers trying to knock on the door, but it’s not a conversation I really have time to have.”


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