Few people realise it, but sailing is not just Denmark’s, but one of the world’s biggest sports. Thousands and thousands of people of all ages – from the very young to the very old – spend their time trimming main and headsails to get the most out of the wind. But few non-sailors ever see what is an exciting sport, simply because it all happens a long way from shore. A Danish company is changing all of that.
By Julian Isherwood
It was during a vacation on a Greek island some 25 years ago that a young Danish wannabe ship’s engineer and three of his colleagues looked at the bottle of retsina on the table and wistfully acknowledged that their favourite pastime was just not pulling in the crowds.
“We sat there watching all the sailing boats and tried to figure out how it would be possible to make such a widespread sport more accessible to the masses. We couldn’t,” says a smiling David Fleischer at his impressive office overlooking the choppy Sound between Denmark and Sweden.
“The technology simply wasn’t there. Moving pictures live from the middle of a racing course to the shoreline just wasn’t practical,” says Fleischer.
A quarter of a century later, somewhat more grey-haired but still as lean and fit-looking as competitive sailors do, Fleischer leans back against the vast maritime poster behind him and proudly presents the results of several years of in-house development.
“What we are able to do now was not possible just a few years ago. Our main issue is that of the radio technology that enables us to provide video on demand – not just the actual radio waves, but also the coupling between radio waves and the broadband internet structure,” Fleischer says.
While most people nowadays can stream video from their mobile telephones across the GSM networks, covering sailing courses that are often at the edge of signal availability require better and more reliable signal handling of at least 4G capacity and dedicated for the purpose.
“The threshold is really high and in some cases seems pretty much like a mission impossible. Ask anyone today and they’ll tell you that what we’re doing can’t be done. But it can. We’ve done it and it works really well,” Fleischer says.
One of the main problems for sailing clubs and communities is that in the nature of the sport, courses are out at sea, and although regattas can often be seen out in the distance, most spectators have little idea of what is going on until boats come in.
“What we have now done is to bring the sport to the spectator, since we can’t take the spectator out to the sport. Anyone, anywhere can watch live close-up videos of the regatta, as well as seeing data on who is leading and where each individual boat is placed,” says Fleischer.
Himself one of Denmark’s first avid windsurfers and father to Sebastian, Denmark’s RS:X Olympic hopeful, Fleischer knows first-hand how important it is for coaches to be able to follow a race first hand; “You need to be able to see what course has been sailed in relation to other sailors in order to rectify mistakes,” he says.
But apart from the impressive array of technical data designed for sailors and coaches engrossed in the technicalities, the SportsXstream system promises to magnetise onshore crowds able to follow the exciting manoeuvring and navigation offshore on harbourside widescreens.
Although the 2012 Summer Olympics was able to stream online video and tracking of the various classes, and the America’s Cup likewise, the exorbitant expense of such systems precludes their use in most other regattas, something Fleischer says the Danish company is able to rectify and develop.
“What we have done is to build our own radio network in order to carry our radio signals from sea to land and onto broadband, using standard components tweaked to make maximum use of the system. That is what keeps most others from doing this sort of thing.
It’s highly complicated. We have also developed our own stable easyrig to carry cameras that are waterproof, can be mounted in almost any rig and are comfortable to handle for 8 hours non-stop,” he says.
Internet based, the system can also be played onto widescreens so that larger numbers are able to watch the progression of the race, as well as live interviews with leading sailors and coaches.
“When you log into the site you can see several video cameras as icons and when you press an icon that’s the camera you’re looking at live. Typically we have 2 video cameras plus a couple of webcams giving you an overview. And on some of the bigger events we’ll have commentators so that you can get a full picture of what is going on,” Fleischer says adding that tracking can be seen as a separate window.
So far, the SportsXstream team has bagged not only domestic Danish venues for its services, but also an impressive array of foreign destinations – not least a 5-year contract with the Royal Yachting Association – the world’s largest – to cover the Sail for Gold events in Weymouth; as well as events at La Rochelle, also one of Europe’s prime sailing venues.
“We have produced our proof of concept, so technically we are there. The next step is to continue to create net traffic so that sponsors are even more satisfied,” says Fleischer.
With an order book rapidly filling as the 2014 sailing season in Europe approaches, much has to be organised and prepared in the premises in the old but renovated cloth factory in Hellebæk up the coast from Elsinore.
“It’s exhilarating to be able to make such an exciting sport more accessible to everyone and get people down to watch regattas and races. By providing living pictures and making it possible to see what is happening out on the water, that is exactly what we are doing,” Fleischer concludes.