iShares Cup 5th Man – The Best Seat in Sport?


f-ishares-cowesThe phrase ‘the F1 of sailing‘ is an overused, almost meaningless cliche. Many event organisers would love to have the sponsorship, fanbase, media rights and glamour that Formula One car racing has enjoyed, but for most sailing events it is just never going to happen. The iShares Cup has more claim to the title of ‘the F1 of sailing‘ than most. It’s not a world championship and it’s a one-design competition rather than a money driven arms-race, but it is a high-tech business to business platform that is also appealing to spectators and a great entertainment product.

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5th Man in Yellow. Photo by David Fuller

This weekend, OC Events brought the iShares Cup to Cowes Week. Where the ‘oldest regatta in the world’ exists for competitors, the iShares Cup has a different agenda – it is there to entertain. Whether you are a member of the public standing on the shore, or a VIP overlooking the course in a marquee, every aspect of this sport is designed to provide a spectacle that is up close and personal.

For Cowes, the iShares Cup built a two storey entertainment complex on Egypt point. Downstairs, the facility featured a public bar, while upstairs catered for guests. The race course was laid out so that the boats ran parallel to the shore giving maximum exposure to the sponsors, but also allowing fans on the beach to watch. In this sense, the iShares Cup resembles NASCAR more than F1 as the boats are never out of sight around the back of the race-track.

One who believes that F1 is a good comparison is Nick Fry, Technical Director for Brawn F1. Brawn and the iShares Cup share the same official clothing supplier – Henri Lloyd, and Fry visited the event on Monday. He said:

“Ishares cup is very similar to formula 1, in that it combines high technology great team work and accessible entertainment for the fans. This type of sailing also provides a great commercial platform for companies like Henry Lloyd and countries like Oman who likes to participate in high quality sport and want to encourage people from all background to see the benefit that sport provides.”

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Photo by David Fuller

An eXtreme 40 catamaran does offer one thing that an F1 car can’t. The boats are sailed by a crew of 4, but since the beginning, the iShares Cup has featured the concept of a 5th man. The ability to put a guest on one of these boats – during a race – is something that sponsors can use to amaze even the most pampered corporate guest. It doesn’t matter if you have been to the Monaco Grand Prix, or watched the 100 metre final at the Olympics, you are still a spectator. Being on board a 40 foot carbon racing machine in 15 knots of wind, flying a hull and being next to some of the greatest sailors in the world as they do their thing is not something you forget easily, even if you are not a sailor.

If you are a sailor, it is even more memorable. On Sunday, I visited the iShares Cup setup on Egypt point. While the Cowes Week fleets were somewhere out of sight, the branded up eXtreme 40s put on a show. From land, the sight of these purposeful boats flying hulls or digging their bows in as they power downwind is genuinely exciting, but suiting up and being dropped by a RIB onto a boat about to start the 3rd race of the day gets the heart racing.

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Extreme Bar at Cowes Week. Photo by David Fuller

I was lucky enough to be dropped onto Renaisance, one of Oman Sail’s two eXtreme 40s. ‘Oman Blue’ is skippered by French sailing legend Loick Peyron. With him were¬†Julien Cressant, Peter Greenhalgh and Greg Homann. The breifing was pretty simple – the 5th man doesn’t have to do anything but hold on – but with a start sequence of only 4 minutes, there is not a lot of time to get to grips with exactly where you have to be when. In 15knts of breeze, 85 kgs in the wrong spot can make a lot of difference.

Only when you are 1 boat length from the line with a 40 foot carbon catarmaran on both sides does it sink in that this is not a corporate race – this is for points. If you put your foot on the wrong rope or not listen to instructions, you can affect the result. Not just of the race, but when the racing is so tight – potentially the event or the series. There are no other sports, where you, as a guest are so important to the team. You can play a round of golf with Tiger Woods, but it’s not going to affect what he shoots.

It is little wonder then that title sponsor iShares see the series as the perfect vehicle to achieve their marketing goals. It’s not about a love of sailing, Mike Mainwaring, Director of Marketing and Sponsorship for iShares explained that none of those making the decision about backing the series had anything to do with the sport. Instead, the sponsorship has to deliver on its objectives and provide tangible value, otherwise they wouldn’t do it.

The iShares Cup then is one of the few professional sailing events that deserves to get a share of sponsorship dollars, media rights and fans. If any sailing event has the right to compare itself to F1, it is the iShares Cup.

Photos from iShares Cup at Cowes