America's Cup: Spy vs Spy - Serious, or straight from the comic books?

Team tender to starboard, Oracle spy boat to port - Emirates Team NZ - AC72 Aotearoa February 12, 2013

Surveillance is part of America’s Cup life. Everyone does it. Coach Rod Davis muses on what can be learned – and the rules that regulate it.

At times the America’s Cup seems just like Mad Magazine’s Spy vs Spy. One team keeping tabs on another and a game of, not so much dirty tricks, but pranks played both by and against the spy.

Teams have paid dearly over the years for a lack of understanding of what the opposition was up to.

Perhaps the best-known and costly lack of insight was about Ben Lexcen’s winged keel on Australia II. A couple pictures shot early on and the America’s Cup would have never left the New York Yacht Club.

Every team watches every other team, takes notes, pictures, collects gossip, even starts a little gossip to see what shakes out.

So what are the teams hoping to learn? Why are THEY doing things differently than US. Why are THEIR boards more curved than OURS? THEIR wing sets up differently than OURS. Is that good? By keeping logs of the progression of sails or boards, watchers can learn along with those being watched.

The spies watching Emirates Team New Zealand are very interested in our foiling: how do we do it? How much wind do we need? And how fast is it?

How does a team learn these things? Collect the information and then the hard part – make sense of it. Pictures and videos are good, but the human eye often picks up things that seem to melt into the picture. So good people and good notes are important.

Watchers would give anything to measure the other team’s real boat speed and wind angles, but that is very hard to do. Often the number you get is only within 10% of the real speed. Hardly priceless information.

The ubiquitous Oracle spy boat follows Emirates Team NZ - AC72 Aotearoa February 12, 2013
It helps immensely to know what you are looking for before you start observing. Set the targets and position yourself to get the pictures that you need. Without a target and a plan, endless hours can be wasted for little useful information.

Then comes the tricky part. In the piles of pictures, notes and hours of video what’s rubbish and where are the gems?

The danger lies in jumping to conclusions that turn out to be an incorrect. Chasing phantoms costs both time and money.

Any Rules about Spying?

Of course, this is the America’s Cup and we have rules about everything. Surprisingly, these rules are pretty straightforward.

- Nothing illegal. So no phone taps, no trespassing, no buying the information from a third party etc.
- On the water you can’t observe within 200 metres of their boat or base. This does not apply if you are on land or a public dock. Oh, and no spy planes, no helicopters, U2s, drones… all prohibited.
- No tapping into their private radio channels.

What happens if you break these rules?

Long lens at work again in the Viaduct Harbour as the Emirates Team NZ AC72 prepares to pass through the Viaduct Bridge in daylight.
A team protests to the international jury just as Luna Rossa did about Oracle a few months ago. Oracle infringed the 200-metre rule to take pictures of the Luna Rossa boat. Oracle thought they were within their rights to take pictures if they were stopped and Luna Rossa sailed to them.

An observation team can easily find themselves within 200 metres if the cat unexpectedly turns and comes at them doing 30+ knots. That is not a serious foul, maybe not a foul at all. But if you continue to take pictures as the boat go by, you are breaking the rules. The solution is easy, put the camera down, motor outside the 200-metre boundary at a prudent speed and pick the camera back up.

The jury deducted five sailing days from Oracle’s allotment for their infraction. Juries have been known to get more than a little annoyed at illegal information gathering. In 2003 One World started each round robin and knockout series on minus one point. They had to win a race just to get to 0-0 score because they 'acquired information in violation of the rules'.

As far pranks, the stuff of Spy vs Spy: Props of spy boats have gone missing overnight, once a boat was boarded, crew striped, clothes stolen, leaving them to go home naked. Paint ball guns have been known to be out of the water.

Misinformation is the nemesis of information gathering. And Coutts is the best at misinformation. So you always ask yourself, it this real or what they want me to believe?? Did I mention that you America’s Cup could make you paranoid?