TV View: Tangled knot of nautical jargon leaves landlubbers puzzled

Despite the impenetrable sailing ‘jive’, there’s lots to admire in the physical and technical expertise involved in the 470 class medal races

It was all about jibe talkin' and not a Bee Gee in sight at the Enoshima yacht harbour as the men's and women's medal races in the 470 class took place in relatively benign conditions. Sailing 'jive' can be a little impenetrable to the casual observer.

At one point the only words this column understood in a sentence during the BBC coverage were 'a', 'the' and 'and,' the rest a tangled knot of nautical jargon.

This is not a criticism of commentator Niall Myant Best and two-time Olympic champion, Scotland's Shirley Robertson, who largely struck a reasonable balance, catering for a viewer whose only maritime experience was watching Captain Pugwash as a child (Google it Millennials) to those that appreciate that the centreboard and daggerboard are one and the same; an adjustable fin primarily used to stop the boat moving sideways through the water.

In the men's 470 class the Australian duo of Mathew Belcher and Will Ryan had already squared away the gold prior to the medal race, the only fine print attached to that statement if they were disqualified.


Sweden started in the silver medal position with world number ones, Spain in bronze prior to the gun/klaxon. Without wishing to kill the suspense stone dead that’s how it ultimately panned out.

The British pair of Luke Patience and Chris Grube, second after eight races, dropped to fifth starting the medal one and that's where they stayed despite a seventh-place finish. Consolation for Team GB would come shortly afterwards when Hannah Mills – it was his second successive gold having won in Rio – and Eilidh McIntyre claimed outright victory in the women's 470 class.

Mindful of the likely television audience, Best and Robertson, initially offered a gentle introduction to the nuances in 470 racing talking about “pulling the boat flat, flipping the sails” and how it all came down to the co-ordination between the helm (the person steering) and the crew, their boat buddy who seemed to spend an inordinate amount of the race, hanging out of the boat with their backsides millimetres above the waterline. The manoeuvre is known as ‘hiking out.’ I think.

They are facilitated by the ‘trapeze,’ a wire attached to the mast to which a sailor wearing a harness attaches him/herself. It enables them to position their weight further out of the boat providing greater balance against the boat heeling (stet) over. It’s not a lie down; there is nothing languid or relaxing, it’s a hugely physical role.

Depending on the wind speed and when sailing upwind, the person attached by the trapeze, will vigorously bounce up and down. To provide a visual aid, think of the death rattle of a landed fish. The commentators spoke about the “kinetics” of the movement, how it could only be sustained in brief 10 or 15 seconds bursts as well as the technical and practical benefits.

Heading into the wind, a boat will sail a zigzag course rather than a straight line to reach the windward mark; there are two legs upwind and two downwind.

Changed tack

The BBC commentary team changed tack once the racing started in earnest. It wasn’t unfathomable but it helped if you knew your windward from leeward, when you should hoist a spinnaker, the importance of the timing of jibbing around the mark, had to counter flatulence, apologies, bad wind and when to strike the kite sail for the downwind legs.

Even for landlubbers the visual images of the racing were captivating and ensured an appreciation of the physical and technical expertise required to be successful in the sport.

In other water related matters, Tanya Watson made history in Tokyo when she became the first Irish female diver to compete at the Olympic Games and celebrated the achievement by making it through to the semi-finals of the women's 10m platform in Tokyo's Aquatic Centre.

Diving has to be one of the most difficult sports to try and make interesting for a casual viewer. After all, once you can differentiate between a straight, pike, tuck, and free dive, there isn’t a lot of diversity, it’s all a bit samey to a philistine. It is though possible to marvel at the athleticism, courage and timing but two hours of it is a tough watch.

In fairness RTÉ's John Kenny does his best to be colourful and informative when it comes to filling in around the dives. However he has no time for under-rotation or over-rotation – they cause a big splash – but didn't offer any views on squad rotation or crop rotation. Boom, Boom as they might say in Enoshima harbour.