Newporters to ref America’s Cup regatta

Newport Beach’s sailing community might not have a boat in the next America’s Cup, but it will have at least a couple of sailors in key positions. Umpires Michael Martin and David Blackman will oversee a fast, new style of racing that will be totally unfamiliar to any American who last cared about yacht racing when Dennis Conner was a skipper.

Martin is director of umpiring and rules administration for the Cup. Blackman is one of two umpires who will monitor the action for rules violations from aboard 300-horsepower jet skis. Both men were in action last weekend on San Diego Bay, where the latest in a series of international preview races leading up to the America’s Cup was held in easy view of spectators lined up on the city piers.

Article Tab: America's Cup umpire David Blackman of Newport Beach keeps his eye on a New Zealand boat during last weekend's racing in San Diego. Blackman is one of two OC men on the elite umpiring team that will oversee the 2013 America's Cup finals. The other is chief umpire Michael Martin.

The event was intended to mimic the conditions organizers hope create on San Francisco Bay in 2013, when the Golden Gate Yacht Club will defend the Cup it won off the coast of Spain, last year. The 2013 race will be completely different from previous Cups because it will be held in a bay rather than on the open water, and it will feature the fastest boats in Cup history.

Martin, 47, an engineer by trade, grew up sailing in Virginia and established a career as a competitive sailor. He won a world championship in a two-man 505 Class boat with Jeff Nelson of Huntington Beach, and two in the 18-foot-skiff class. When it came time to put together the umpiring crew for the 2013 America’s Cup and the races leading up to it, America’s Cup Regatta chief Iain Murray approached Martin.

“I said, ‘I really don’t have an umpiring background. I have a racing background,'” Martin recalls. “He said, ‘That’s exactly what we want.'”

After it won last year, the syndicate headed by Oracle Corp. CEO Larry Ellison of the Golden Gate Yacht Club, desperately wanted to improve the Cup’s image and get the masses reengaged. To do that, the rules, the boats and the spectator experience had to change.

“When I got the opportunity, I had to jump at it,” Martin says. “It’s pretty great to be able to reshape a sport.”

The America’s Cup boat is now a 72-foot catamaran. A 45-foot version is what’s being raced in the run-up regattas, which they’re calling the America’s Cup World Series. Previous America’s Cup boats did about 13 knots at full sail; the 45-footers will do about 30 knots and the 72-foot wing-sail cat will do about 40 knots.

Martin doesn’t mince words. He calls the old Cup culture “stodgy” and sees it fondly in the rearview mirror. “Some people got left behind, but there are a lot of positions on a (catamaran). Some traditional sailors have been able to adapt, but it also opened the door for a whole new set of sailors.”

The new boats required a new breed of umpire. Chiefly, umps monitor whether a boat properly gives a competitor the right of way in a given situation. Under the old rules, a boat in violation might not be cited until it docked. That meant some races were decided because of penalties meted out on dry land – a horrible result. The rule later was changed to require a violator make a 360-degree turn during the race, but that was unsatisfactory because a boat would hold off making the 360 until late in the race to see whether its competitor also committed an infraction – in which case neither took a penalty.

Now, a violator immediately drops back two lengths. This ensures spectators see the official race. There are no hidden penalties that will overturn a result late in the race or at the dock. But this real-time judgment of faster boats also calls for greater on-the-spot scrutiny. Seven umps are involved, with the wildest job going to the two umps on jet skis. “Not just anybody can do it. Most umpires out there aren’t young and strong enough to drive a jet ski in something as rough as San Francisco Bay.”

That’s where Blackman comes in. A Newport Beach native, he started racing sabots with the Newport Harbor Yacht Club team when he was 12. Just as important, he’s a former Navy Seal.

“When we were testing in the San Francisco Bay, he was knocked off the ski. It was pretty rough. Anybody else, I’d be concerned but he just radioed us from the water, we picked him up and he went right back on the ski.”

Mickadeit writes Mon.-Fri. Contact him at 714-796-4994 or


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