Auckland, New Zealand – The main attraction for spectators and television viewers in the America’s Cup will always be the AC75s, the sleek racing yacht that can fly above the water at speeds of up to 60 mph on hydrophills.
This week’s stealing scene of the event, however, could be the supporting actor on the run them: Filming between helicopter races Emirates Team New Zealand and Italy’s Luna Rossa For international television broadcasting. Its nail-biting maneuvers, almost always at high speeds and sometimes just a few feet above the water, bring the sparkle of a big-budget action film that can often be a relatively straightforward sprint.
To do its job properly, the helicopter’s pilot often matches the speed of the AC75s, levitating just above the water as it tracks them up and down the miles. The helicopter also flies backwards, sideways and on the diagonals as needed, diving down and up around the yacht as they all glide above the water. And the spectator boats, the whitecaps below, and most importantly, the multimillion-dollar AC75s and their 87-foot masts should do it all.
“It’s normal for me,” said Tony Monk, the new enthusiast in control of the helicopter this year. “I think I’m much safer than a chopper in a car.”
Monk’s daring flight has surprised some viewers, who are unfamiliar with how the race video has been captured. One viewer described the monk’s skills, calling him “crazy”, but others said that seeing the helicopter revolve around the action made him feel preoccupied. Some expressed concern that the wind from the blade might interfere with the race.
There is precedent for that concern. During the America’s Cup in Bermuda in 2017, Jimmy Spiethle then guided an American caterman and co-helmsman to the Italian team this year alleging defeat on a TV helicopter when his team flew over, So “all vented”.
A new ardent monk with almost 40 years of flying experience, faces risks and grievances. “Most people only see a helicopter flying forward,” he said. “They can go in any direction.”
He honed his skills surviving trees and power lines as a crop duster before going into filmmaking, where his work includes capturing overhead scenes for the “Lord of the Rings” series. When his chopper sailboat is not chasing races, it leads a very quiet life: flying charters, aerial video shooting and lunches to clients, golf courses, and heli-fishing trips.
During the America’s Cup race, despite having enough in the air, the monk must track the amount of information and keep changing constantly. Their flight must be within the safety guidelines of the model of helicopter they use. He cannot fly in the airspace of other TV helicopters overhead, often providing a wider image with graphics – which allows viewers to track boats marked like a football field. (That video is shot by the monk’s son, Blair.)
The monk must travel at least 500 feet from any spectator boats and populated areas. The figure is normally close to 1,000 feet, and inside it monks and race officials need special permission from the Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand.
And then there is the downwash or wind emanating from the blade, which is a unique problem when the pilot must refrain from interfering in the competition in any way since filming the sailing race. A windy day means the downwash is spread much faster than a calm day, and this allows the helicopter to fly closer to the AC75s, Monk said. And if the boats are going upstream, the monk can get closer if he flies from the front then he flies behind him. “You are always conscious of the direction of the wind,” he said.
“Many times where boats are coming through the trail, we have to get up fast,” said the monk, whose flight is imagined by his ability to see what the ship’s camera operator is seeing from under the lens. Helicopters, taking orders over the radio from all TV directors. (There is still a photographer on board, sitting by an open door, and a spot that serves as another set of eyes for Monk.)
Why a helicopter? Drones were originally considered for the job, but the weight of camera equipment increased rapidly. Leon Sefton, director of production for America’s Cup, said, “Very quickly you end up the size of a dining table in a drone situation.”
In addition, Sefton and his team favor the monk as his living, sky-breathing eye. Since Monk is right there, Sefton said, he has a spatial awareness that drone pilots will not work remotely.
“Race boats can sometimes do unexpected things we think,” he said.