Who Wants To Be An OBR?
The toughest beat in sporting journalism or the adventure of a lifetime? The Volvo Ocean Race’s crop of On Board Reporters could not be any closer to the action, living cheek and jowl with the crews for weeks at a time as they battle around the world in 65-foot high performance racing yachts.
The overall media prize winner from the last edition, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s Matt Knighton, talks candidly about the highs and lows of his experience with the eventual race winners and gives his personal tips for any aspiring OBRs hoping to get picked for the 2017-18 edition.
Sail Racing Magazine: Tell us about your background in sailing and media before you applied to be the Abu Dhabi OBR? What made you think you were potential OBR material?
Matt Knighton: My background is in cinematography, but I really enjoying directing and the fundamentals of telling good stories. I started out shooting documentaries for a production company in Texas and eventually went freelance and got to work on some amazing projects, like the Black Hawk Down documentary we shot in Mogadishu, Somalia.
Paralleling this, in 2010 I started racing on big boats in Chicago and San Diego and built up a good amount of offshore racing experience. I was really big into that scene – so much that it started taking up most of my spare time.
I knew immediately I wanted to be a Volvo Ocean Race On Board Reporter after seeing photos from the 2008-09 race. I applied for the 2011-12 race as a Media Crew Member (as they called it back then), but unfortunately I didn’t get the call.
For the next three years I focused hard on building up my resume so I could apply for the 2014-15 race. I worked for American sailor Taylor Canfield on the World Match Racing Tour and started networking as much as I could into the wider sailing world. Since I knew I was strong in video already, I made a big effort to strengthen my photography skills.
To answer the question, why I thought I was OBR material: I was passionate about adventure journalism; I saw that my skill sets fitted well between media and sailing; and I genuinely wanted it really badly.
SRM: Prior to starting with the team, what were the things you most worried about? Which of these turned out to be challenges for you during the race?
MK: It sounds strange – and perhaps I was naive—but nothing truly worried me about taking on the OBR role with Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing. Once I got the job though, it quickly became clear how difficult it was going to be. The mental game is relentless, the OBR role is not glamorous at all and the truth is that the race eventually grinds everyone down. That strange dichotomy, between loving the job and not loving it at the same time, is confusing and took me a while to get my head around it.
Before the race, I had no idea how much time it takes just surviving as part of the team on board the boat. The majority of your day is spent without a camera in your hand. But, of course, you’re expected to be in the right position and at the right time to get the perfect shot when anything happens on board. You’re expected to be able to come up with a unique video-story for the TV people - complete with interesting camera placements and creative visuals - not to mention the tasks of editing all your photos and videos and writing 200 words a day, every day.
Plus, all the OBR’s are competitive, so in the back of your mind the whole time you’re racking your brain to try to come up with a fresh and new idea to one-up your rivals on the other boats.
Repeat that whole process every 24 hours, for 25 days, with no weekends. For the five per cent of the time when you get that epic shot or capture that must-see footage, it’s a lot of fun. For the other 95 per cent of the time, it’s pretty trying. You live for the five per cent, because that’s what makes it all worth it.
SRM: What was the toughest aspect of the race for you?
MK: I’ve always said that the toughest part of the race for me was dealing with the mental game. The biggest part of that was being away from my family for so long and the constant pressure to be creative.
If there was a single moment that was the toughest, I’d have to say it was the Leg 2 start out of Cape Town, South Africa. I made the mistake of talking to my wife, April, on the phone right before boarding the boat. April was in tears saying goodbye and I was still exhausted after the first leg and had the rest of the race looming in my head.
It must have been one of the gnarliest leg starts ever in Volvo Ocean Race history. We set off in 40 plus knots of wind and the fleet screamed out of Table Bay straight into the clutches of the Agulhas Current. I remember being glad we had fried chicken on board, because I was not a happy camper on that first evening!
SRM: What is the one moment of the race you will never forget as long as you live?
MK: There are so many unforgettable moments scattered throughout the race. However, the true “pinch-me-is-this-for-real?” experience was the day we went around Cape Horn. The conditions were epic; Dongfeng had just snapped their rig and we had just set the race 24-hour speed record. Then, as the sun rose, suddenly we could see the legendary Cape Horn.
There we were, charging along through one of the most remote parts of the world, but with two of our competitors in clear sight. In between the waves breaking on deck, everyone managed to light up a celebratory cigar as we passed the Horn. In the end, it’s the people and friendships you take with you. This was a special moment shared by a group of close friends; and it’s one I know will never, ever fade from my memory.
SRM: What key goals did you set yourself before the race started? Did they change during the race? Looking back now, how do you score yourself against those pre-race goals?
MK: I just had one goal going into the race. That was simply that I would do my absolute best each day and at the end of the race let the chips fall as they may. I knew there were other awesome OBRs on other teams, so I figured the best I could do was try to make the storytelling from our boat as good as I could. Then, at the end of the race, I’d know I had nothing more to give.
I’d score myself well against that goal. I feel like I seized each day. The goal to be excellent never changed through the whole race, right up to the very last day. At times it nearly drove me mad, because I tend to be a perfectionist by nature; I’m not sure if I could have sustained it for very much longer.
SRM: Do you have any regrets? Is there anything significant that you wish you had done differently?
MK: No real regrets. There are always specific shots of things you wish you could’ve got, but perhaps those were ones that needed to live on in our memories, not on camera.
SRM: One of the biggest challenges of the OBR role is putting together interesting output on those infamous “Groundhog Days” – the days when the sailors are basically doing exactly the same thing as they did the day before (and possibly several days before that). How did you approach that challenge?
MK: For an OBR there are really three kinds of days during a Volvo Ocean Race. First, are the ‘guaranteed’ days. These are days when you pretty much know there will be great stories/shots/footage. I’m talking about Cape Horn, leg starts and finishes, equator crossings - that sort of thing.
Secondly, there are the ‘unexpectedly awesome’ days. Really wet days with huge waves on deck and great light, or when the dolphins swim alongside the boat, or the crew are involved in dealing with something out of the norm – a repair maybe, or when the banter among the crew is just ripping and your video camera is rolling.
Thirdly, are the dreaded ‘monotonous’ days, when nothing much seems to happen and there is no real hope of the situation changing any time soon. Unfortunately, this third category is the one a large part of the race falls into.
The key thing for any aspiring future OBRs to understand is that whatever kind of day it is - there’s always, always, a story to tell. As an OBR you need to be able to recognise what these stories might be and then figure out a compelling way to tell them. It helps to make sure you develop the characters on your boat to help you with the narrative.
The stories can come from anywhere. Some things might seem insignificant to you on board the boat, but told well, those small stories can carry a lot of weight with the public watching the race ashore.
As an example, I shot one story about a hole in our fresh water tank. I set out to make the story seem serious (which in actuality it was – that’s our drinking water after all) but the reality was that all it took to fix it was a bit of Sikaflex to plug the hole. But, the elements of the story were visually appealing (tools scattered all over the boat) and it was a useful way to illustrate the fact that, when you are in the remotest parts of the world’s oceans, the crew needed to be able to repair the boat under any conditions.
SRM: The 2014-15 edition of the Volvo Ocean Race was dubbed “The Human Edition” and there was some pressure on the OBRs to deliver content around that theme. That sort of forced approach doesn’t always go down well with the sailors, so how did you manage to keep everyone happy?
MK: I think the idea of branding the race as the Human Edition was an effort to showcase the sailors’ adventure, rather than focusing on the technicalities and the jargon of ocean racing.
The sailors always wanted me to tell the racing story and focus specifically on that. They want the public to see the extreme conditions, the sail changes, the technical aptitude they have to keep up for the nine months of the race.
My approach was to try to incorporate both aspects. You can’t tell the human story of ocean racers without talking about the race itself – the standings, the speed, the tactics. However, at the same time, the genius of the Human Edition concept was that, by focusing on the sailors, you always had new stories to tell. Plus, it enabled the audience to connect with the sailors on an emotional level. That’s why I always felt it was important to include both elements in the videos and the written reports I sent off the boat.
I know the guys appreciated that I was always tuned into the racing angle and they knew I always worked hard at telling that side of the story. Some days, if there was a media request that seemed a little too gimmicky or ‘hokey’ we’d come up with an alternative story idea instead.
SRM: What technical challenges did you face as a multimedia reporter out on the high seas?
MK: There’s no doubt, you need to have strong technical skills. Knowing your cameras inside and out and taking care of all your equipment is very important and something any aspiring OBR should be very disciplined about.
There are two challenges you typically face. The first is saltwater. It literally gets everywhere. I went through three camera bodies during the nine months of the race simply due to exposure to salt. I should point out that the cameras never took a direct hit from a wave (not when they weren’t in a waterproof housing that is) but, over time, that super-fine sea mist that you can’t actually see, always creeps in and it can devastate your equipment.
You have to be able to keep things dry! During the Southern Ocean leg, I had two camera bodies and one never came out of its waterproof housing. I used to clip both cameras into my bunk to keep them dry. If the boat rolled over they wouldn’t fall, but I could always easily grab them when I needed them.
The second challenge is avoiding your equipment getting accidentally damaged. A VO65 is not a safe environment for media kit, especially when all eight sailors are on deck manhandling the boat through a manoeuvre or a sail change.
Coming into Cape Town at the end of the first leg, we were leading the fleet and doing a steady 18 knots straight towards the target. The guys were enjoying themselves on deck with big smiles on their faces and I was busy getting ready for the live arrivals show, which we were scheduled to play a large role in. No sooner had I plugged in the cord for the headphone microphone than one of the sailors climbed in the hatch, caught his boot in it and ripped the plug completely off the of the cable.
There was less than an hour before the show was supposed to start and our sponsors were understandably expecting plenty of TV coverage from their leg-winning team. Not being able to transmit audio from our boat was not an option! As the minutes ticked down and Table Mountain began to loom closer and closer, our boat captain, Daryl Wislang, braced himself below deck with a soldering iron and began methodically reattaching the tiny filaments.
He got everything matched up except for the last two wires, which were different colours than the schematics showed. We looked at each other in silence. It was just like you see in the movies when they are defusing a bomb and deciding which wire to cut. In our case we had a 50/50 shot at getting the two wires the right way around. Luckily, Daryl guessed right, and with only minutes to spare before I had to start transmitting live, we were back up and running with sound. Media calamity averted! Phew!
SRM: Now, the million-dollar question – would you do the Volvo Ocean Race again as an OBR?
MK: That really is the million-dollar question. The truth is that I’m still trying to answer that question right now. I know my passion for the race is still there and whoever said that the Volvo Ocean Race gets in your blood and won’t go away was right - there’s nothing like it.
SRM: For any aspiring OBRs who have been inspired by your performance in the last race – what advice do you have to help them make their dreams a reality?
MK: First of all, be absolutely certain that you really want this. The glamour of being an OBR soon wears off and the constant demand to produce high-quality content can quickly grind you down. This isn’t the job for the casual GoPro sailor; you really need to be passionate about journalism, storytelling, photography, and video production.
Wanting it badly is good starting point, but I think anyone aiming to be in the next crop of OBR’s needs to be strong in three main areas.
To start with, you should be able to demonstrate that you’re a good storyteller. Video is the key here. Don’t just shoot montages set to music; you need to practise weaving in interviews with interesting cutaway shots to back up your storyline. Getting yourself in a situation where you can learn to produce content professionally with quick turnaround times would help with this.
Building a show reel of this type of content will help show off your skills to the selectors too.
Secondly, a good OBR needs to be someone who is able to relate with and earn the respect of the crew they’re sailing with. Don’t underestimate the importance and difficulty of achieving this. Professional sailors are a hardened, highly skilled and tight-knit group; if they don’t see you taking your job seriously and making the effort on their behalf, it just won’t work. Learn to tough it out without complaining. That’s what they do.
Lastly, your technical skills need to be well up to par. This doesn’t mean you need to be the next Ansel Adams but you need to be comfortable with professional DSLR’s and as a bare minimum have a good understanding of how to edit video and photos.
My advice is to make an honest assessment of yourself so you can identify where you’re weak and then set about mastering those areas. There are lots of ways to learn how to improve your skills, but by far the best option is to simply get out there and do it. When it comes to this sort of stuff, practice does make perfect. Don’t wait. Do it now. By the time the next race comes around it’ll be too late.
Ultimately, if you genuinely believe you have what it takes to be an OBR and you have your heart set on being part of the next race, then you should go after it with all you’ve got. In my case, it took a lot of hard work and dedication to build my skills up to the right level, but the payoff has been huge.
Good luck to you all!