Meet Matt Knighton, ‘war correspondent’ of Volvo Ocean Race for Abu Dhabi boat Azzam

Osman Samiuddin brings you the story of the onboard reporter responsible for bringing all the news and updates from Azzam.
Matt Knighton, with his camera, has been capturing as many details as possible aboard Azzam to send out a clear picture to the world. Ian Roman / Volvo Ocean Race
Matt Knighton, with his camera, has been capturing as many details as possible aboard Azzam to send out a clear picture to the world. Ian Roman / Volvo Ocean Race

If seven boats and 59 sailors raced around the world and nobody saw, heard or tweeted about it, would it really have happened?

It is the kind of existential dilemma the Volvo Ocean Race (VOR) has to deal with more than most sports.

Two races ago, organisers decided they needed to let the world know, not just the sailing community, there was a race going on that was among the toughest human endeavours.

For the first time, they put on board a media member, whose sole responsibility was to document life – and struggle – on board.

It was good, but organisers sensed people wanted more. They wanted stories from this prolonged and extreme physical and mental examination undergone by humans.

So organisers switched focus. In designing a new boat for this race, as well as enhancing competition, they created a vessel around broadcast needs: fixed and hand-held cameras, satellite connections, a workstation for reportage.

In January 2013, they advertised for the post of on-board reporters (OBR) and in four months received more than 2,000 applications, mostly from Spain.

Knut Frostad, the race chief executive, wanted this year’s race to be the most real reality show there has been.

Matt Knighton had wanted this for years. He had applied for a position in 2011/12 but missed out. He was one of the first to apply this time but was told it was unlikely because there were only two boats with requirements for English-speaking reporters.

Each boat had the choice of picking an OBR itself or from the VOR pool of reporters.

Team Alvimedica already had a reporter. Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s (ADOR) Azzam had also picked one.

But Azzam’s initial arrangement fell through and Knighton emerged as the perfect fit. He had plenty of sailing experience, was a documentary filmmaker with eight years experience in US media and was working with a sailing team.

Now he is two legs in and, if sailing’s tolls are likened to that of war-time soldiers, then Knighton fits in happily as an embedded war correspondent. That is what Frostad calls them: “the war correspondents of the race”.

In an interview at the VOR Destination Village in Abu Dhabi, Knighton said: “You have to be able to do both, right? You have to fulfil media responsibilities and then you’re expected to live on-board and, for example, take care of the guys’ nutrition.”

Race rules forbid OBRs from assisting with the sailing at all, to the extent they cannot touch sails or lines.

But the unambiguous aim is to help along the other eight sailors. Each night, for instance, Knighton refills food bags for the next day. It is difficult to imagine Christiane Amanpour doing that in conflict zones. “It’s my opportunity to help the performance, to take care of the guys and make sure their energy and spirits are high,” Knighton said.

The core journalism itself is challenging. Knighton has produced a stream of engaging multimedia stories from the first two legs, content that has done precisely what organisers wanted and brought home to followers what life on board a VOR boat is like.

There have been highlights, including a video piece on repairing a sail in Leg 2 shot by Knighton from even further up the mast, more than 30 meters above the ocean.

The best have been the funniest, Knighton’s camera becoming a disarming weapon allowing the skipper Ian Walker, in particular, to reveal his comedic skills. The video of an improvised dental procedure involving Justin Slattery and Phil Harmer is a moment of comedy gold.

Helpfully, as he acknowledged, his subjects are captive. There is no running away on a 65-foot yacht. Plenty of time on trans-Atlantic practice stints before the race also helped observer and subject get comfortable with the other.

“They have no choice. There are times I’m a little bit paparazzi, when they don’t realise I’m taking a picture,” he said. “They’re getting to the point now that they really like to interact with the camera and there is comedy coming out. You have to have a rapport with the guys off-camera for it to come through.”

But, as he admitted, the same boat, the same guys, the same water, the same race, for nine months does not make for easy journalism.

“You exhaust all your angles very quickly, and then it becomes about the personalities. So the thing that changes all the time is the people and you look for stories with what happens with the guys.”

Typically, a day – and out at sea, conventional ideas of day and night are notional – starts with Knighton capturing sunrise and helping generate drinking water for the crew.

After a break, later in the afternoon and early evening he will be back on deck, for another six hours, filming, documenting and waiting for stories.

The day ends on the laptop below deck, editing footage, finishing photos and exporting them through satellite. Squeezed in between are blogs, tweets and anything else.

“The hardest part is you have no idea how the audience is receiving the content,” he said. “We live in a black hole where we send our stuff every 24 hours but have no idea what they are doing with it.

“Every now and again I’ll get an email saying you’re in the newspaper, or this video has this many views and that will really make your day. But for the most part, you’re in this black hole, which is rare in this day and age, especially in media.”

The central tension of journalism, that bad needs to happen for good journalism, remains.

That was brought home by the Team Vestas Wind accident on this leg. Brian Carlin, their OBR and a friend of Knighton’s, ended up documenting what has been the story of the race.

“You never want something bad happening that could injure somebody or hurt our chances,” Knighton said, acknowledging that he empathised with Carlin trying to escape but also document simultaneously.

“When there are incidents that happen, from a media perspective there is a kind of excitement that you have something to shoot, a chance to tell a story in a really unique way.”

Winning the entire race, of course, will make for no less unique a story.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

Follow us on Twitter at SprtNationalUAE

Published: December 25, 2014 04:00 AM

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