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Old 07-09-2000
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Success at the Swedish Match Cup

 
The seawall in Marstrand—part of the ampitheater that makes the Swedish Match Cup so inviting to spectators.
 
Besides providing some spectacular competition among the world's top mens and womens sailors, the eighth edition of the annual Swedish Match Cup demonstrated itself once again to be a model for success in balancing the needs and expectations of competitors, race officials, spectators, and sponsors. While Dean Barker and his talented team from New Zealand were putting their imprimatur on the scoreboard (and winning almost $30,000 in prize money), countless organizers, volunteers, and sponsor personnel were hard at work behind the scenes, ensuring that this remains one of the top sailing events in the world.

Produced by the Royal Gothenberg Sailing Club (GKSS) in Marstrand, this event attracts over 100,000 spectators each year, and draws in the top-name sailing talent from around the world. With an operating budget that exceeds $1 million, the Swedish Match Cup garners media coverage that spans the spectrum from local radio to live national TV to Euro CNN and the global Internet.

 
Built for durability, the boats in this event resemble demolition derby cars more than Formula One racers.
 
Perhaps the most striking feature of the Swedish Match Cup is its beautiful and historic setting. Western Sweden faces an arm of the North Sea where narrow, rock-lined fjords carved by Pleistocene glaciers have created a fantastically beautiful coastline littered by small islands arranged in complex archipelagos. Marstrand is one of these small islands—less than a mile in diameter—which is linked to the mainland by a chainferry that travels a few hundred yards across the harbor. This place is picture-postcard perfect: yachts big and small line the harbor, and brightly-colored quaint houses face the water along the quay. A seventeenth-century stone fortress and prison loom over all from the hilltop in the middle of the island, a reminder of the incessant wars between Swedenand its neighbors prior to the twentieth century.

It's this unique setting that allows for a perfect natural amphitheater for the match-race action. Thousands of sun-loving Swedes line the rocks that face the course area, where there's no need for fancy remote cameras and big-screen monitors to follow the action. In fact, the spectators are so close and so into the game that you can hear them from the water shouting encouragement and advice to the sailors. The scene resembles an outdoor ice hockey game, but without the fights.

"We've turned the planning part of the game on its head and asked 'what do the spectators and sponsors want to see?'" says Peter Klock, the Event Director. Klock is one of three full-time employees of a company that is wholly owned by GKSS and set up to plan and manage the regatta. "Basically," he says, "the event has to be simple to follow, fun to watch, and provide entertainment for the whole family." Marstrand provides the natural backdrop, but the organizers enhance this with a number of features including large, colored bands and prominent sponsor names and logos on the sails, competitor name plates on the mainsails, live commentary piped over a PA system and local AM/FM radio, and large country flags on the competitors' boats to let everyone know who is on the course. For those not out on the rock ampitheater, the action is telecast live to on-site viewers via big-screen monitors that are fed from several camera angles: from up on the rocks, from chase boats, and from onboard cameras placed on the competitors' boats.

 
Women's match-racing action takes place in the mornings—here Betsy Alison engages Dorte Jensen—while the men go at it in the afternoons.
 
The Swedish Match Cup has also been at the forefront of the Internet revolution since its inception in 1994 when, according to Klock, they "realized that sailors were using e-mail and the World Wide Web to communicate with one another and as a source of information. So we devised a website back then that has grown in sophistication with the available technology." The event's site now features live video and audio feeds from the event so you don't have to be here sitting on the rocks to enjoy the action (though on warm days the views can be just as compelling as those on the water!). A whole room full of computers and young tech-heads dedicated their energies and talents to making the site visually exciting, while the commentary from New Zealand-based media personality Peter Montgomery and yours truly helped interpret the race action.

Besides the entertainment provided by the on-the-water action, the event features a boat-show-like environment of sponsor tents and kiosks presenting the latest and greatest wares, with everything from mobile phones to cars to real estate opportunities on display. The crowds are composed of tourists and weekenders from throughout Sweden, and the collection of yachts ranging from outboard skiffs to America's Cup contenders indicates a tremendous draw from within the yachting community as well. Because the regatta has grown to become one of the largest sporting events in the country, it attracts interest from sponsors keen on having access to this influential audience.

 
Dean Barker and his winning team lead around the buoys in Marstrand's rock-encircled harbor.
 
For Barker and his fellow competitors, the event is a dream. The visiting teams—once invited—need only show up at the international airport at Gothenberg where a brand-new Volvo awaits their use throughout the week. They are then whisked off to pre-arranged accommodations, and meal tickets are handed out for redemption at a buffet set up for competitors, race officials, and volunteers. "I haven't spent a dime here all week," said Molly McCloud, who got help from sponsors at the Long Beach Yacht Club in order to be here and compete. "But more than that, everyone here is so friendly and helpful."

Besides the event's unequalled hospitality, the Swedish Match Cup also serves as an important test bed of ideas that are used elsewhere throughout the match-race circuit to make the competition itself better. One of the most obvious of these is in the choice of boats. Many match race organizers struggle to find identical boats to use in their competitions, but GKSS is able to choose from a fleet of identical 35-foot, fractionally- rigged sloops that have been specially designed and built as match-race platforms. The choice of small jibs or genoas and reefable mainsails allows for sailing in almost any conditions. Symmetrical spinnakers, aluminum spars, robust construction, and moderate displacement make these boats ideal for match racing, where the action can sometimes get too close and therefore the costs of repairing the occasional damage must be kept to a minimum.

"Thousands of sun-loving Swedes line the rocks that face the course area, shouting encouragement and advice—like an ice hockey game without the fights."
Other innovations include having onboard observers to make overlap and other calls through the use of hand signals and radio headsets. "This eliminates the need for a wing boat among the umpiring staff and has been a tremendous help for us," said veteran Kiwi umpire Russell Green. "Often it's difficult for the wing boat to keep in position in the pre-starts, particularly in close maneuvers." Another idea used in Marstrand is competitor-initiated penalties, which are available when a boat from one match fails to keep clear of one in another match. "This eliminates the need for a hearing, which can often stop the progress of the regatta," said UK-based chief umpire John Doerr.

While there have been attempts to achieve this kind of success in US match-race events—most notably in the former Liberty Cup, the Columbus Cup, and the Brut Cup events in the late '80s and early '90s—few ever break out of their yacht club-driven agendas and into the realm of commercial success. "We have to make money or break even with the Swedish Match Cup and all our events," says Klock, "because even though we draw on the human resources of GKSS, we are a company that must be held accountable for the costs. I think this actually gives us credibility with sponsors because they know we are committed professionals." This GKSS-affiliated management company has been so successful at building this event that they've taken on other challenges, such as hosting the Gothenberg stopover for the Volvo Ocean Race in 2002.

Could a Swedish Match Cup-type event ever be staged in the US? Many acknowledge that there are few places that combine all the elements of geography, timing, sailing resources, and so forth, but certainly San Francisco, Newport, RI, Baltimore, Miami, and San Diego come to mind. "We'd be very keen to have a US event on the tour," said Swedish Match Grand Prix president Pierre Tinnerholm. "It's obvious that access to the US market is a priority with many of our sponsors, so we're here to encourage and help in any way we can."