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Betsy Alison
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Lessons from the Rolex 2000 ISAF Women’s Match Racing Worlds

The author (right) and her team en route to third place at the Rolex 2000 ISAF Women's Match Racing World Championships.
With some of the best female match racers in the world on hand at St. Petersburg, FL, in November to compete in the Rolex 2000 ISAF Women’s World Match Racing Championships, staying focused and remaining positive was the name of the game. Despite a last-minute and highly controversial move by ISAF changing the new 2004 women’s keelboat Olympic discipline from match to fleet racing, 14 of the top 20 ranked teams, including nine of the top 10 were on hand for the contest. The 24 teams represented 17 nations from three continents, and came from as far away as New Zealand and Australia to test the waters of Tampa Bay in the seven-day event.

I was given an invitation by virtue of my No. 2 ISAF ranking, and I worked hard to put together a strong team. Nancy Haberland (tactician and trimmer), and Dini Hall (jib trimmer) are regulars on my match-racing team and have sailed with me in the past two world championships. Carol Cronin (bow) rounded out the group. Our team was solid, but we knew that the field would be the toughest ever at the event, so concentrating on our own performance while staying relaxed was going to be the toughest challenge.

"Part of the success of any team in high-level competition is preparation. "
Part of the success of any team in high-level competition is preparation. Whether it be America’s Cup racing, a qualifying series for the Admiral’s Cup, or a national championship, going into an event with time in the boat gives you confidence. Even though it may be difficult for the team to sail together a lot as pre-event practice, it is important for team members to do as much sailing as they can in a variety of events. This not only serves to keep their sailing skills finely honed, but also sharpens the tactical eye. Because my coaching schedule had me on the road for the better part of three months, our team did not sail together until just before the worlds. But, we felt that having two or three solid days of boat-handling practice in the Sonars at the regatta site just prior to the event would serve us well. Unfortunately for us, the weather did not cooperate, and our practice time was reduced to virtually nothing.

At the event, 16 unseeded teams went head to head in two groups of eight during the qualifying rounds, with the the top four in each group moving on to sail against the top seeds in Round 2. It is usually a bonus to be in the seeded group, particularly when conditions are light and fluky. However, when I realized that we’d have almost no time to sail together before the event, I became a bit apprehensive. All we could do while the unseeded sailors raced, was watch, wait, review our notes, and see who was good in the light and variable conditions.

Light, fluky winds plagued the competitors for the duration of the event.
The event began with torrential rain, dark skies, and little to no wind. It did not bode well for getting any racing in, and the race committee ultimately cancelled activities for the day. The next day dawned a bit clearer, with light shifty northerlies. Hannah Swett of Jamestown, RI, took charge on course 1A posting a 5-0 record for the day, while Marie Bjorling of Sweden led the pack on 1B with a perfect 4-0. Meanwhile, we waited on shore.

One of the interesting things about boat racing comes from studying your opponents. When you regularly compete on a circuit of events, you become familiar with your competition. You learn what kind of moves they will use; you see how their crew dynamics work; you become familiar with how pressure affects their performance.

As the competition wore on, the fluky conditions persisted and the seeded teams waited anxiously ashore. Swett continued dominating her group, winning the round with a 6-1 record, followed by Malin Milbourn of Sweeden, Gwen Joulie of France, and Christiana Monina of Italy. On Course B, Bjorling finished with a perfect 7-0 record to move on to Round 2. She was joined by the youngest competitor, 18-year-old Katie Spithill of Australia, match-racing newcomer and 1999 ISAF Female Sailor of the Year Carolyjn Brouwer of The Netherlands, and Amy Waring of New Zealand—a truly international field.

That group now moved on to compete against the top eight seeds: defending World Champion and No. 1-ranked Dorte Jensen of Denmark, myself, No. 3-ranked Klaartje Zuiderbaan of The Netherlands, No.4-ranked Cordelia Eglin of the UK, No. 6-ranked Paula Lewin of Bermuda, No. 7-ranked Shirley Robertson of the UK (fresh off a gold medal in the Europe Class in Sydney), No. 8-ranked Christime Briande of France, and No. 9-ranked Dru Slattery of the US.

"Losing our first match of the series was tough."
World Champion Jensen took to the water in top form early on with a victory over Swett, proving that the time she and her crew had spent training in Sonars was critical. Brouwer fell to Lewin, while the young Spithill dispatched Eglin, and Monina defeated Sonar Class specialist Slattery. On course 1B, Bjorling notched a one-second victory over our team, while Robertson took her match against Joulie, Briande beat Waring, and Zuiderbaan won over Millbourne. Losing our first match of the series was tough as it is always nice to begin the regatta on the plus side of the column. Although only a mere second separated the two teams at the finish, a single second is as big as an hour when it comes to match racing. Making it even tougher was the fact that Bjorling was sailing some of the best races we had seen her sail to date. Having already competed a full round of races in the light conditions was proving to be a bonus for the unseeded teams. Still, we knew it was early in the series, and it would be important to stay focused despite the defeat.

The light and shifty conditions continued throughout the week, and by the second day, it was becoming apparent that the organizers were running short of time to conduct the full schedule of races. Round 3 was scheduled to be sailed next to determine the quarterfinalists, but a dismal forecast meant that the organizers were forced to make a scheduling decision. Either continue with the next round robin, or stop and move directly to the quarterfinals. For the competitors this was tough moment. Every point scored in match racing is critical, because such scheduling aberrations can often dictate the outcome. In this case, terminating the round-robin series and moving directly to the quarterfinals meant that the top four from each group would advance, but if they chose to continue the round- robin series and dispense with the quarterfinals, some teams might never get to sail against each other. It was certainly stressful for our team and a couple of others, because our 5-2 record put us on the bubble of qualification for the semis. So we just tried to focus on our strategy, would be realizing that our goal was just to win as many matches as possible, because early errors would be costly.

Marie Bjorling and her team (foreground) came out of the ranks of the unseeded sailors to finish second.
Ultimately, the race committee chose to advance directly to the quarterfinals. In Group 2A, Jensen, Swett, Paula Lewin (each with 6-1 scores), along with Katie Spithill (4-3) advanced. In Group 2B, Bjorling and Robertson (6-1) moved on, along with our team and Zuiderbaan (both with 5-2 records). The eliminated teams sailed a consolation round to determine ninth place and below. For our team, this decision to move on to the quarterfinals was a positive one. It now evened out the scores; everyone was back to 0. We felt that our teamwork was improving with every race and our boat handling was getting progressively better. There’s a huge mental lift you get when the scores are made even, and we felt ready to duke it out with the best. That was good because the best had definitely shown up to play.

The light conditions continued, and that put a premium on sailing fast. In the quarterfinals, Dorte and Jensen both jumped out to commanding leads in the group, remaining undefeated after five races. This assured each a place in the semis. The remaining six teams battled it out on the course for the other two slots.

In match racing, the courses are very short with racing lasting not much more than 20 minutes. Making an error or being on the receiving end of a penalty is costly. Because the race is over so quickly, you cannot let those details affect the way you attack the course. Match racing is a discipline that requires you to be able to move on from a proactive standpoint, countering moves and minimizing mistakes. Staying positive is critical to regaining the edge when you are slightly behind or owing a penalty. It is interesting to see how the momentum changes, and mental advantage fluctuates based on the team’s performance in an individual race. We let ourselves fall prey to this less-positive mode a couple of times in the close matches we lost. And when the team gets really quiet on the boat, it is worrisome. One of the things we tend to be best at, is looking at a race from an objective standpoint, analyzing the errors and learning from those errors This has come from years of self-coaching. Solving the problems does a lot to reinforce a positive attitude.

Two-time World Champion Dorte Jensen (helm) and her team showing their light-air prowess.
As the event wore on, mother nature kept dishing up ultra-light northerly breeze. What did we do to deserve this? With two races to go in the quarterfinals, Jensen took her match against Bjorling and broke the Swede’s unbeaten streak. By doing so she won the round. Bjorling then lost to Robertson, and we won both our matches to tie Bjorling, with Robertson rounding out the semifinal group.

Near the end of that particular day, after an interminable wait for wind, a hint of breeze filled in, just enough to allow the committee to get the first semifinal match off. Getting up for racing after sitting around is a difficult task at best. The grogginess that sets in after hours of postponement can be devastating to a team’s performance and morale. We try to counter this by being the first team to get our sails up and start sailing when any breeze shows up. Usually, we try to collect our data, set and douse the chute, and generally get in a racing mindset. In the first race, our team finally got rid of the demons that had plagued us against Bjorling and we beat her. Jensen handily took care of Robertson.

As the breeze continued to die, the racing became more dramatic. We lost a tough race to Bjorling by two seconds, tying the series. In the second match between Jensen and Robertson, the teams split on the beat, and Robertson posted a big win against the defending World Champion. With the racing tied at this point, the finalists would be determined on the last day of the event. That evening, we went home thinking about that two-second loss, trying to figure a way to put a positive spin on it.

On the last day, the wind gods were still not smiling on St. Petersburg, and we were met by light northerlies that were actually lighter than any previous day. The organizers opted to shorten the semifinals to a best-of-three series, and it became a do-or-die situation for all four teams. In our race, Bjorling got an advantage in the pre-start and continued on to win and advance to the finals. Being behind in light air from the start was a difficult position. It is much harder to recover the lost distance, particularly when there are almost no shifts to make gains on. And it was much the same story in the Robertson-Jensen match. Jensen led from the start, never looking back as she secured her spot in the finals. Much to the chagrin of the organizers, the breeze fizzled completely. An on-shore postponement was ordered, and the teams were sent ashore to await their fate. With a 4:00 p.m. deadline looming, and no breeze in sight, the regatta was terminated before the finals could be sailed and the winner determined on the basis of the scores from the final round robin and the quarterfinal round. It ended up that match between Jensen and Bjorling was what determined the victor, and once again, Dorte Jensen from Denmark emerged as the World Champion! Bjorling was second, and since we had beaten Robertson in the quarterfinals, that put us in third and Robertson fourth.

Bjorling and her Swedish team hang on to the inside overlap at the mark.
Winning a bronze medal at a World Championships is a great thing, but it’s just not the color we would have chosen. You can bet that next time we will adjust the program to minimize our weaknesses, we will draw from our experiences at this event, and we will attack the racecourse with positive energy and zeal. Bring it on!


Lessons in Brief

Learning is a part of any activity, but it's especially important for sailboat racers since there are so many things to understand about this sport. Here's a few of the lessons we took away from this year's World Championship:

  • It is critical to make time to practice prior to the event, regardless of how busy your schedule is. Relying on time at the event is poor management of an important schedule.
  • If it means taking the time to go to another match-racing event before the worlds, even if you have to travel abroad, do it.
  • You cannot rely on what you know, you have to rely on how you apply that knowledge.
  • Stay positive and upbeat. Be proactive in situations, not reactive. If you feel that you are in control of the situation, it’s more likely that you will be in control.
  • If you make a mistake, learn from it and move on. The next race is just around the corner.


Final Scores from the Rolex ISAF 2000 Women’s Match Racing World Championship
Jensen (DEN)
Bjorling (SWE)
Alison (USA)
Robertson (GBR)
Zuiderbaan (NED)
Hanna Swett (USA)
Spithill (AUS)
Lewin (BER)
Briande (FRA)
Monina (ITA)
Millbourn (SWE)
Eglin (GBR)
Brouwer (NED)
Waring (NZL)
Slattery (USA)
Joulie (FRA)


  1. Team-Building Basics by Betsy Alison
  2. Communicating on Board by Betsy Alison
  3. Performance Priorities—How to Coach Yourself Yourself by Zack Leonard

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