Most sailors in the US associate match-race sailing with only one event: the America's Cup. Indeed, the format for this pre-eminent sailing contest is one-on-one competition organized into round-robins and a knockout series. Innovations made since the 12-Meter era in the America's Cup, such as delayed penalties and on-the-water umpiring, have kept the action close for spectators. And certainly there have been some thrilling matches sailed during the three previous Cup cycles since the introduction of the new IACC yachts. Yet for all the talented skippers, tacticians, and crews on the water, rarely does a slow boat win, so ultimately the Cup boils down to a race of technology won by whomever has the fastest ride.
A common perception, therefore, is that match-race sailing is accessible only to America's Cup teams or other sailors active at an elevated level of competition. That view was supported by long-standing events like the Congressional Cup in Long Beach which, because it's an invitation-only event, has characteristically featured only the sailing stars of the day, with limited access available to the club-race sailor. Women's match-racing events became popular a few years ago when the promise of a new Olympic medal lured many into the game, but a change of heart by the sport’s governing body (ISAF) about that, torpedoed match racing for not only the women, but the men as well when the Soling Class was eliminated from Olympic competition. This decision further undermined the popularity of US SAILING's annual club-level match race trophy, the Prince of Wales (POW) Bowl.
Meanwhile, in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand match racing thrives, with numerous events held throughout the season at all levels. The ISAF system of ranking individual skippers from their results, individual events by their grade status, and providing support and training for the rules and umpire system has helped build a significant infrastructure for the game. Yet few US sailors or regatta managers take advantage of this compared to their counterparts abroad. It therefore comes as no surprise that nearly half the top 20 ranked match race sailors hail from Baltic countries, where there is a match race regatta every week. Notable exceptions are top-ranked US sailor Peter Holmberg (who actually calls the US Virgin Islands home), and Ed Baird from St. Petersburg, FL. Both have specialized in match racing for over a decade.
Now, however, thanks to a generous three-year sponsorship support package from the financial firm UBS, match-race sailing in the US will become more accessible than ever to club-race sailors. Starting this year, regional qualifying events are to be held throughout the US, with winners advancing to a US Championship regatta, and the top three from this event advancing to the penultimate Grade 1 UBS Challenge where they will have the chance to cross bows with 13 pro-level teams from all over the world and have a shot at winning part of the $100,000 purse. While this first year's qualifying regattas where held in only six regions—Boston, Chicago, Detroit, New York, Houston, and LA—qualifying events will be held in each of US SAILING's regions throughout the US.
At the inaugural UBS Challenge in Newport, RI in late July, three amateur teams made it through to compete against 13 professional teams consisting of some of the top racers in the world, among them Ed Baird, Peter Gilmour, Gavin Brady, and Ken Read. Though none of the amateurs survived into the final rounds of competition, the opportunity to compete on the water against some of the world’s best wasn’t only popular for the participants, it drew an encouraging contingent of spectators as well.
"UBS's commitment to this event from the smaller regional qualifiers to the grand finale will ensure an avenue for young and up-and-coming match racers to make it through the rankings," said Anthony Kouton, who won the qualifying event in Boston for this summer’s inaugural UBS Challenge, held in Newport, RI the last week of July. "This event was long overdue. Thanks to UBS and other supporters, we hope that American match racing has been rescued."
This year's Prince of Wales regatta, the US Championship of match racing, yielded three winners who qualified to play in the main event—the UBS Challenge: Andy Lovell from New Orleans, Ben Cesare from Connecticut, and Mason Woodworth, a Rhode Island based former POW winner. Even though none qualified through the initial double round-robin to play for prize money in the top four spots—though Lovell finished only one match shy—each was enthusiastic about the format and keen to do more match racing.
"I had so much fun that I'm writing tomorrow to see if I can get into Bermuda in October," said Lovell, referring to a similar pro-am format used in the perennial King Edward VII Gold Cup, another Grade 1 event on the Swedish Match Tour and one that provided the inspiration for the UBS Challenge format.
Editors’ Note: Briton Chris Law, at age 51, and his Outlaw team ended up atop the heap in the inaugural UBS Challenge in Newport, taking home a top prize of $35,000. The author, who is also a match-race umpire, regularly sails on the Swedish Match Tour crewing in the cockpit for Law.
Why Match Racing?Though it’s popularity lags in the US, match racing enjoys strong interest elsewhere in the world, mostly due to its simple format—equal boats, one-on-one competition, and an outcome based on the best team winning. This places tremendous performance pressure on all members of a match-racing team—the helmsman, tactician, trimmers, and bowman—to perform at the absolute top of their games. Races can be won or lost by inches, so timing and execution of teamwork have to be at their highest form in order for a team to succeed, especially at the professional level.
Match races are typically held over short, two-lap, windward-leeward courses, with marks left to starboard rather than port. That context ordinarily leads to intense action, which combined with offset penalties and the flexibility to perform penalty turns anytime before the end of the match, makes the competition lively and close. Consequently, good on-the-water umpiring is essential. Umpires are empowered by the match race rules (found in Appendix C of the RRS) to judge infringements of Part 2, as well as many other rules in the RRS and sailing instructions. Penalties consist of a jibe if taken upwind, or a tack if taken downwind.
For additional information on match race sailing, log on to the ISAF website: http://sailing.org/matchrace/.
Suggested Reading: Adapting from the Match Race Crowd by Dean Brenner
So You Want to be a Match Racer by Dobbs Davis
Success at the Swedish Match Cup by Dobbs Davis
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