Match-Racing Master Peter Holmberg - SailNet Community
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Match-Racing Master Peter Holmberg

Holmberg (at the helm) en route to victory at the Colorcraft Gold Cup, admits that having Paul Cayard on board (right) is a plus. His two other crew were Mike Sanderson and John Ziskind.
One week ago Peter Holmberg and his three-person crew representing the Oracle Racing Team defeated their opponent—Gavin Brady’s team from the Prada Challenge—in the finals of the Colorcraft Gold Cup match-racing event in Hamilton Bermuda. These four sailors didn’t just win, they performed a virtual match-racing clinic, manhandling the talented Brady in three straight races on the tricky harbor strewn with spectator craft. It’s a victory that was certain to catch the attention of America’s Cup syndicate heads around the world with the start of their vaunted event just a year away. It also caught our attention at SailNet.

Holmberg, who has been a fixture on the match-racing circuit for almost a decade, has quietly mastered the art of adapting his considerable sailing skill to different venues and a broad array of boats. Last spring he won the Congressional Cup for the third time, and now the Colorcraft Gold Cup, both events sailed aboard remarkably different boats. We thought it might be informative to determine the source of his success, so we caught up with the 40-year-old racer for an interview before he headed back to Auckland, New Zealand, to resume his full-time schedule of preparation for next year’s America’s Cup.

Holmberg, the man, the myth, the legend. Well, OK, he's just another guy who really excels at racing sailboats.

SailNet: The PR people at the Colorcraft Gold Cup said you and your team "demolished" Brady in Sunday’s finals. Is that how you’d describe it? I mean did you feel like you were in complete control for those three races?Peter Holmberg: I’d probably be a little more humble than that. I think what we did well was that we did a good job of analyzing Gavin’s strengths and weaknesses and looking at the conditions and coming up with a game plan. We actually went through that process with each of the opponents we faced. We do a little pre-race planning even before we get on the boat and everyone voices their opinion. That usually goes on in the last 45 minutes before we race because once we’re on the boat there are other things that occupy us. I’ll let the guys know what I’m thinking and Paul will chip in his thoughts and we’ll develop a plan from that. That planning will go on the whole morning, from 8:00 when we arrive until we start sailing.

On the water, we were able to force Gavin into a couple of critical fouls, which is what you do in match racing, but we were able to create those situations because of what we knew about his team.

SN: To what do you ascribe this most recent success? Are you guys simply at the top of your games at the moment?
PH: Well No.1 is being involved in the America’s Cup campaign. The beauty of that is that we sail full time. For the last year all I’ve been doing is trying to sail faster and be smarter on the water. We also look very closely at the match-racing game. We have what we call a game book and we catalogue what the particular moves are, things like that. It really puts you on the top of your game to be involved in a Cup campaign.

The second major factor is having a good team. With a guy like Cayard on your boat you can have full confidence that he’s looking around and calling all the shifts so that I just focus on driving and keeping the boat fast.

SN: Speaking of Cayard, was there any additional pressure with him on board? The guy is essentially your boss right now within Team Oracle right?
PH: No. No additional pressure at all. I get out on the water and I forget all those things and just sail. And really, I look at Paul as a teammate. If anything, Paul had the additional pressure as the tactician. In the light airs and the close confines of Hamilton Harbour, it was really shifty, so he had a particularly tough job to do. We’d talk about our first leg strategy before the race, but once the race was on, all of those decisions were on his shoulders.

"It’s a competition, a dress rehearsal. It’s about how your team goes into battle and how it handles itself."
SN: How important is an event like the Colorcraft Gold Cup to you in the context of your preparation for the America's Cup?
PH: It’s a competition, a dress rehearsal. It’s about how your team goes into battle and how it handles itself. That’s really important and something you can only get in these kinds of events. Secondly, it’s about your opponents—measuring them. And thirdly, it’s about the umpires; how those guys are calling things on the racecourse. We need to stay up to date with that. We’re pushing the rules harder than any other discipline in the sport so it’s a constant balancing act. As competitors we’re looking to exploit the rules to our advantage, so you have to test the rules to their limit all the time. The rules are just so critical in this format of racing. But it’s a pretty nice relationship between the sailors and the umpires where we’re all continually trying to define the rules and how they apply so that we can play the game well. But it’s an aggressive game. On the water we have a continuous dialogue with them to define how the game is played.

SN: Do you feel like you can use this event as a gauge regarding the other syndicates and where their teams are, or just as a way of measuring yourself and your crew?
PH: You can definitely measure other campaigns, but only in the match-racing aspect of the game. The America’s Cup involves so many other elements, boat design, sails, etc. And events like the Colorcraft Gold Cup are absolutely a good measure of your own team. That’s one of the primary reasons we participate in these events.

Action at the Colorcraft Gold Cup takes place in the tight confines of Hamilton Harbour, which makes the competition even more intense.
SN: What about the issue of racing aboard a new kind of boat? Because you and your crew travel to so many events, how do you go about dealing with those variables? Do you have a system?
PH: I personally think that one of the wonderful things about match-racing is that it tests your skills regarding more than just match racing. You have to know boats. You can’t just hop in a new boat and go fast. All of the teams have to figure out what buttons to press to make these boats perform. It becomes a full study. We look at the boats before we even fly off to the event. We put what we know and what we’ve learned in the past on paper and then once we get there we make all the adjustments allowable to make the boats perform. That’s a pretty standard approach, but it’s critical to doing well in this game.

SN: What would you recommend to other sailors as the most important things on a boat to check and familiarize yourself with before you get into the action?
PH: I’d say listening to each other is the place to start. The helmsman has his hand on the pulse, so he needs to give clear feedback to the crew and that helps, say, the mainsail trimmer determine the set up for that sail. Good, clear communication is really important. Of course everyone’s analysis is important regarding what the boat likes and what it doesn’t like. I mean you have to find out if the jib needs to be backed during a tack and how far the traveler has to be eased then, that kind of thing. And it really pays to spend the time observing other boats and how they’re set up. You can see so much from off the boat. I look at a guy like Peter Bromby, who really knows those boats well, and I check to see where he sits when he steers and whether he rolls the boat out of a tack, that sort of information.

SN: What about the venue itself, do you do any research ahead of time?
PH: Yeah. I mean our notes from previous years become pretty important here, but in Hamilton Harbor there are probably 3,200 conditions you could have, so on-site assessment is more important. It’s really a lot different from a place like Long Beach where you might get five different looks and that’s about it.

SN: What kind of fleet racing, if any, are you doing right now?
PH: None really. Some of the guys are involved in it, but personally, when we have our breaks from the campaign, I try to get back to the Virgin Islands or head to the mountains here in Virginia.

It didn't take long for Holmberg and his crew to optimize their handling of the less-than-lively IODs aboard which the Colorcraft Gold Cup was held.
SN: What about the training in New Zealand. On what sort of things are you guys working now?
PH: We’ve just switched from the design and testing phase to the racing phase of our campaign. Now that we’ve finalized our design, we’re switching over to sailing more and more. My role in all of this is somewhere within the afterguard, though we haven’t decided yet which positions will be filled by particular people. We’re rotating around right now. There are four or five of us who can drive and call tactics [including John Cutler, Thomaso Chieffi, Paul Cayard, and Chris Dickson].

SN: One last question. What will you do with the $20,000 prize money you won in Bermuda?
PH: We have a team policy where the money gets split up. It doesn’t just go to us. The prize money goes back into the Team Oracle pot, then we get a portion of it, the organization keeps most of it, and some of it is shared with it the guys back in Auckland who didn’t get a chance to participate.  

Suggested Reading:

So You Want to be a Match Racer by Dobbs Davis

Congressional Cup Outlook by SailNet

Lessons from the Rolex Women's Match Race Worlds by Betsy Alison

Buying Guide: Headsail Sheet Lead Systems

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