The rules of match racing have changed, of that there is little doubt after a series of twists and turns that defined the thrilling six days of competition at World Match Racing Tour Copenhagen.
If you just looked at who won the event, only the second Tour event to be staged in the M32 catamarans, you’d think it had all been business as usual. After all, Taylor Canfield (ISV), US One, started the season as the clear favorite, and he was the eventual winner in Copenhagen.
But even Canfield had his wobbly moments, particularly against Sally Barkow (USA), Team Magenta 32, who looked to have beaten the big bad boys of US One on the very last run of the fifth of five matches in a show-stopping Quarter Final duel. Canfield’s never-say-die attitude paid off as a lucky gust lifted his windward hull and left Barkow in two minds as to whether to gybe to cover, or sail across her rival’s bow and try to maintain what little boat speed she had at that point. Canfield snuck inside Magenta for inside overlap and sailed across the finish line just a boat length in front of the girls. Barkow ripped off her helmet and flung it down on the trampoline in disgust.
After getting the better of Yann Guichard (FRA) Spindrift racing, in the Semi Final, Canfield found himself up against a match racing rookie, although a sailor of matchless pedigree. Iker Martinez (ESP), Team Espana, has won Olympic gold and silver medals, skippered boats in the past three editions of the Volvo Ocean Race, and was campaigning to represent Spain for the fourth time at the Olympics until an injury earlier this season aboard his Nacra 17 catamaran put him out of contention. The Olympics’ loss is now the World Match Racing Tour’s gain, as Copenhagen has given the talented Spaniard a real taste for this new form of racing.
Martinez brought a strong crew with him to Denmark: former Luna Rossa team mate Pier Luigi de Felice, Volvo veteran Pablo Arrarte, and Spain’s next big talent in the Olympic 49er skiff Diego Botin. “All of us paid our own way to come to Copenhagen,” says Martinez, “which is a good thing because you want that kind of dedication from everyone. You know that people aren’t just doing it for the money. But to win $22,000 here means we can carry on, hopefully to Newport and Marstrand this season. And the Tour is a good fit for our sponsors, so we hope to be back next season fully funded and with good practice in the M32.”
In the Final, the Spanish crew’s lack of familiarity with the boat was less of a problem for them than their lack of match racing experience. Against the 2013 World Match Racing Champion Canfield, the Spanish were unable to put up much of a fight in the pre-start. In the first two matches, mistakes by Martinez at the start allowed US One to race around the track unchallenged. But in a drama-packed and breezy third match, Martinez managed to overtake Canfield, only to sail off down the run for another lap when all they needed to do was reach less than 100 metres to the finish. US One could scarcely believe their luck as they sailed across the finish line in first place to win Copenhagen in extraordinary circumstances.
For the enormity of his lap-counting mistake, Martinez was remarkably relaxed. “We were asking each other for two minutes before the finish, ‘How many laps do we need to do? Is this the finish, or another lap?’ We decided to carry on, and when we saw Canfield cross the line, we said ‘OK, we made a mistake, but we complete our lap of honour!’ We are very proud to get to the Final, and we have really enjoyed our first taste of the Tour.”
Two old-hands on the Tour may not have made it as far as Martinez’s meteoric rise to the Final, but they still went further than they or others expected them to go. Johnie Berntsson (SWE), Flux Team, has recently bought his own M32, but had spent precious little training time before starting the competition in Copenhagen. His down-to-the-wire duel with Barkow produced five thrilling battles, with multiple lead changes and never a certain outcome until one boat had crossed the finish line.
Berntsson’s fellow Swede, Bjorn Hansen (SWE), Nautiska Racing, was a somewhat reluctant convert to the idea of match racing in catamarans, having carved a hard-earned reputation as one of the top three keelboat match racers in the world. The 47-year-old didn’t really expect to get beyond the two days of fleet race qualifying, and certainly didn’t expect to beat the multihull-experienced Phil Robertson in their Super 16 battle. Hansen had already checked out of his hotel but had to hastily book another night so that he could show up for his Quarter Final battle with the younger Swede Nicklas Dackhammar (SWE), Dackhammar Racing. This time, Dackhammar’s superior knowledge of the M32 proved too much for Hansen, but it had been a good ride while it lasted. “On my many years on the Tour, part of the skill has always been to learn how to get the best out of a boat that you are unfamiliar with,” said Hansen. “So maybe these skills have enabled me to be more adaptable to the M32 than I realised.”
After his utter domination of World Match Racing Tour Fremantle, Ian Williams’ (GBR), GAC Pindar, shock 3-1 exit from from the Quarter Finals at the hands of Yann Guichard was the biggest surprise of all. “We’re not the finished article,” shrugged the reigning World Champion. “That’s clear from this week. Yann showed us how to sail the boat.” More work to be done by the meticulous six-time World Champion, famed for his attention to detail.
The multiple lead changes, the surprise successes such as Martinez, the surprise exits such as Williams, all point to a sea-change in the world of match racing. Only one of the final four skippers in the Semi Finals made it the final four in Fremantle, and that was Guichard, the French sailor best known for his round-the-world adventures. The old skills of match racing are still valid, but there is a new set of M32-specific skills that also need to be learned. It’s an exciting new world, and the next event in Newport, Rhode Island, will reveal yet more twists and turns. We don’t have long to wait, as the 20 international teams will start racing in Newport on 30th May, less than two weeks from now.