With 20 teams about to compete at the World Match Racing Tour Finals, the sense of expectation is growing by the hour in Marstrand, Sweden. There’s a crackle of electricity in the air, a tension that you only get around a major sporting event. It’s not often that a sailing competition attracts a live audience of more than 125,000 spectators across the week, so that might have something to do with it. But it’s even less often that you get the chance to race for $1 million, and it will be fascinating to see who copes with that kind of unprecedented pressure.
Predicting a winner at a match racing regatta is generally a fool’s game, but let’s have a go anyway! First, there are five Swedish skippers who go to Marstrand with the cheer of the crowd behind them and, in most cases, good knowledge of the waters. Nicklas Dackhammar’s experience of fleet racing the M32 makes him fast, particularly in the strong winds, but his lack of match racing could tell against him in the latter stages. Johnie Berntsson’s long match racing history is great for close battles, and he’s proving a fast learner in the M32 having only started sailing the catamaran a couple of months ago. But he still has some way to go on the cat racing learning curve.
Bjorn Hansen is similar to Berntsson, with a lack of M32 experience, but with the kudos of having won the past four events in Marstrand in the DS37 keelboats. No one rises to the challenge of Marstrand quite like Hansen although racing high-speed multihulls in the rocky confines of the island’s southern inlet changes the game significantly. For this reason Mattias Rahm is the Swede with perhaps the highest chance of success in Marstrand, having won the event once but also with an extensive M32 racing pedigree. Last but not least of the Swedish contingent is the 55-year-old Hans Wallén who reached the final of the windy event in Fremantle at the beginning of the year. He too has done a lot of racing in the M32s, and his Olympic silver medal from 1996 suggests Wallén has the mental strength for the big occasion. “When I was younger I was nervous before the start, I’d get the butterflies,” says Wallén. “I’ve noticed that lately I’ve not been so nervous and that has worried me that maybe I need the nerves to make sure I’m focused and concentrating. Maybe if I reach the final in Marstrand I’ll get the butterflies back.”
Like Hansen and Berntsson, the challenge for other match race specialists has been how quickly they can adapt their sailing skills from the slower pace of the heavy keelboats to the faster pace of the lightweight M32. Australia’s Keith Swinton and Switzerland’s Eric Monnin have both struggled to make their mark on the new-look Tour. Denmark’s Nicolai Sehested, on the other hand, has adapted quickly to the faster pace of competition and on his day is capable of beating anyone. The same can be said of Phil Robertson, the mercurial Kiwi who reached the final of Newport, Rhode Island, a month ago before falling to Taylor Canfield.
Match racing skills are not the only prerequisites for success on the Tour these days, however. There have been a couple of skippers with no prior match racing experience that have managed to climb far through the knock-out stages with raw speed and a surplus of talent. Yann Guichard is the only skipper to have reached the Semi Finals of all three M32 events on the Tour so far this season. The Frenchman draws on all his long and extensive experience racing multihulls at the highest level, from the Olympics to the America’s Cup World Series to racing non-stop around the world.
With a broad CV to rival Guichard’s, Iker Martinez has skippered teams three times in the Volvo Ocean Race, he’s campaigned Nacra 17 catamarans for the Olympics, and he’s won gold and silver medals at the Olympics in the 49er. The fact that the Spaniard reached the Final of Copenhagen in his first ever Tour event speaks volumes for the talent and self-belief of Martinez. Their lack of match racing experience on the Tour is a chink in their armour, but it would be foolish to discount Guichard or Martinez as possible winners in Marstrand.
Ian Williams has always prided himself on an ability to adapt himself to the demands of any keelboat on the World Match Racing Tour. Even in the new era, the six-time World Champion has also proven very adaptable to the M32, dominating the first ever M32 in Fremantle where he lost only one match in the whole regatta. The Briton hasn’t been quite as dominant since then, looking vulnerable in the lighter conditions, although his dogged determination and will to win is second to none. While Williams starts as one of the favourites, he’s playing down expectations, trying not to think about the money. “I think when you are one of 20 teams, it is not that high odds on winning it, so you don’t think about the money too much. I guess that might change if and when you get closer to the Final. I suspect it will start to affect some people and inevitably the pressure will build.”
Aside from Hansen and Rahm, Williams is the only other skipper of this year’s line-up to have won in Marstrand. Even so, if you were forced to pick a stand-out favourite, Taylor Canfield is it. The US Virgin Islander didn’t excel in Fremantle, finishing just 7th, although he bounced back by winning the next three Tour events in Long Beach, Copenhagen and Newport, Rhode Island. That bare statistic suggests Canfield should be the runaway favourite in Marstrand, but some of those victories haven’t come easy and even the cocksure Canfield won’t be taking it for granted. With so much at stake, winning in Sweden is going to require a dose of luck, and nerves of steel. Time to face the music.
The World Match Racing Tour Finals start in Marstrand, Sweden, this Monday, 4 July.