Kiwi Phil Robertson and his Waka Racing team return to the Alpari World Match Racing Tour this year for their fourth successive season as Tour Card holders. The tour caught up with the multi-talented skipper and his team before heading over to Germany next week.
Robertson, now 27, followed an orthodox route through the classes during his childhood. Aged 10, he first competed in Optimists, graduating up to the popular New Zealand dinghy, the P-class, before joining the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron’s Youth Training Programme. This Programme has been the forming ground for many top Kiwi pro sailors, including leading match racers like Adam Minoprio, Will Tiller and Laurie Jury. At this time Robertson was also racing on the Australian-New Zealand match racing circuit, where his record included winning the prestigious Warren Jones International Regatta in Perth when he was 19, a result he repeated three years later.
Robertson began racing at Grade 2 and 3 events in the Northern hemisphere in 2009 and followed this with a phenomenal 2010 when he never finished off the podium, a performance that was strong enough to earn him his first Tour Card in 2011.
In both the last two years Robertson has finished third overall on the Tour. In 2013 his results were mixed. There were moments of brilliance such as winning the season’s grand finale, the Monsoon Cup and finishing runner-up at the Stena Match Cup Sweden. However he contrasted this by posting disappointing results at both Match Race Germany and the Argo Group Gold Cup.
Going into this season, Robertson and his team have been doing as much match race training as they can back in Auckland, along with other big boat sailing, to stay sharp.
'We try to mix it up,' explains Robertson. 'We have done quite a lot of fleet racing and also been sailing some foiling cats - the SL33s.' This follows his stint as China Team skipper on the America’s Cup World Series and his three event foray last year on the Extreme Sailing Series as helmsman for China Spirit.
Contrary to the popular view, Robertson maintains there are many similarities between cat sailing and match racing: 'The main difference is their speed, but other than that much of it comes down to the same crew work, communications and strategy – an of course the tactics, they all cross over. Sailing is moving much more into short course racing, close to shore, something that match racing has been doing for the last 10 years at least.'
He’s even been offshore: 'We’ve been over in Sydney doing some big boat sailing on Giacomo [the former Groupama VO70, winner of the last Volvo Ocean Race], working with them and their campaign and doing a lot of sailing with them, just trying to broaden our horizons.'
Wherever possible, Robertson brings the rest of his match race crew along, including tactician/mainsail trimmer Garth Ellingham, headsail trimmer James Williamson, pitman Nick Catley and bowman Adam Martin. As he says: 'The more we can sail together, the better we are going to be when we start match racing.'
Sailing many different types of boats on the Alpari World Match Racing Tour also improves their adaptability – another key requirement for a top match racer. 'You are in a different boat at each event, so obviously the skill set has to include adapting to each boat. You have to know and understand how boats work.' However Robertson acknowledges that his track record indicates he and his team have often had their best results in bigger boats.
In addition to all this, Robertson says that this year he wants to focus more on training for specific World Tour events, spending more time in trace venues in order to raise his team’s game. 'But that is an expensive exercise,' he warns. While they get some sponsorship from New Zealand companies such as Tax Management NZ, foul weather gear manufacturer Line 7, Event Clothing and KZ Race Furlers, plus IT company Front End, they are still looking for additional funding so that they don’t have to rely solely on prize money from Tour events to survive. 'All the guys in the team, we pay for a lot of it ourselves. Much of our prize money goes straight back into the campaign or training.'
Clearly one of the most talented sailors of his generation, Robertson could be fleet racing or other avenues in pro sailing. So why does he choose match racing? 'The main reason is that it is definitely some of the best sailing you can do in the world and it keeps you extremely sharp. The enjoyment factor of that is huge and there is a great skill set that you get out of it.
'One design fleet racing is never really one design - it comes down to money and how far you can push the rule, whereas with match racing, you can’t touch your boat. In fact, the most equal fleets you’ll find are in match racing. It is absolutely team versus team and that is a huge draw for us.'
As to the form going into the 2014 season, Robertson says that once again it is very stiff. 'The competition is wide open. We are going to put in a solid effort to win, but it is going to be a tough year.'
To get to the top of pile this year, Robertson will have to overcome the 2013 Match Racing World Champion Taylor Canfield and his USOne team. 'I think Taylor has done the most match racing over the last couple of years,' says Robertson of why the US Virgin Island skipper came out top of the pile last season. 'A big factor for him was working at the Chicago Match Race centre and he did a large number of Grade 1s and Grade 2s last year and that always pays off.'
But, given the amount of sailing he’s already done this year, maybe 2014 will be the year it also pays off for Robertson.
Follow Phil Robertson and his WAKA Racing team on the 2014 Alpari Tour here
and on Twitter @worldmrt
The 2014 Alpari World Match Racing Tour championship kicks off at Match Race Germany next week beginning 5 June – 9 June. The Alpari World Match Racing Tour is one of five special events sanctioned under the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) including America’s Cup, the Volvo Ocean Race, the Extreme Sailing Series and the PWA World Tour.