Ian Williams and his GAC Pindar team begin the 2014 Alpari World Match Racing Tour with the aim, of course, of winning this year’s World Championship title. But as was the case in 2013, when Williams disappointingly finished overall runner-up to Taylor Canfield’s USone team, victory this year would be significant: To date Williams has won the Tour four times – in 2007-8 and 2011-12.
If he can score a fifth World Championship victory this year, then he will surpass Peter Gilmour’s record (of wins in 1990, 1997-8 and 2006) and enter the history books as the person to have claimed the title the most times in the Championship’s 26 year history.
In 2013 the Lymington-based skipper and his crew of trimmers Gerry Mitchell and Mal Parker, tactician Bill Hardesty and bowman Matt Cassidy came close, starting the year strongly by winning Match Race Germany. But as the season wore on, US Virgin Islander Taylor Canfield gained ground, winning the Chicago Match Cup on home waters and coming home third at the Argo Group Gold Cup to Williams’ sixth. At the season decider, the Monsoon Cup, Team GAC Pindar lost the final to eventual winner Phil Robertson, but Canfield’s third place was enough to secure him the Tour title by five points.
2014 will be Williams’ ninth year on the Tour, making him one of the longest standing of eight Tour Card holders, with the exception of France’s Mathieu Richard who first competed a year earlier.
So what is the attraction? 'I think from, a competitor’s perspective, the essence of the Alpari World Match Racing Tour is that it is the best place for a keelboat sailing team to challenge themselves at a top level without the cost of boat ownership,' Williams explains. 'But also that means the element of preparation and potential design improvement that goes into keelboats which often means the best funded teams win, due to their equipment advantage. That is obviously not available on the Tour.'
As to whether match racers are ‘better sailors’ than fleet racers, Williams says that similar skills are required in both – you need to make your boat go fast in the right direction. 'I think there are obviously extra skills you need in match racing, particularly understanding of how the pre-start works and how being able to win your spot on the start line and there is a bit more emphasis on boat handling and on tactical positioning, but the fundamental skills from fleet racing apply to match racing as well.'
What does sharpen a team’s sailing skills on the Tour, Williams says, are the shorter 18 minute long races and the pressure and intensity they create. 'If we were matching over a one hour 20 minutes course - like the RC44s do - it would more come down to the boat speed, like a fleet race.'
Team psychology during events is also crucial. Unlike almost all other sailing events, results during a Tour event are not cumulative. Instead the fight is constantly to get through to the next round. 'So you get big races that are important and it is all about stepping up at the right moment, rather than if you are scoring over series, when it is more about consistency over the whole series.'
This is an area where Williams feels his team has room for improvement as typically during 2013 they proved very strong during Qualifying (ie the round robin), but their performance fell off in the knockout stages of each event.
'We won four out of six Qualifying round robins and a second and third were our other results in the Qualifying phases,' says Williams, 'but we didn’t continue that performance through the rest of the regattas.'
The reason for that, he feels, was an over-familiarity with his crew. The GAC Pindar line-up is set to be the same for this season, only with America’s Cup bowman Matt Cornwell stepping on board occasionally to fill in for Matt Cassidy. 'We have analysed our performance last year and have come up with some conclusions about how we can change things a little bit to perform better, but we are the same team and it is not about changing any of the fundamentals, it is about sharpening up some of the things that maybe we got a bit slack on.'
Being one of the most seasoned teams on the Tour, does give them a slight edge, Williams feels, but this is only because they are more familiar with the variety of boats they get to sail at Tour events throughout the year from the Bavaria cruising yachts at Match Race Germany to the classic International One Designs of the Argo Group Gold Cup to the more nimble DS37s they sail annually in Sweden, all of which perform and manoeuvre differently.
'That is an advantage over the newer guys. I remember when I was new on the Tour, it was the events with new boats - like when we did Korea for the first time – when we were able to be stronger against people who had been on the Tour for longer.'
David Gilmour of Team Gilmour - Alpari World Match Racing Tour 2014 - © AWMRT
New competition this season will come from 2014 Tour Card holders David Gilmour (son of Peter) and Italian Olympic veteran and Luna Rossa America’s Cup sailor Francesco Bruni. Inevitably Bruni will be strong, having previously finished runner-up to Williams in 2011. Gilmour Junior will be more of an unknown quantity. 'I have been doing a bit of work with David with Team Australia on the Extreme Sailing Series and he is obviously a bright young talent,' says Williams. 'If he does well at a regatta, it is likely to be through battling through the Qualifying round robins and taking that momentum through to the later knockout stages. He might well surprise a few people.
'When I was coming on to the Tour, his father was the guy to beat and we spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to do that. I’m sure that now David is looking at us and trying to figure out how to beat us as the standard setter over the last four or five years.'
In addition to the Alpari World Match Racing Tour, Williams competed at the Congressional Cup in Long Beach where he finished second and is also scheduled to sail the new Grade 2 event being organised in his home waters by the Royal Southern Yacht Club in Hamble in mid-June.
The 2014 championship gets underway at Match Race Germany on 5 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. 2014 Alpari World Match Racing Tour Calendar
Stage 1: 5-9 June Match Race Germany, Langenargen, Germany
Stage 2: 30 June-5 July Stena Match Cup Sweden, Marstrand, Sweden
Stage 3: 31 July-3 August Sopot Match Race, Sopot, Poland
Stage 4: 17-21 September Chicago Match Cup, Chicago, USA
Stage 5: 21-26 October Argo Group Gold Cup, Hamilton, Bermuda
Stage 6: 25-29 November Monsoon Cup, Malaysia* (to be confirmed) WMRT website