Set on the Bay of Gdansk, Sopot Match Race is the pinnacle of Poland’s highly active domestic match racing circuit, the Polish Match Tour, but for this, its eleventh year, it received the additional boost of becoming part of the Alpari World Match Racing Tour.
As event founder, organiser and competitor Przemek Tarnacki explained: 'For me it is a big honour to have the Alpari World Match racing Tour here in Poland. When I founded the event that was always a dream, but now it has come true.'
Przemyslaw Tarnacki event founder, organiser and competitor for Sopot Match Race - © Robert Hajduk / WMRT
The line-up for Sopot Match Race, the third event on the 2014 Alpari World Match Racing Tour after Germany and Sweden, comprised seven of the eight Tour Card holders (Francesco Bruni absent due to America’s Cup commitments with Luna Rossa), plus two teams from Poland, one led by former ISAF Match Racing World Champion and America’s Cup helmsman Karol Jablonski, the other by Tarnacki, winner of Sopot Match Race in 2013. Also competing were Nicolai Sehested (DEN), Johnie Berntsson (SWE) and Staffan Lindberg (FIN).
Racing for the 12 teams was shoehorned into four days rather than the usual five or six, and as a result occurred at a frantic place, the action centred off the end of Sopot’s famous 500m long Molo Pier. This providing an ideal platform for spectators and tourists at this leading holiday resort – described as ‘Poland’s St Tropez’ - to witness racing up close.
Qualifying was held over the first two days, with a light to moderate offshore wind on the first and a more stable but lighter onshore breeze on the second that kicked up a short chop.
For the event Danish-built Diamond 3000 yachts were used, 34 footers unlike any elsewhere on the Tour - an IOR-style design from the 1990's with narrow beam, long overhangs, small cockpit plus running backstays that required crews to adapt their roles on board.
As WAKA Racing skipper, Phil Robertson observed: 'It is the first time we have match raced on a boat with runners, but it is good fun, it adds another element.' Star of Qualifying was defending Alpari World Match Racing Tour champion Taylor Canfield, whose USone team suffered just one loss, to Swede Bjorn Hansen.
'The guys are getting us around the course well and I think we have got a pretty good grip on the boats,' said Canfield. 'Some boats suit some people and this one seems to suit us. It is definitely a handful at times getting the runners on, but we have got our system locked in and its working.'
As usual, tension built through Qualifying as it became clear which teams would and wouldn’t make it through to the next round. In the end Tarnacki, Berntsson, Lindberg and David Gilmour were out, leaving Stena Match Cup Sweden winner Bjorn Hansen in a ‘live or die’ match with Ian Williams’ GAC Pindar team.
This did not start well for the British skipper who picked up a pre-start penalty for failing to keep clear in a dial-up, then trailed off the line. But Williams caught up and, in an impressive move while approaching the top mark, planted a penalty on Hansen in a port-starboard incident, cancelling out his own while also gaining the lead. 'He hit some big chop as we were on starboard with a piece of him. But it was a nice move and it worked out well,' said Williams.
The GAC Pindar crew’s ultimate victory over Hansen caused Keith Swinton’s Team Alpari FX crew to gain the last berth in the Quarter Finals.
Also performing well in Qualifying was young Dane Nicolai Sehested, who finished on six wins and five losses, beating Tour Card holders Ian Williams, Keith Swinton and Bjorn Hansen along the way.
In the Quarter Finals Robertson dispatched Sehested, while Ian Williams had made a clean job of beating Jablonski 3-0.
Jablonski commented: 'I am very happy that we were able to push Ian and his team quite hard and all three were tight matches with close situations at the weather mark. Ian’s experience paid off in these situations. But my young team did an excellent job - I am very proud of how we sailed.'
Jablonski was particularly unfortunate to lose the first race when he led Williams into the finish, only for the British skipper to surf past him on a wave in the very last metres.
2014 Sopot Match Race - © Robert Hajduk / WMRT
The fiercest Quarter Finals matches were between Mathieu Richard’s French LunaJets team and Swinton. A penalty down, but ahead going into the final downwind leg, Swinton attempted to slow down to offset his penalty, but slowed too much, picked up a second penalty, requiring an immediate turn, handing Richard the lead. However the French had broken their spinnaker pole and Swinton managed to roll them coming into the finish. Richard responded luffing and Swinton, deemed not to have reacted quickly enough, picked up yet another penalty, which then turned into a black flag disqualification when he didn’t carry out his turn immediately. 'We were in the wrong, but we were trying everything we could to stay in the race,' Swinton admitted.
For the Semis, Taylor Canfield chose to race Richard, leaving Williams to face Robertson. The first two flights of these were held at the end of the penultimate day in very light winds leaving Canfield and Richard tied on 1-1 and Williams 0-2 down, the British skipper coming ashore fuming after a ferry, docking on Sopot Pier, had, in his view, interfered with his pre-start.
On Saturday night the Hennessy Yachting Banquet was held at the Sheraton Hotel. Sopot Match Race is as renowned for its yacht racing as it is for throwing outstanding parties. The event attracts top lifestyle brands such as Moet, Hennessy, Albert Riele Swiss watches and Ferrari, which concluded its rally around Poland at Sopot Match Race, with its exotic Italian sportscars lined up outside the Banquet. The lifestyle brands in turn attract stars and celebrities from across Poland adding to the exclusivity of the event.
The turnaround in Ian Williams’ fortunes proved as dramatic as the wind conditions on the final day. To make it through the Semis, Williams had to win three races in a row. All appeared to be going well with the GAC Pindar team levelling the score at 2-2 until the last race when they trailed Robertson around the race course, seemingly unable to make inroads. But on the last run, Robertson gybe set into better pressure and Williams split, managed to pick up a favourable shift and was able to nose ahead at the finish line. Meanwhile Richard’s matches against against Taylor Canfield went smoother with the French team managing two straight wins, to go through 3-1 up.
The Finals started in a light northwesterly and temperatures shooting over 30⁰C. Williams got the first point on the board after Richard picked up a pre-start penalty and then trailed around the course. However the second race came to a grinding halt as the wind disappeared and then within minutes filled in with a blustery 20 knots southeasterly, a shock after the light conditions of the previous days. Suddenly the hats were being blown off spectators on the pier as the crews scrambled to make significant changes to the mode they sailed their boats, with runners getting ground hard on for the upwinds and boat handling becoming as important as tactics.
Once the race committee had reset the course with the start area off the end of Molo Pier, Richard appeared to do a better job in the conditions and was able to level the score at 1-1, getting ahead on the first beat and then leading for the rest of the race, both boats surging downwind in the strongest breeze of the regatta.
But for race two the GAC Pindar crew had got the bit between its teeth and led around the top mark. Richard managed to catch up on the run, however at the leeward gate Williams luffed hard as the French team attempted to get between him and the mark. This resulted in gasps from spectators on the pier as the two boats locked rigs for what seemed an eternity before they finally separated, both spars remarkably still standing.
As Richard explained later: 'I thought that he would drift a bit and maybe there would be some room and there was probably enough room to get our hull between his and the mark, but there was not enough room for the masts.'
However with the French team picking up a red flag penalty, their race was over and Williams moved ahead 2-1. Sadly with the cut off for the last race set at 1500, the Finals were unable to be completed and Williams’ GAC Pindar was announced winner of Sopot Match Race.
'We are very happy to have won here,' commented Williams. 'It has been a great all-round regatta for GAC Pindar. We have sailed well throughout apart from a little blip yesterday afternoon when things got to us a little. But the guys just turned it around – they have done a fantastic job.'
Sopot Match Race’s first appearance on the Alpari World Match Racing Tour with its unique blend of match racing on the water and hosting major lifestyle brands ashore was unanimously deemed to have been a great success.
Organiser Przemyslaw Tarnacki said: 'I am very satisfied. The weather also played quite a nice role. All the sponsors on our side are very satisfied and I hope to retain them next year along with our position in the Alpari World Match Racing Tour. I am really grateful to everyone who supported this event.'
Ian Williams, GAC Pindar - 2014 Sopot Match Race - © Robert Hajduk / WMRT
In the overall Alpari World Match Racing ranking after three events, Ian Williams has now extended his lead to 72 points with Mathieu Richard up to second on 55 and Taylor Canfield now third on 48, just one point ahead of Stena Match Cup Sweden winner Björn Hansen on 47.
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. Next event on the Alpari World Match Racing Tour is the Chicago Match Race over 17-23 September. 2014 Alpari World Match Racing Tour Leaderboard Standings after Stage 3 - Sopot Match Race
1 Ian Williams (GBR) GAC Pindar 72pts
2 Mathieu Richard (FRA) LunaJets 55pts
3 Taylor Canfield (ISV) USone 48pts
4 Björn Hansen (SWE) Hansen Sailing Team 47pts
5 Keith Swinton (AUS) Team Alpari FX 44pts
6 Phil Robertson (NZL) Waka Racing 36pts
= Francesco Bruni (ITA) Luna Rossa 20pts
= David Gilmour (ASU) Team Gilmour 20pts WMRT website