Match racer Ian Williams has been the dominant force on the Alpari World Match Racing Tour in recent years. The four-time World Champion from Great Britain came close to achieving a record fifth title at the end of last season, which would have put him ahead of the legendary Peter Gilmour’s tally of four. As it is, the GAC Pindar skipper already sits ahead of other latter-day greats such as Ed Baird, Peter Holmberg and Russell Coutts.
However there has been a new star in the ascendant, Taylor Canfield from the US Virgin Islands who in his first full year on the Tour became World Champion by the smallest of margins. Phil Robertson from New Zealand was on fire at the Monsoon Cup last November, dispatching Canfield and the USone team in the Semi-Finals. But Canfield could still win the season if Robertson won in Malaysia. All Canfield could do was watch from the sidelines and hope that the Kiwi skipper of WAKA Racing could continue his strong form against GAC Pindar in the Finals. Robertson did not disappoint, beating Williams 3-1 and in so doing, anointing Canfield as the new World Champion.
Canfield would also prevail over Williams in the final of the Congressional Cup in April this year, so the US Virgin Islander could reasonably have been considered the favourite coming into Match Race Germany, the opening event of the 2014 Alpari World Match Racing Tour. Then again, the conditions and the challenge of competing on Lake Constance in southern Germany are unique. The wheel-steered Bavaria 40-footers are the biggest boats on the Tour, and the winds are usually very light. Although USone proved their all-round abilities in winning the 2013 Tour, Canfield’s crew have had more experience, and more success, in the lighter, smaller boats.
Williams on the other hand returned to the small, picturesque town of Langenargen as the defending champion of Match Race Germany. He has a good track record at this event, as does Robertson who won here two years ago, and Francesco Bruni the year before that. This will be Bruni’s first full season on the Tour for some time. The Italian veteran of three Olympic Games and a helmsman/tactician for the Luna Rossa America’s Cup challenge was looking for a circuit to keep his instincts and reactions in top order. 'We are here to compete in a high level circuit where you have to think fast and react fast,' he says. 'That's what it's all about: racing in a group to keep the communication rolling and the brain thinking fast. We know that the boats [in Match Race Germany] are a lot slower [compared with high-speed foiling catamarans], but it's not a big difference in the way you have to react.'
Among Bruni’s crew are former Tour skipper and 2009 World Champion Adam Minoprio from New Zealand, and Shannon Falcone, who has recently joined Luna Rossa after winning the America’s Cup last year with Team Oracle USA. Another member of that Cup-winning team present in Langenargen was the AC72 wing trimmer Kyle Langford, on this occasion calling tactics for his fellow Australian David Gilmour, a new Tour Card holder. 'It’s great to come back and do the Alpari World Match Racing Tour,' says Langford. 'It’s been a while and it’s showing - I’m really rusty at making tactical calls and keeping my head out of the boat, so it’s really good for staying sharp. The boats are not so relevant [to the Cup], but the racing, the quick decisions and the crew work are really crucial. This is where I got my break, competing on the Tour, and anyone who’s competing at this level has got a good shot at getting involved in a Cup team.'
For Qualifying, each of the five-man 12 teams representing 10 nations would race each other once. Williams is so often the master of this first phase of competition, and so it proved in Langenargen as he went on to win all but one of his 11 matches, losing only to up-and-coming Wild Card invitee from Denmark, Nicolai Sehested. 'It's classic Match Race Germany conditions,' said Williams. 'We were a bit lucky to be in the right place at the right time and managed to sniggle round ahead of the other guys.' He was quick to credit his crew with putting the boat in the right place at the ever-critical start time, particularly his bowman Matt Cornwell and tactician Bill Hardesty. 'Catflap and Bill have been running good timing into the start. If you have called the pressure correctly and get your timing back to the line right, then it's pretty hard for the other boat to put pressure on you.'
Williams’ dominance of Qualifying earned him a free pass straight through to the Semi-Finals, while six other teams would battle it out in the Quarter-Finals. As runner-up to GAC Pindar in Qualifying, Robertson had first pick of his opponents, and selected Gilmour as being the least experienced of all the remaining skippers. Bjorn Hansen of Sweden selected Mathieu Richard of France, leaving Keith Swinton of Australia to face Canfield.
Despite the reigning World Champion only just scraping into the Quarters, Canfield would have been most neutral observers’ favourite for the battle with Swinton. But the Team Alpari FX skipper was unfazed by his younger rival’s growing reputation and booked his spot in the Semi-Finals, along with Richard and Robertson who also moved through to the final four.
Williams hates the so-called privilege of being able to choose his opponent at the Semi-Finals stage of Tour events. 'Picking in the Semi-Finals is more of disadvantage than advantage, because you always have three strong teams to pick from,' says the Briton, who sometimes wonders whether it would be better to do what Russell Coutts used to, and pick a name out of a hat. However, he selected Richard and duly beat him in the first match when GAC Pindar succeeded in pushing LunaJets over the line early. The next match was much harder fought, however, with the two teams vying for supremacy until LunaJets broke away and left the British trailing by some distance. However, the fickle weather seemed to have sided with Williams as the already light breeze completely shut down, forcing the match to be abandoned with Richard just metres from the finish. The Frenchman was magnanimous despite seeing a crucial victory slip away so cruelly. Williams acknowledged his lucky break, but carried on inexorably to the Final with a 2-0 victory. Swinton did the same against Robertson, winning 2-0 margin and moving into the Final.
With principal race officer Rudi Magg battling to complete the schedule before cutoff time, it became a one-match Final in light airs. Williams had won the match almost before it began as he put Team Alpari FX under pressure in the pre-start. Swinton ran into the committee boat at start time, the resulting penalty putting the Perth skipper on the back foot. The four-time World Champion never looked back, and took the vital win. Williams said: 'My team on GAC Pindar have sailed really well all week. Our focus was to keep the speed on the boat at all times, as much as possible.' With his crew of Bill Hardesty, Gerry Mitchell, Mal Parker and Matt Cornwell, Williams was the clear and very deserving winner in Germany. To win all but one of their matches was an incredible achievement.
It had been an incredibly challenging week on Lake Constance, with a massive high-pressure weather system called Wolfgang driving temperatures up to 40 degrees Celsius, their highest on record in southern Germany for more than 50 years. From a sailing point of view, it meant that wind was in very short supply, and all the sailors paid tribute to the race committee for completing the schedule.
Now the Tour moves on to its second of seven destinations in 2014, to the natural stadium amphitheatre of Marstrand which every year attracts over a hundred thousand spectators to Stena Match Cup Sweden from 30 June – 5 July. The Alpari World Match Racing Tour is one of five special events sanctioned by the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) including America’s Cup, the Volvo Ocean Race, the Extreme Sailing Series and the PWA World Tour. WMRT website