World Match Racing Tour 2011.
While the popularity of match racing in North America has traditionally lagged behind the levels of enthusiasm seen elsewhere around the world, a recent steep rise in the number of events and participants indicates that the tide is starting to turn.
Match race sailing is now very much on the rise, with growth being supported by over 25 clubs and match racing centres around the US with Canada, Bermuda, and the US Virgin Islands also actively running match racing events.
The numbers alone show the dramatic increase in the sport. From 2007 to 2010 the number of graded match races nearly doubled from 34 to 65 events. This year will see a host of both open and women’s Grade 1, 2 and 3 events, many inter-connected with each other as qualifiers, as well as 'clinegattas' for youth sailors and the annual international youth match racing championship the Governor’s Cup.
This focus on getting youth involved in match racing is also prominent with the Intercollegiate Sailing Organisation adding match racing to their programme by introducing a new national championship in 2010.
US Sailing’s Match Racing Committee Chairman Dave Perry says the World Match Racing Tour (WMRT) – the nine event international series which sees the crowning of the ISAF Match Racing World Champion - is 'having a magnet effect on the growth of interest' in match racing in the region.
He says the quality of competition, the level of publicity it gains and the substantial prizes mean many young sailors tell him they aspire to be on the WMRT someday.
'The WMRT is the pinnacle of one-design match racing. It sets the bar high for running match racing events, and is innovative with new ideas on bettering the racing and the promotion of the sport and its players. This has a trickle-down effect. It is the big show that our young match racers aspire to compete in and work towards.'
Perry also says the WMRT is a known proving ground for talent which sailors hope to parlay into other professional sailing opportunities.
Mike Buckley is a young pro sailor in the US, and has managed to qualify for two events on the Tour last year. He says that these events have been very inspiring to him and other young talent in the US.
'The World Match Racing Tour has younger guys doing really well so the US sailors really look up to that.'
Twenty-two-year-old Tulane University student and avid sailor Patrick Ryan says he watches the WMRT races online and dreams of competing on the world stage.
'If my team and I had the time to practice as well as the same type of backing, we would unquestionably be able to compete at that level.'
And this is the problem: how will this aspiring talent overcome the barriers of geographic isolation from the events and a lack of funding to get on to the Tour? The current level of momentum in growth and popularity of match racing may yet yield some opportunities to overcome these barriers. Where to from here?
Perry says in order to continue this current level of growth and get more North American sailors on the WMRT they are building a clear pathway from entry level through to the WMRT.
'It is clear that the primary pathway to the WMRT is climbing the ISAF ranking list. To help North American sailors do that, we are working hard on installing as many graded events as possible in the North American region.'
But it's a long road: currently there are only four US skippers in the top 50 on the ranking list, and they are scattered from 27th to 49th.
Buckley says while steps are being taken to get more people into international match racing, it is nothing compared to the likes of New Zealand and Australia.
'New Zealand has the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron so they grew up with Match Racing, the US is nowhere near that yet – you excel at what you are surrounded by and we grew up fleet racing.'
Ryan agrees that America has been slightly behind the rest of the world in developing youth match racing talent but with the significant push and growth of recent years they are beginning to catch up.
'I see us becoming more competitive internationally, which will lead to more involvement in the WMRT as well as other regattas.' Putting North America back on the map
North America has had a lot of successful match racers in the past but it is hoped there will be more and more to come in the future.
With continued growth Perry says they hope the success of the likes of Ed Baird, Terry Hutchinson, Peter Holmberg, John Kostecki, Paul Cayard and many others can be expanded on.
'Bill Hardesty, our highest ranked skipper, won the WMRT as tactician with Ian Williams in 2007 and is back sailing with Ian this year…but the gap between these sailors and the up-and-coming group is large right now, and that is the gap we are working on closing.'
One way to help with that is getting a WMRT event in North America, which would be a dream for Perry, Buckley, Ryan and no doubt many others.
'It would be fantastic to have WMRT here as unless the younger sailors have been to Europe they can’t even begin to imagine the massive TV trucks and the commentary that takes place. Once they’ve seen that they will be hooked,' says Buckley.
While positive talks are being held on making this possibility a reality, there is a new series of high-graded events in the US to attract attention and earn points for US sailors. Called The Grand Slam, four Open Grade 2 events are scheduled to take place sequentially in August and September this year: the Chicago Match Cup, Detroit Cup, Knickerbocker Cup and Oakcliff International are all designed to attract many of the top international sailors to the US shores with the majority acting as WMRT qualifiers, and thus the most direct pipeline to the Tour.
The Chicago Match Race Center also has announced a new open Grade 1 event in late September, timed to try and lure WMRT teams to come prior to the Argo Group Gold Cup, and offering the highest amount of prize money of any event in the US.
Dobbs Davis, Media Consultant for Chicago Match Race Centre, said they are particularly proud that they are able to offer so much at Chicago even though the event is only in its third year.
'In the course of the season we have grown and expanded so much and are still hopeful that we can realise the continued growth potential. We are one of the unique venues for match racing in the US and I would argue that we have the most potential for achieving the goals that the WMRT want to see at all their events, namely an urban high traffic spectator friendly venue; proximity to a large market place that offers commercial and sponsor opportunities; a streamlined event that’s not affiliated with a particular club and new equipment. We really offer a complete package that’s dedicated solely to match race sailing.' World Match Racing Tour website