World Match Racing Tour: Changing The Game
We take a look at the newly resuscitated World Match Racing Tour and it's controversial switch from monohull to M32 multihulls and hear from new WMRT owner Hakan Svensson and the top two match racers in the world at the moment - reigning WMRT champion Ian Williams and the young pretender to the crown Taylor Canfield.
Once the de facto proving ground for aspiring America’s Cup skippers, in recent years the World Match Racing Tour has struggled to maintain its significance in the increasingly high-adrenaline landscape of our sport.
While competitive sailing’s three keystone events – the Olympics, the America’s Cup and the Volvo Ocean Race – all switched gears to faster and more exciting boats to keep the competitors and fans engaged, the WMRT somehow got caught in the long grass, as it plugged away resolutely with its tried and tested format.
In the face of high-speed Olympic skiffs, foiling America’s Cup catamarans and 600-mile per day Volvo Ocean Race yachts, the comparatively pedestrian pace of the Tour just couldn’t match up.
As one notable professional skipper – who shall remain nameless – put it succinctly to me last year: “I just don’t see the attraction of sailing around at five knots all day, waving flags at each other,” he said.
That’s not to say the Tour didn’t attract a high calibre of competitors and that the racing wasn’t top notch. The Tour’s top teams are without doubt among the finest match racing protagonists the world has to offer. However, despite the best efforts of a string of different owners the tour has gradually faded from the sailing public’s collective consciousness.
That perception of the tour may well be set to change, however, after its acquisition last year by Swedish businessman Håkan Svensson. The dynamic and charismatic entrepreneur knows a thing or two about how to rejuvenate an ailing business; in 1999 he and his father bought the bankrupt shipping propeller manufacturer BERG Propulsion and turned it around to such an extent that in 2013 they there was a line of high profile corporate organisations lining up to buy it from them.
Svensson is no stranger to professional sailing either, having co-funded Ken Read’s PUMA Ocean Racing campaign in the 2011-12 Volvo Ocean Race via BERG Propulsion marketing dollars.
When I spoke to him shortly after the deal went through he told me that he had fallen in love with the professional sailing world and had bought the Tour because he wanted to return it to its former glory as “an event that mattered and one where people cared about who wins it”.
He told me he believed the tour has lost its way in the last decade but said he was confident it could be restored to it to its rightful place as one of competitive sailing’s most prestigious events.
In contrast to the tour’s previous owners over the years who had used it primarily as a vehicle for corporate marketing and hospitality and altered little about the sporting format, Svensson made several swingeing changes right off the bat. The biggest by far is a switch from monohulls to catamarans for the 2016 season. This move sees Svensson leverage his other recent business deal – the purchase of the M32 catamaran class, which is now manufactured at his Aston Harald carbon products company in Sweden.
The move to multihulls is an absolute game changer that sees the slow pace of monohull match racing give way to the rocketship speeds of the twin-hulled M32s. Svensson had more up his sleeve, bringing in two days of fleet racing at each event and introducing a grand finale world championship decider event with a whopping $1million prize for the winning skipper.
One thing’s for sure, after stumping up sailing’s biggest ever money top prize and for the supply of eight identical M32 catamarans for the WMRT events, nobody could ever accuse Svensson of not putting his money where his mouth is.
With the tour’s new-look, five-event, 2016 season about to get under way in March in Fremantle, Australia, I asked Aston Harald Sports Group Marketing Director, James Pleasance what sailing fans around the world could expect.
“2016 is a milestone year for the WMRT and fans will see a whole new look Tour with the first ever introduction of multihulls into the match racing world championship,” Pleasance said.
“These lightweight M32s are incredibly exciting to watch; they’re fast, with speeds up to 30 knots and their agility enables the boats to race just metres from the shoreline, right in front of the spectators.”
For the majority of match racing fans not able to attend the events in person, there will be daily live coverage from the race course including video and audio from on board the boats.
“The fans will be able to enjoy the action whether they are at the event or watching the live coverage online or on TV,” Pleasance explained. “Our media partner, IMG Media, is managing the global distribution of the WMRT programming and already over 40 broadcasters have agreed to include the 2016 season in their programming this year.”
The most noticeable change to the event format, Pleasance said, would be the introduction of fleet racing for the first time.
“The World Championship events will increase to six days and the number of teams competing goes up from 12 to 20. With eight supplied new M32s at every event, the first two days will be fleet racing for 20 teams followed by four days of match racing for the top 16 teams."
It won’t come as too much of a surprise that the course configurations for the new tour have been largely borrowed from the America’s Cup.
“We will have two minute pre-starts with windward and leeward entries either side of the Race Committee vessel,” Pleasance outlined. “Each race will last around 12 to 15 minutes with a course length of 800m gate-to-gate.”
In an effort to mitigate the risk of the match racing degenerating into pure drag racing, Pleasance said the organisers planned to create a gate in the middle of the course using the first turning buoy and a race committee vessel. This hopefully will stop the crews minimizing costly downspeed tacks and gybes by simply fast-forwarding to the corners of the course upwind and down.
The change to multihulls has also required a change to the on-the-water penalties dished out by the umpires.
“Penalties will be immediate and the aim is for the infringing crew to be put two boat lengths behind their opponent,” Pleasance said. “Upwind, the penalty will involve a dip to the other boats stern by two lengths; downwind, the penalty will be a double gybe.
The tour organisers are also hoping the introduction of M32s will mean less racing lost due to too little or too much wind.
“There are no fixed wind limits and the M32s can race from just three knots of breeze,” Pleasance confirmed. “The second mainsail reef will be applied in winds of 22 knots or more or if the sea state dictates. No gennakers are permitted when the second reef is used.”
Previously the live coverage has enabled spectators to listen in on what is being said on board the boats during racing. The unedited and at times terse dialogue between skipper and tactician gives fans a unique insight into the crews’ match racing strategies and is greatly appreciated by the Tour’s diehard fans. Will this element be lost to wind noise now that the crews are hurtling around at 20 knots plus, I wondered?
The answer, Pleasance assures us, is that it won’t.
“We have invested a great deal of time with our TV production partners in developing the on board camera positions and making sure we can deliver live footage and high quality audio direct from the boats,” he said. “In fact, there is not a great deal of wind noise, even when the boats are at speed, so you are able to hear the skipper very clearly.
“We are also collecting and displaying on screen the data on the sailors’ heart rates during racing, so that will add a new dimension to what the media and viewers will experience.”
It’s hard to gauge yet how the dramatic changes to the tour will be received, but with audiences figures over recent seasons stagnant at best, they have at least raised the level of interest in the forthcoming season among sailing fans. The changes have given people a reason to talk about the Tour again; without being disrespectful, I doubt I would have taken the time to research and write this article had the Tour remained in its old format.
But what about the competing skippers? How do they feel about the new look tour? I asked the top two skippers in the 2015 season – Britain’s Ian Williams and American Taylor Canfield – for their opinions.
Williams has won more WMRT titles than anyone else; his fifth and most recent came against Canfield in Malaysia this January in what was the swansong for monohull matches on the tour.
Williams said he doesn’t view the change to two hulls as being better or worse than monohull match racing, just different.
“Some aspects of the game will of course be lost, but they will be replaced with other new aspects,” Williams told me. “In the end there will be a winner and a loser and the winner will be the one who sails the best.”
When we spoke Williams had not yet match raced an M32.
“I don’t have a clear picture of how the racing will be,” he said. “But I think much of the boat-on-boat aggression will be replaced with a greater focus on sailing your own race and getting round the course as fast as possible.”
Williams is hopeful that the WMRT could one again become a proving and practice ground for the America’s Cup.
“It has become less so in the last few years, with only sporadic participation from the Americas Cup Teams. But the move to multihulls will give it more relevance again and hopefully we’ll see the AC Teams competing once more, provided of course that the AC stays in multihulls.”
Understandably perhaps, given Williams’ dominance of the tour in its previous format, his chief rival in recent seasons, Taylor Canfield, is pretty upbeat about the switch to multihulls. The young American skipper was active on the M32 fleet racing circuit last year and with a season on two hulls under his belt, must fancy his chances on the WMRT this year.
“It’s definitely a drastic change, as was the America’s Cup switching into multihulls,” Canfield says. “A lot of AC fans thought that change would make the Cup less exciting, but in the end, it turned out to be pretty entertaining to watch.
“At this point I’m still unsure if this change to the tour will be for the better, but what I do know is that it is something new, exciting and fresh! I am looking forward to the new challenge and think it will be some great racing!”
Williams and Canfield both agree that the nature of the prestart manoeuvring between the boats will be changed with the classic circling and dial-up scenarios likely to become a thing of the past.
“Some aspects of the traditional match racing game will be lost as we transition into the M32’” says Canfield. “I doubt we will see many dial ups, although the M32 is quite easy to get going backwards when required and very easy to control going backwards without any assistance from a headsail.”
Williams believes the pre-starts will be similar to the AC45 match racing in the original non-foiling America’s Cup World Series.
“I’m not expecting a dial-up or circling,” he said. But the lead-follow aspect, whilst different for a reaching start, will still be there.”
For the match race crews, the contrast could not be more marked between operating on a monohull’s solid deck and cockpit and an M32’s springy trampoline and twin pontoons. Things are going to happen more quickly too and there is likely to be a greater premium on fitness and agility.
“This is the transition into an adrenaline sport where speed and split second decisions are the name of the game,” says Canfield. “The closing speeds between the boats are often upward of 40 knots. I can imagine there will plenty of close calls, crashes and moments where everyone is hanging on the edge of their seats!”
Asked about the risk of the races becoming drag races rather than match races, Williams had this to say: “On GAC Pindar we would generally only engage if we had to, as engagement tended to bring risk, whereas, if we could secure the favoured side of the course and go fast, then the race was more under control.
“I think that approach will be even more powerful in the M32s, as it will be difficult to slow the other boat any more than you are slowing yourself by engaging.”
Canfield agreed that there could be some drag racing.
“Mostly because the boats go upwind at 12 knots and that makes tacking costly,” he said. “However, from my past experience on the M32 Series last summer, I feel like the boats were always within inches of each other, both in the prestart and around the course.”
A criticism that has been aimed at the new style tour is that, because it is now focused on a single class of boat, the richer teams who can afford to have a practice boat to train in away from the events, will have an unfair advantage. Both Canfield and Williams have their own training boats but neither commented on what advantage they thought that constituted.
“It is certainly a different challenge, and much more similar to the majority of other major sailing events where the focus is on learning how to sail a particular boat as fast as possible,” said Williams.
“In previous seasons I certainly enjoyed the challenge of racing different boats in different venues, but I’m also looking forward to honing my skills in the M32 and learning as much about that particular class as possible.”
“It’s definitely a game changer, but I believe it’s likely to make the racing that much tighter,” said Canfield. “Previously, there were definitely some teams that had better events in certain types of boats. Now, teams will have to work hard to become specialists in the M32 alone and I believe this will make the racing more exciting.”
2016 WMRT World Championship Calendar
Stage 1: Fremantle, Perth, Australia, March 2nd-7th
Stage 2: Long Beach, Los Angeles, USA, April 5th-10th
Stage 3: Copenhagen, Denmark, May 9th-14th
Stage 4: Newport, Rhode Island, USA, May 30th-June 4th
Final Stage: World Championship Finals, Marstrand, Sweden, July 4th-9th
[All Images: Ian Roman/WMRT]