Grandstand sailing inspires all change in the fast cat sailing world

World match racing offers winner-take-all top prize of $1m

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Fast tracks, faster boats, more competition to attract the best competitors and the biggest crowds; a world of upheaval costing many millions of pounds, euros, and dollars is taking shape in top level sailing competitions worldwide aimed at spectator crowds.

The World Match Racing Tour is the latest to announce an upheaval which will transform a game in which Britain has enjoyed success for many years. The current world champion is Ian Williams and his GAC Pindar team. He has a record five titles chalked into the record books and is chasing a sixth this week in what will once again become the event’s pivotal hub, Marstrand in Sweden.

Next year he and his rivals will have to cope with a whole new set of challenges. As will a rapidly changing Extreme Sailing Series (ESS), a GC32 circuit still developing direction and objectives, and a re-organised America’s Cup World Series (ACWS), which opens its doors to the public in Portsmouth later this month.

Announcing a programme with a 10-year perspective and a budget of up to €30million, Sweden’s Håkan Svensson, an engineer with a successful business career, has, with his Aston Harald company, acquired the World Match Racing Tour (WMRT) from Malaysian businessman Patrick Lim. First move is a format which will see the M32 catamaran become the boat of choice over the first year and subsequently.

Next year’s shorter, sharper, five to six-event season has been reduced to make the hugely popular Marstrand regatta in July the finale, as opposed to the current Monsoon Cup staged in Malaysia in January.  There will be a prize pot of $1m. to tempt the overall winner.

In addition, the WMRT organisation, still headed by James Pleasance in London, will be involved in other events, but both WMRT and Svensson’s Aston Harald have an astonishing agreement with the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) to run the WMRT lasting until 2028.

Svensson’s Berg Propulsion sold its variable ship propeller company Berg Propusion to Caterpillar after also sponsoring the Puma team in the 2011-12 Volvo round the world race. He loves sailing, also helped Freddy Loof win Olympic gold in the Star keelboat at London 2012, but aims to bring rigour both commercial and organisational to the WMRT. He plans to put fleets of the M32 catamaran, designed by Göran Marström, in Florida, Chicago and Newport, Spain and Portugal, Germany and Switzerland, as well as Sweden, and eventually see the fleets, which would be chartered to WMRT venues, sold each year so that there would always be new boats for the next.

It is an ambitious plan, but no more so than the introduction of a foiling catamaran by Mark Turner’s Extreme Sailing Series, to replace the long-serving 40-foot cat just completing its ninth year. Turner is not short of finance, having sold 75 per cent. of his OC Sport to French publishing and event organising company Le Télégramme. The difference is that Turner, close to a contract for his new fleet, says he does not want to become a pathway to the America’s Cup, whose ACWS is sailed in foiling catamarans but does not include match racing, whereas Pleasance says he very much wants to provide an America’s Cup route, not in foiling catamarans but sticking to match racing, so far the style required by the America’s Cup. Turner could find his policy under pressure from AC teams hungry for competition.

Williams went unbeaten 16-0 into his semi-final clash with Australia’s Keith Swinton and promptly lost the first two races and had to wait overnight for the conclusion of the best of five. He took the first, came from behind to take the second, and then led from start to finish in the decider. That took him onto the final against Sweden’s favourite, Bjorn Hansen, who had beaten the 2013 world champion Taylor Canfield of the US Virgin Islands 3-1 in their semi-final.

Once again Williams and his GAC Pindar crew went two down but there was no chance of a comeback in a final cut to a best of three because of soggy wind conditions in the brilliant sunshine. The customary large local crowd watching from the steep, rocky shore was very happy with that. Swinton also won the third place pay-off 2-0.  Andrew Pindar, who has teams in both the WMRT and ESS camps, points to the mix of venues which have to fit into the commercial objectives of team and event sponsors. He also heads GAC Pindar, which has grown into a £10m. a year logistics business also involved with the Volvo, the International Sailing Federation and its World Sailing Cup plus all four of the catamaran regattas.

The competition between those four event managements will be as fierce as anything seen on the water.