In a series of matches that were as mercurial as the weather, Ian Williams (GBR) and his team GAC Pindar triumphed in the 53rd Congressional Cup, beating Johnie Berntsson (SWE) in a fifth and final winner-take-all match.
Not since 2012 has Ian Williams [GRB] donned the coveted Crimson Blazer, the honor bestowed to the top names in sailing since 1965. What The Masters Green Jacket is to pro golfing, the Crimson Blazer is to yacht racing.
But Williams had been denied, after two consecutive Congressional Cup wins in 2011 and 2012; even as he reigned as six-time Match Racing World Champion. And in 2016, his team finished last in the Congressional Cup.
That shakeup was motivating, said Williams, who vowed to come back and redeem himself. He returned to Congressional Cup this week, building momentum throughout the five-day event. In the Quarter Finals he conquered Chris Steele (NZL), moving on to beat defending champion Taylor Canfield in the Semi Finals in three strokes; leading Williams into the Finals against Berntsson.
Races were aggressive, including two matches held as a thick bank of fog rolled through. “It’s rare to race like that; difficult when you can’t see the top mark,” Williams said. But they were able to keep close to Berntsson, and get a win in the second match. “Johnie has been on fire this week, and we thought once we got a win on him, maybe we could break his spell.”
In the fourth flight, that fire turned explosive. In a blistering pre-start, as the boats skimmed the pier, Williams was penalised for nosing in without room. Flagged, he continued his combat with Berntsson, sprinting toward the start line, but didn’t keep clear of Berntsson, picking up a second penalty, then as he tacked back to clear the committee boat he was forced to fend off, warranting a third and terminal (black) flag. The race was over nearly as soon as it had begun.
“We were expecting it,” Williams admitted, but they shook it off. “We just had to forget about it, and move on to the next race.”
With wheels spinning, racing resumed, in a final winner-takes-all match. Splitting tacks, at the leeward gate Williams went left while Berntsson banked on the right side of the course … and lost. With the late afternoon wind waning, Williams got the better breeze, and defeated Berntsson by over a minute.
Sundays final day of Congressional Cup racing had commenced in 11knots of southerly breeze, in Long Beach: one of North America’s busiest, and premier seaports. As the waters sparkled in the bright sunshine, the 1.5nm Fleet Race and a $2K purse was won by Steele; but not without a fight from Sam Gilmour (AUS).
Going into the day, both Berntsson and Williams were within one point of the Finals. Each smartly dispatched their rivals: Taylor Canfield (ISV) and Phil Robertson (NZL) (respectively) – who went on to compete in the Petite Finals. In that contest, Canfield defeated Robertson 2-0 for third place in the Congressional Cup regatta.
Berntsson had cruised through Qualifying, finishing at the top of the leaderboard over 11 of the world’s top yacht racing talents. His only losses during the week had been to Harry Price (AUS) and Gilmour (AUS) – two young talented Aussie, who were subsequently eliminated.
Berntsson had been on a roll and eager to win his second Crimson Blazer: having won the title in 2009. Bowing to Williams in the Finals, he said, “We’re already looking forward to coming back next year.”
Congressional Cup is held directly off the Belmont Veterans Memorial Pier, which was abuzz with hundreds of spectators who turned out for today’s exciting conclusion.
The World Match Racing Tour now moves on to Marstrand 3-8 July for Match Cup Sweden, one of Sweden’s premier sporting events, which attracts over 100,000 spectators to the island paradise. The event will also be back in the high speed M32 so for crews it will be time to re-set and re-calibrate as the World Championship rolls onwards.