Phil Robertson’s victory in the World Championship Finals of the World Match Racing Tour was not an all-out surprise, but nor was it really expected. From when the first contest in M32 catamarans was staged just four months earlier at the Tour event in Fremantle, Australia, Taylor Canfield and his well-drilled US One crew had been pegged as the likely victors of 2016.
If anyone was going to topple Canfield, perhaps it would be reigning World Champion Ian Williams, provided the GAC Pindar skipper could get up to speed in the M32 with his limited opportunity to practise before Fremantle began. Williams would go on to shock everyone, himself included, by dominating the opening windy event in Australia. Canfield could only manage 7th on that occasion. Maybe this contest would be more open than predicted.
However, the US Virgin Islander and his team regrouped in impressive fashion, winning the other three Tour events before Marstrand: victory for US One in Long Beach, Copenhagen and Newport, Rhode Island. Canfield had reestablished himself as the clear favourite to win the World Championship Finals. Williams was also expected to be in the mix, along with a few young match racing skippers who seemed to be getting to grips very quickly with the new format of the Tour. Among these were Denmark’s Nicolai Sehested and the New Zealander Chris Steele.
More surprising was just how fast some newcomers to the Tour were proving, even if they were well-known champions from other backgrounds in grand prix sailing. Yann Guichard, fresh from his 45-day circumnavigation of the globe skippering the 40m trimaran Spindrift 2, stepped on to the M32 in Fremantle and fought his way to the Semi Finals. The Frenchman was just plain fast, overcoming any deficiencies in his match racing skills by sailing away from the opposition.
Later in the season it was Iker Martinez who really impressed. The 37-year-old Spaniard has won everything in the 49er skiff: multiple world championships, a gold and silver Olympic medal; he’s been skipper of three Volvo Ocean Race campaigns, and more recently he has been campaigning for the Rio Olympics in the Nacra 17 catamaran.
Injury put paid to his hopes of representing Spain at a fourth Olympic Games, so he turned up to compete at the World Match Racing Tour Copenhagen. Through sheer talent and an ability to improve his mastery of the M32 race by race, Martinez fought his way to the Final where he eventually succumbed to the superior expertise of Canfield.
A number of fast Swedes also showed the potential to go a long way in Marstrand, including Mattias Rahm, Nicklas Dackhammar and even the 55-year-old Hans Wallén. The windier it gets, the better Wallén seems to do, as the Olympic silver medallist proved in Fremantle when he reached the Final in Fremantle.
The World Championship Finals proved to be a windy week, Marstrand fjord delivering the very best conditions the organisers could have hoped for. Since its inception, Match Race Sweden has always attracted big crowds to watch the world’s best match racers do battle through the rocky fjord. The likes of Russell Coutts, Ben Ainslie and Peter Gilmour have all won here, others like James Spithill have tried but never succeeded. This year the crowds turned out in record-breaking numbers, with close to 150,000 over the six days and more than 50,000 on the final day alone.
Some of the most highly-rated skippers had failed to make it to the final day, notably Ian Williams and Nicolai Sehested. Wallén was last of the Swedes to go out, falling to Canfield in the Quarter-Finals. Martinez and Guichard both made it to the last eight and had looked very solid in the early fleet racing Qualifying phase of the competition. But their lack of match racing experience started to hamper them as they came up against the more aggressive skippers.
By Finals day, the only really big name remaining was Canfield, who was relieved to see some of his big rivals like Williams already removed from the competition. But the way that the other three – Chris Steele, Phil Robertson and Matt Jerwood – had raced meant that Canfield could take nothing for granted. His training partner Steele gave him a tough fight in their strong-wind Semi Final and the young Kiwi was rightly disappointed not to have reached the Final. Many have Steele pegged as a future World Champion. Robertson made easier work of Jerwood in his Semi to go through to the Final 3-0.
The Final between Canfield and Robertson was a humdinger. Both teams sailed the boat flat out in gusty winds of 25 knots or more. It had near capsizes, one collision that required a replacement boat for Canfield, and it went down to the final lap of the final match before we knew who had won.
Both teams threw everything at the final start and the first downwind charge to the bottom of the course. They were neck and neck going up the next upwind leg, as both crews wrestled their M32s through the tacks. Towards the top of the track the two boats converged on collision course and nearly came to blows again, narrowly avoiding contact. But the umpires slapped a penalty on Canfield and Robertson seized the moment, racing away up the course and across the finish line to the roar of the crowd.
The Kiwis had done it. World Champions. Phil Robertson had become the first million dollar man in sailing, backed up by his athletic crew of fellow Antipodeans: Stu Dodson, Will Tiller and James Wierzbowski. “We’ve been a super low-budget campaign,” said Robertson. “We’ve paid for everything ourselves this season. So we’re over the moon, just can’t believe it, we’re stoked.”
He paid tribute to Håkan Svensson, the new owner of the World Match Racing Tour after buying it last year, whose company Aston Harald builds and promotes the M32 catamaran around the world. “The M32s are just so much fun. We’re having a blast. There have been a few sceptics about whether you can do match racing in multihulls. Well just take a look at that Final. I’ve never had so much fun match racing as in these cats.”
Canfield, even in his moment of defeat, was grinning from ear to ear. “It’s incredible what Håkan has created for us, we’re definitely back next year. Congratulations to Phil and his team in some of the most challenging conditions you could ask for.”
Phil Robertson and his crew of Stu Dodson, Will Tiller and James Wierzbowski had won $33,000 for winning Marstrand and a World Champions’ bonus of $1,000,000. For a group of sailors that have been paying their way around the world this past season, with no funding from a sponsor, a million dollars is a life-changing sum.
Yet in a prepared statement at the “Million Dollar Dinner” prizegiving banquet, Robertson had one final shock to deliver to the Tour: “Every one of the 20 skippers signed an agreement before the event, where whoever won the million would share it with the rest of the fleet,” said the Waka Racing skipper. The winner would still get the lion’s share – $400,000 went to Robertson – but every team received enough money to help ensure their presence for the 2016/17 season. It was an unprecedented response to a history-making sum of prize money, and Robertson was all smiles when he explained it on stage.
“Håkan Svensson invested a lot of money so that all of us could be part of this new era in the World Match Racing Tour, and with everyone getting a real piece of the pie, we’re investing it back into the Tour so we can be sure the next season is as fantastic as 2016 was. Here’s to next year in Marstrand!”
Ironically, it was the runaway favourites who’d proposed the ‘share’ agreement to the other skippers months ago; US One tactician Chris Main first brought it up in the early days of Fremantle when it still looked like they might have an easy road to a huge pile of cash. While Main was forced to sit out the final day’s racing in Marstrand due to an injured shoulder (with Garth Ellingham stepping in as his replacement), his novel approach to a huge prize bonus and his leadership in securing the full fleet’s agreement cemented the multiple World Champion and longtime Tour veteran’s place as one of the beating hearts of the World Tour.
“I think my first Tour event was probably 20 years ago, and it’s been great times,” said Main, shortly after announcing his likely retirement from professional racing. “I would like to say, on behalf of all the sailors, thank you to Håkan Svensson. This is his vision, and he has given all these guys a fantastic opportunity, and you need to seize that opportunity with both hands and keep on competing on this fantastic Tour.”
Svensson couldn’t have been happier with how the first season of M32 racing on the Tour had reached such a thrilling and surprising climax. “You’ve got to dream,” he said, “and when you can make dreams reality, it looks like this, just like this. I don’t think we could have asked for more drama, better conditions, a better finish. We’ve had many teams to show the rest of the world how good this is. Today has delivered and made a statement within our entire industry. We had more than 55,000 people on the island today, who were thrilled by what they saw. This time next year, I believe we will see even more.”