Perhaps it is the long Swedish involvement in the World Match Racing Tour such as its present owner Aston Harald Sports, manufacturer of the high performance M32 catamaran.
Perhaps it is the strong following that match racing and match racers have in Sweden. Perhaps it is Marstrand: part dream destination for the start of Swedish summer vacation, part natural sailing amphitheatre. Any of the above could explain why GKSS Match Cup Sweden, taking place over third-8th July next week, is considered the annual highlight of the World Match Racing Tour.
Last year’s event doubled as the Match Racing World Championship and came with a record US$1million prize purse won by Kiwi skipper Phil Robertson and his crew. Robertson and his CHINAone Ningbo team go into this year’s event as favourite among the 18 crews, due to this, but also to their present position topping the 2017 World Match Racing Tour leaderboard. This follows their victory at Match Cup Australia in Perth in March and their subsequent fourth place at the Congressional Cup in Long Beach, CA.
“The season has really only just started for us in terms of match racing, but we’re pretty happy with where we are at,” says Robertson. “We have just spent a week training in Sweden, so we’re in good shape.”
Usually in match racing the old names come to the fore, but in the ultra-high speed M32 catamarans Robertson says that the younger skippers are shining. “They are learning very fast and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few fresh faces on the podium this year while the older guys struggle. That is just the direction sailing’s going – it’s becoming a younger sport, with faster, more physical boats.”
While he is as Kiwi as roast lamb, Robertson now lives in Gothenburg, less than an hour’s drive from Marstrand, now effectively his ‘home port’. “Personally I think it is one of the best racing locations we go to. 90% of the time the wind blows and I can’t say I’ve a bad memory from there. The other special thing is the spectators. They are very knowledgeable and know all the intricacies which is unique at sailing events.”
Many are also fans. While Wimbledon has Henman Hill, Marstrand has its equivalent for Swedish sailing fans. They will be shouting it out this year for local heroes Johnie Berntsson and the youngsters, Team Sweden’s Måns Holmberg and Nicklas Dackhammar of ESSIQ Racing Team.
“I think in general Swedish spectators cheer for everyone, but I hope a piece of their heart is with the Swedish crews,” muses Berntsson, a Match Cup Sweden veteran. He is eagerly looking forward to next week. “It is one of the best events in the world. Many spectators go there to watch. The environment is very special. I live nearby, so it is a special feeling to sail in front of a lot of friends and family.”
For this season, Berntsson has a largely new crew for his FLUX Team, again with towering athlete Jakob Gustafsson, but now also with Australian match race skipper Keith Swinton. “We have a crew that spends a lot more time in the boat than we have done before, so I hope that will pay off. We have higher expectations this year,” says Berntsson.
As to the form, Berntsson advises that techniques for sailing the M32 have developed a lot in the intervening year and this might change things. “It will be interesting to see how different teams have adopted these new boat handling findings. I think it is not written how it will pan out.”
Some of these techniques are conditions-dependent. At present, the long term forecast indicates a mix of moderate to brisk winds, including Thursday when the wind will be gusting into the high 20s from the west, causing a large swell to roll across the race area.
Racing the World Match Racing Tour’s GKSS Match Cup Sweden takes place over third-8th July.