The Pinnacle of Sailing
by John Bush
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Match Racing was arguably the first (thus the oldest) kind of speed contest between sailing craft. When two skippers vied to be the first to the fishing grounds and harvest the premium catch, they were match racing. When iron men blasted through the Roaring 40's and around the Horn, pressing their Clipper Ships to deliver their cargo to San Francisco and reap the singularly greater rewards of being first, they were match racing. Pirates were certainly among the most original (albeit nefarious) of match racers. Many historic naval battles werematch races of a sort... to the death!
Match Racing is the pinnacle of yacht racing. Why? Because of the inherent nature of a race sailed between only two boats, to win, you must be first; to be second is to be last and to lose. In those immortal words delivered to a crestfallen Queen of England, "...there is no second."
The widest definition of Match Racing would be "A race in which only two vessels compete against each other for line honors." A narrower definition would limit these vessels to being identical in design and sail selection. Further narrowing the definition (and heightening the level of competition and entertainment value) would require the competitors to be of world class ability. As such, tactics in this kind of racing have more in common with bullfighting or Olympic fencing than they do with fleet racing. While the greatest number of sailing regattas are in fleets, where substantial skill in our sport comes to bear, match racing is the essence of racing, requiring the most refined skill and competitive intuition to prevail.
"Prove it!" some sailors might say on this point. Well, consider this fact: Fleet Racing is the only sport where multiple "teams" (vessels) compete on the same playing field at the same time. In fleet racing, you can "get lucky" when a fellow competitor "slam dunks" the team you're trying to pass. While they duke it out you can slide by; becoming the advantaged competitor in a play you didn't plan, couldn't control, and yet which profoundly affected your final standing. At the end of the day in match racing, howver, there is no way to "get lucky" because you are subject to the precision of a duel, your thrust met by your only opponent's every parry. You are going mano a mano (literally hand to hand) in combat and if your are not equal to your opponent, bullfighting may well provide a better metaphor for the consequences in match racing.
Here at the St. Francis Yacht Club, match racing has a long and illustrious history. In addition to St. Francis' AmericaOne America's Cup syndicate, the club continues to participate in The Golden Gate Invitational, The San Francisco Perpetual Challenge Cup (inaugurated in 1895), The San Francisco Cup (1964), The Jessica Trophy and The Knarr Match Race. The American Australian Challenge Cup (started in 1970 but no longer active) saw the six meter "St. Francis V" compete. Even the Laser Heavy Weather Slalom (also originating in the '70's) was a two boat race on a slalom course, though, given the format, the breeze and the seas were the primary adversaries. We cannot even guess at the number of individual match races that have taken place between St.Francis Yacht Club members but we know that the legendary yachts that are a part of St. Francis Yacht Club match race history include Baruna, Blackfin, Bolero, Dorade, Santana, and Windward Passage , to name a few.
What Match Racing brings to spectating:
Because of the size of the playing field and the dynamics of fleet racing, the sport can only be appreciated fully by the competitors. Much more than the beautiful spectacle of a fleet of racing sailboats, the moment by moment unfolding of the race is hard, if not impossible, for the spectator to appreciate.
In match racing, however, especially in umpired racing as in the America's Cup, the experience of the spectator is in "real time," where every move and its consequences are revealed.
When you combine the accumulated experience between world class sailors who are familiar with each other's strong and weak points, a known play book of tactics, the superb short course arena directly in front of the club that effectively puts you simultaneously on the 50 yard line and in the end zone, the thrust and parry of match racing, and add the do or die revelations of an umpired event like the America's Cup, you have sport and entertainment.
The eloquent writer Padgett Powell has aptly defined what sport does for us: "Sport translates the muddle of success and failure in life into the knowable: who wins and who doesn't and why."
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