con job Congressional Cup PRO Randy Smith gives us an SA’ers look at the inside of one of America’s most prestigious annual match race.

con job

Congressional Cup PRO Randy Smith gives us an SA’ers look at the inside of one of America’s most prestigious annual match race.

I have had a week to recover from an insane month of match racing at Long Beach Yacht Club. This year, we had more media coverage, more web hits, more collisions with the pier, more spectators, Facebook, live internet audio, live web cam and of course the thumbs up from SA on the movement our multimedia coverage into the 21st Century.  This is the inside story.  

It all started 1 year ago.  Butler Cup had recently returned as a fledgling Grade 5 event, Ficker Cup was struggling to be a strong Grade 3 Event and Con Cup had lost Acura as its presenting sponsor due to a shift in recession driven marketing strategies.  At the same time, San Diego YC and St. Francis YC were ramping up their match racing programs so we all got together and created the California Dreamin’ Series to create a road to the Grade 1 Congressional Cup©.

As the leader in high profile and Grade 1 Events in the US for 47 years, everyone looked to LBYC to take the lead.  With a small but dedicated group of sailors, we put the plan and schedule in place, SDYC and StFYC came onboard, and we were off to the races.  In the new plan the winner of the California Dreamin’ Series moves on to Ficker Cup four days later and the Ficker Cup winner moves on to Congressional Cup © after a gap of only one day. Stay a winner and you can enjoy five consecutive weeks of outstanding California match racing!

I had committed to the PRO job five years ago (that is how far in advance things are planned and organized at LBYC), so when the March Match Racing Madness schedule came up, I could not resist and signed on as PRO for all 3 events.

As a sailor, there is nothing more reassuring to me than to see a PRO that I race against.  In recent years, the regatta management at LBYC has been taken over by racing sailors who get it.  Between LBRW, Butler Cup, Ficker Cup, Congressional Cup©, Campbell Cup, the Linda Elias Memorial Women’s One Design event and now the Farr 40 NAs, the club and venue have become a place people want to race, and you cannot find better sailing conditions anywhere.  In addition, in late 2010, LBYC made a major financial investment in regatta management with a new ‘Loynes’ RC boat (more on this later) and 4 brand new 15 foot Nautica RIBs with Yamaha motors for umpire/coach boats.  

As the word got out that there was some serious match racing going on in Cali during March, we quickly realized that our vision of many foreign teams making plans to come for the month to have a shot at getting into Con Cup were not too far-fetched.   For the Grade 3 Butler and Grade 2 Ficker Cups, we had teams from NZL, AUS, ITA and all over the U.S.A.  For the first time, a foreign team won Butler and another won Ficker.

What many other people do not realize is that the Congressional Cup© Stadium Course off the Belmont Pier is one of the most spectacular spectator venues in the world for match racing.  There is an indoor lounge with bar, live commentary, a restaurant and the pier becomes part of the race course in the prestart.  There are fans, rooting sections, and foreign flags… the works.  

We even had a contest among spectators to guess the distance from the pier to the RC boat.  239 feet was the number.  This year, we had several boats clip the lamp posts with their backstays, we had a few sails brush against the pillars and, on the last day in the final match, the “Bruni” move was pulled off and captured on video.

As Con Cup began, it was clear that we would have a real gun fight with 5 of the top 10 teams in the world present, including 4 past winners.  Any sailor that comes to Con Cup will tell you that the event is not like any other on the World Tour.  The names on the trophy are a who’s who of sailing rock stars and America’s Cup winners reaching back to the 1960’s.  

Williams, Bruni and Richard dominated the round robins and, after 18 flights, were the ONLY teams with a winning record.  The 4th Semi-Finalist, Staffan Lindberg limped in with a 9-9 record.  The breeze was a bit unusual for the week with several storm fronts moving through, but the rain came at night and the breeze came in the day so all was good, although colder than normal.

One of the great benefits of the new RC boat (our old ‘Loynes’ was a 1970s 12kts Luhrs 32) was the resort living available to the RC.  Complete with BBQ, generator and microwave, we happily grilled Italian Sausage, Tri-Tip and shrimp as well as warmed up Cup-O-Noodles for the umpires in their cold RIBs.

If you know match racing, then you know that prior to every start all the teams are lining up the committee boat layline for the pre-start.  Prior to one start sequence, I was cooking on the grill and Johnie Berntsson’s bow guy pulled out his iPhone from his foulies to get it on video.  He could not believe what he was seeing.  It was great.

On to the racing, from my perspective – with the ability to watch every start, view the course from 15 feet off the water and knowing the boats as I do – I think Ian Williams’ team was just a bit stronger when the breeze came on and in the finals, they fought hard for the right side (you know Long Beach when the breeze comes on) and just did not make any mistakes.  Most of his team has sailed multiple Con Cups so they know the boats and they know the venue.  

Steve Hunt, Bill Hardesty, Matt Cassidy, Mark Callahan and Mal Parker clearly out-muscled the other teams.  Their ability to control the boat in the prestart was phenomenal, and they used the 2-man jib tail on the tacks which I had not seen before.  They also used the jib drop move when going head to wind, a move that has popped up in the last year on the World Tour.  I was glad to see Ian win as I have always considered him the best skipper to never win Congressional Cup©. Now he has.

As we move forward, we will be seeking more significant sponsorship.  The WMRT is doing well, but the majority of their events are sponsored by international companies or government/tourism development interests.   As the economy turns, we are pretty confident that a major sponsor will come onboard so that we will be able to leverage our existing infrastructure into the WMRT format.  It would be a very easy fit and minimal investment, much less than the seven figure amounts budgeted by the WMRT to get a new event going.   Our feeling at LBYC is that, with Congressional Cup© maintaining its position as the longest standing annual Grade 1 event in the world, the event will always be a key stop on the World Tour, whether or not it is officially part of the WMRT.   We are hoping economic recovery and continued cooperation with the WMRT will benefit everyone.

As for next year, we will continue tweaking the new March Madness format and work aggressively with our partners in the North American Match Race Series to grow match racing in the US.   

Randy Smith