It has taken many years for competitive sailing to capture the public imagination and it has taken a return to basic principles to make it happen. Right at the beginning of yacht racing, in the 17th century, races took place between two boats going down the river to the sea and back, and crowds lined the sides of the river to watch it happening. It was easy to understand, because the first one home won, it was exciting and it was a marvellous spectacle.
Over the years, as is so often the way with sport, the experts refined the rules, introduced handicaps and developed a language that ensured that only a rarefied breed of sailor – usually a member of an exclusive club – would understand what was going on and very often even he would not. The wider audience didn’t stand a chance: the first boat to finish would rarely be the winner, because of his handicap; ‘protests’ could be lodged, the outcome of which would sometimes not be known till late into the night; sometimes the eventual winner might spend an entire race ensuring that he came second-to-last as long as he finished ahead of his nearest rival.
As a mental exercise, it could be fascinating; as a spectacle, it lacked instant gratification.
If sailing was going to exist outside the realm of the very few very rich, it was obvious that something had to be done to improve it and, in the 1980s, the new era of match racing began. Here was a sport that everyone could understand: the boats were identical; the competition was a series of one-on-one races; the best man won. Umpiring took place on the water; penalties were served immediately and added to the spectacle.
In 1989, the International Yacht Racing Union (renamed ISAF in 1996) set up a classification system for match racing. Swedish Match, the first sponsor, gave way to the World Match Racing Tour, sanctioned by the ISAF with ‘Special Event Status’, in 2006.
Today the World Match Racing Tour spans three continents and features nine World championship events, starting in France, proceeding through Germany, South Korea, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, Bermuda and culminating in the Monsoon Cup, in Malaysia. Racing takes place close to the shore in order for the general public to follow the races as if they were in virtual on-the-water stadiums.
With the most exciting and competitive match racing anywhere in the world, as well as the allure of sailing’s richest prize fund of US$1.75million the WMRT features quite simply the very best sailors in the world and provides the most compelling action.