Match Racing Grows in the U.S.

With the increased emphasis on “extreme” racing featuring carbon-fiber cats, gigantic ocean-going multihulls and turbocharged skiffs, many might consider the idea of an inshore displacement monohull pro circuit to be a nonstarter.

With the increased emphasis on “extreme” racing featuring carbon-fiber cats, gigantic ocean-going multihulls and turbocharged skiffs, many might consider the idea of an inshore displacement monohull pro circuit to be a nonstarter. 

But after spending the better part of a week covering the Chicago Match Cup regatta this past July, I’m here to tell you they’d be dead wrong.

Hosted by the Chicago Match Race Center, the event was the fourth stop on the eight-country 2012 Alpari World Match Racing Tour and provided a refreshing change from the made-for-TV adrenaline fests favored by so many promoters.

The level of seamanship displayed was nothing less than extraordinary, with competitors jockeying for position during the prestart, getting in phase on the way to the windward mark and gybing on a dime on the way to the finish—and it was all right there for everyone to see.

Twenty-knot-plus speeds may be necessary to keep some “racing enthusiasts” interested as they click their way around the Internet. But when the competitors are mixing it up literally beneath your feet—as was the case when the skippers started using the viewing area at the end of Chicago’s Navy Pier to set picks on each other before the final drive toward the start—conventional monohull speeds are just fine. Even the non-sailors in the crowd were impressed. 

According to veteran match racer and current US Sailing Match Racing Committee chairman Dave Perry, there are now more than two dozen yacht clubs and sailing programs in the United States involved in match racing. Leading examples include the U.S. Sailing Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and the Oakcliff Sailing Center in Oyster Bay, New York, in addition to the one in Chicago. 

A number of new events have also sprung up, creating an increasingly crowded calendar for match-racing aficionados. At the upper end are various Grade 2 events, which allow skippers to amass the points necessary to make the jump to the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) rated Grade 1 events like the Long Beach Yacht Club’s Congressional Cup. Among these is the US Match Racing Grand Slam Series, which includes stops at the Chicago Match Race Center, Detroit’s Bayview Yacht Club, the Oakcliff Sailing Center and the Nahasset Bay Yacht Club’s Knickerbocker Cup, held in Port Washington, New York. 

Equally impressive is the bevy of match-racing clinics and Grade 3, 4 and 5 events now held across the country that provide entry points for sailors new to the game. There are also an increasing number of youth events, including the Rose Cup, which marked its third year this past summer and is open to sailors ages 16 to 20. In all, U.S. match racers had some 80 events to compete in last year. 

On the down side, the future of match racing has become a bit more uncertain, thanks to the ISAF’s decision to eliminate women’s match racing from the 2016 Olympics and Russell Coutts and Larry Ellison’s decision to turn the America’s Cup into a multihull regatta. However, proponents are hopeful the uptick in match racing activity isn’t just a fad, but the beginning of a lasting trend. For one thing, they say, the biggest hurdle, putting together the necessary infrastructure, is already a done deal. For another, there are the many attractions of the game itself. 

Primary among these is affordability. In contrast to most regattas, a match-race host club or organization provides the boats to ensure a level playing field. These can include anything from the Tom 28s at the Chicago Match Race Center to the Olympic-class Elliott 6s in Sheboygan, the Swedish Match 40s at the Oakcliff Sailing Center, or the International One Designs used in the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club’s Argo Gold Cup. On race day the crew need only show up with their life jackets and sailing gloves, and they’re ready to roll. 

As for match-racing itself, aficionados say it’s hard to beat for challenge and excitement. 

“I really like the fast-paced, aggressive style of the racing,” says Chicago Match Race sailing director Taylor Canfield, who was also the winner of this year’s Grand Slam title. “In match racing you have really quick races, so you really have to think on your toes.”

Canfield adds that the game puts a premium on boathandling, because of the way it requires you to not just sail fast, but outmaneuver and out-think the competition. As Canfield puts it:“Being on the same wavelength as the rest of the crew is crucial.”

In this same vein, Perry notes that the many short races making up a regatta—a typical race lasts 20 minutes or less—mean even a major mistake doesn’t necessarily take you out of the running the way it can in a fleet-racing situation. He also lauds match racing’s frequent boat-on-boat action and how the skills honed in match racing can up a sailor’s fleet-racing ability as well. “You’re wired from start to finish,” he says of match racing’s intensity.

As for the changes to the America’s Cup, Perry, who is a member of the Artemis syndicate, says monohull match racing remains as relevant to Cup competition as ever. “I’m a firm believer that a grounding in match-racing tactics is essential to success in the America’s Cup,” Perry says, adding that the Alpari World Match Racing Tour is still the best place to get that kind of experience. As evidence, he cites Oracle CEO Russell Coutts’ recent success in the match-racing portion of the America’s Cup World Series, despite the fact that Coutts has spent far less time sailing the new AC45s than many of his competitors. 

Chicago Match Race program director Tod Reynolds agrees, noting that while things are more complicated now, with a number of other disciplines competing for preeminence in the America’s Cup arena, change is as much a part of sailing as sailing itself. “Multihulls and monohulls have existed side-by-side for a long time,” he says. “I don’t ever see either one edging out the other completely in the future.” 

In short, it looks like match racing as a part of the overall sailing scene is here to stay.

Read more about the 2012 Chicago Match Cup regatta here.


While the basic rules of racing under sail still apply, match races are organized somewhat differently in an effort to force competitors to interact with one another, as opposed to just sailing the same course in parallel. There are also some different rules, as outlined in Appendix C of ISAF’s Racing Rules of Sailing. For example, a starboard-tack boat does not have to maintain course to allow a port-tack boat to pass safely astern, but can instead go “hunting” in the hopes of causing the competition to incur a penalty. 

The most dramatic difference comes at the start. In contrast to fleet racing—where boats are allowed to mill about pretty much at random—in match racing, one boat is required to enter the starting area from the pin side while the other is required to enter by sailing past the committee boat. 

Typically, both boats will sail into the starting area as soon as the four-minute preparatory signal is made. They will then go into a kind of luffing match called a “dial-up” (1). Specifically, the boat coming in to windward of the committee boat on starboard (usually flying a yellow flag) will aim straight for the boat on port in an effort to draw a foul. In response, the port-tack boat (usually flying a blue flag) will harden up and tack over onto starboard (2). As soon as it does so, it acquires the right-off-way as the leeward boat and forces the other boat into irons. The two boats will then hang there, sails flapping, sometimes even drifting in reverse until one of them falls off and sails away (3)

The goal of the original starboard-tack boat in this situation is to retain control so it can cross the starting line in a preferred position. The goal of the other boat is to somehow escape and use those same right-of-way rules to gain control itself. An example of a controlling position is one in which you are sailing close behind a competitor, either slightly to one side or aimed directly at its transom. Granted, as the trailing boat, you need to stay clear. But the other boat can’t tack or gybe, because there isn’t room to come all the way around without blocking you. And if they try to fall off you can duck down into a leeward position and force them back up again. 

In the four-minute run-up to the starting signal, whichever boat is in control will typically try to force the other over the line earlier, roll over it to windward and steal its air, or cause it to commit a penalty. All other things being equal, it will also try to position itself to starboard as the starting signal sounds so that it will be on starboard tack—and once again in a controlling position—when the two boats inevitably cross tacks farther up the beat. 

In the event that the original port-tack boat escapes (4), the two boats will often end up in the “playground” beyond and to leeward of the committee boat, where they will frantically bob and weave in an effort to one-up each other. Competitors have also been known to sail perilously close to obstacles or other boats, using them like a pick in basketball to shake off a competitor.

After the starting signal, the race proceeds much like a fleet race, with the lead boat maintaining a loose or tight cover on the windward legs, and the trailing boat doing its best to put the leader in its wind shadow on the run. (A typical race is two times around a windward-leeward course.) 

Throughout the race an umpire boat follows close behind, making calls in real-time. During the start there is also a “wing boat” off to the side calling overlaps between the two competitors via VHF. The umpire boat has two umpires aboard, each “representing” one of the boats in a continual dialogue on their respective positions. 

In the event a competitor commits a foul, the umpire boat will fly a flag the same color as the guilty party. The penalized competitor then has to do a penalty turn or cause the competition to commit an offsetting penalty of its own to wipe the slate clean. 

Photos courtesy of Chicago Match Race Center



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