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Donkin on Sailing

December 2008 - Ian Williams match racing in Denmark

On thenorthern tip of Denmark where the North Sea meets the Baltic there is a froth of white water as the waves of two competing waterways - the Skagerrak and the Kattegat go head-to-head in a timeless battle for dominance.

A few miles south just off Frederikshavn on the East coast a handful of identical yachts are locked in their own two-boat duals like aquatic pugilists feinting and dodging in the ring. Umpires in power boats follow in close attendance, ready to penalise a low blow.

Throw in a few chess moves, some well-drilled team work, a sharp sense of timing and fine-tuned tactical thinking and you have all the ingredients for one of the most technically competitive sports on the planet. This is the Danish open - one of the 11 international rounds that comprise the World Matching Racing Tour.

Some of the biggest names in sailing are gathered here - world beaters in their own right. But you don't see anyone hunting for autographs. It's as if the tour is one of sailing's best kept secrets. When Ben Ainslie, Great Britain's three times Olympic gold medallist competed in one of the early rounds this year, his team was beaten in to 12th place. Indeed all the leading teams had poor results that weekend, such is the quality of the competition.

Yet outside sailing Ainslie is far better known than Ian Williams the current world champion match racer. So how is it that Williams is not sporting one of the Beijing golds adorning so many necks among the British sailing team?

The answer has everything to do with the machinations and politics of international sailing administrations. As the UK's top match sailor, Williams would have been Athens bound with the rest of the team four years ago had men's match sailing not been voted out of Olympic competition.

"It was a big blow. Unlike some of the other classes, match racing does not have the class enthusiasts to promote it," he said. "When they dropped the Soling boats that I was sailing I had to think long and hard about the future."

As a practicing commercial lawyer, Williams had a secure and lucrative future ahead of him. But there would always have been the nagging question: "What if?"

He decided to take a sabbatical and commit himself full time to the professional match racing circuit. That was in 2005. Two years later he was world champion and this year again he is leading the world championship, sailing as part of Bahrain Team Pindar, the UK sail racing stable sponsored and run by Pindar, the Scarborough-based printing business headed by Andrew Pindar, executive chairman.

Victory in Denmark gave Williams a cushion over his nearest rivals that he needed to sustain his championship lead ahead of this weekend's nail-biting finish to the season, Malaysia's Monsoon Cup with just four points separating his team from that of nearest rival Sebastien Col. Ben Ainslie, one of Britain's Team Origin America's Cup squad, is also competing in Malaysia, with plans to tackle the whole championship next year.

While match racing is a sport in its own right, the very fact that this is the head-to-head racing format used for The America's Cup means that sailing's prestigious big prize - with its multi-million dollar business fest and sponsorship - is never far away from match racing ambitions. "Yes I would like to win the America's Cup one day," says Williams.

The match racing crews - like tennis players - rely on prize money for the tour. The top prize in Denmark of $32,000 does not go far when shared among a crew. "The match racing is important to establish my reputation but I make most of my earnings from invitations to sail in other competitions," says Williams.

Every rich yacht owner, serious about competition, wants seasoned match-racing skippers and crew. It was no coincidence that two of Williams' crew, main sail specialist Simon Shaw and foresail trimmer Malcolm Parker were jetting out of the Danish Open to join luxury yachts competing in the annual Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup in Sardinia the following week.

This Maxi sailing is a meeting of business, bling, brawn and technical seamanship, where match racers work as modern day Ben Hurs, hurling their patron's lavish water-born chariots around the waves while the on-deck owners, who count their wealth in telephone numbers, if they count it at all, try to score points off each other within their own privileged playground.

Here in Denmark, the rules are quite different. The DS37 race-boats belong to members of the Copenhagen-based Royal Danish Yacht Club.

"Each boat has been identically prepared so the racing is as fair as possible," says club treasurer Paul Falck. Different boats are used in different events so the match sailors must prove their ability to adapt their racing styles and approaches. Unlike the top America's Cup teams where the biggest bucks buy the best boats, best designers and best crews, here the egalitarian approach of the match racing tour ensures that the very best sailors should win out in the end.

That's why Williams is a name in sailing. If Ainslie joins the full tour next year, as expected, it should inject a fascinating extra dimension in to the competition. Williams is in no doubt. "Ben is a great helm. He has proved that time and again. It will be interesting see how he settles when working with a team."

I join the Pindar team before one of their races. There is no barking of orders, no cursing, no raised voices, just endless conversation. When mistakes occur - and they always do - there is no blame or recrimination, just an intensive debrief as the crew strive to eliminate glitches in the system.

There is always scope for improvement in a championship that involves hundreds of short, intense races, each with hundreds of small triumphs and disasters. Those with the biggest number of credits against debits at the end of the season should win out over all. Match racing is playing the long game.

Ainslie came back with a creditable third place in Bermuda, ahead of Williams in fifth place. While the Olympic champion can't win the championship itself he could play a part in the final outcome this weekend. Whatever the result, Williams and Ainslie are likely to be pursuing their rivalry in the biggest league of all next year as Williams has signed on to be the new skipper of China Team America's Cup program for the Louis Vuitton Pacific Series in Auckland, New Zealand, in 2009.

Postscript: Williams went on to secure his second world championship in a tight finale to the season at Malaysia's Monsoon Cup.

See also: 'World title for Williams in Malaysia' on my sailing blog Cardinal Ponts

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved