Most sailboat racing in the Caribbean is of the fleet type. That means more than two boats, often a dozen or more, compete in a class to see who wins based on ability, tactics, boat handling and oftentimes handicap. But match racing, where two identical sailboats duel one-on-one in a test of the skipper and crew's skill and mental acuity, is catching on in the Caribbean region.
Match racing isn't new. The best-known match race is the America's Cup, which first set sail back in 1870. However, according to the International Sailing Federation (ISAF), while there were only a handful of match racing regattas a decade ago, there are now many more – and there is a ranking system that awards points to skippers competing in these global events that ultimately positions their match racing prowess on the world stage.
Henry Menin from St. Thomas, who is ISAF's match racing committee chair, says, "Match racing is a hugely growing discipline. Match racing centers are popping up in the U.S. and Canada like mushrooms. Europe has long been a stronghold of the sport, especially countries such as Sweden, Denmark, France and Italy. In the Mediterranean, there are match racing events in Turkey and Greece and well as in Asian countries like Malaysia and China. New Zealand and Australia have been big players in match racing for years."
Women's participation in the sport received a boost last year when Women's Keelboat Match Racing was added to the 2012 Summer Olympics. There are now avenues for junior sailors to compete. This year in the United States alone there are three Youth Match Racing Clinics for sailors ages 16 to 21, held in the run-up to the July 2010 Governor's Cup Match Race run by the Balboa Yacht Club in California.
Closer to home, there have been sporadic match racing events hosted on a number of islands. St. Thomas held the Marriott Frenchman's Reef International Match Race in 1997 and 1998, the first Grade One event in the Caribbean with big names such as Peter Gilmour, Paul Cayard, James Spithill and Peter Holmberg. In 2000, the St. Croix Yacht Club hosted a match race that featured several top Caribbean skippers sailing Rhodes 19s. St. Lucia ran a match race for eight years in 50-foot yachts. This became a Grade Two event and was attended by skippers from the Caribbean, U.S., Canada, Ireland and the U.K. The BVI has hosted its Pete Sheals Memorial Match Race in IC24s since the early 2000s.
More recently, the Carlos Aguilar Match Race in St. Thomas has attracted talented women sailors such as Anna Tunnicliffe, Genny Tulloch and Liz Baylis. Last year, the Budget Marine Match Racing Cup debuted at the St. Maarten Heineken Regatta, with sailors like Peter Holmberg, Peter Isler and Gavin Brady competing this year.
Match racing, says St. Maarten's Robbie Ferron, who started the Budget Marine event, "has a big interest factor because it seems so exciting – which it is."
"It's only you and your competitor," says St. Croix Chris Schreiber, "pushing the rules and trying to wear each other down. There's an intensity that you don't get in fleet racing."
St. Lucia's Michael Green says, "It's not all about going fast. It's like playing chess. Even first time match racers love it."
Currently 44th on the ISAF World Match Racing rankings, the highest ranking of any sailor in North America, Taylor Canfield of St. Thomas says he likes the aggressive aspect. "I like the way it puts me in a challenging position and then working my way out of it."
What are ways to grow match racing in the Caribbean?
The British Virgin Islands' Colin Rathbun, who is president of the IC24 class, says, "To get people interested, host a seminar at the local yacht club to explain the basics. We've had Henry Menin and Liz Baylis both conduct seminars. Then, you start to get a group of interested sailors who want to learn more."
St. Thomas' Verian Aguilar, an avid match racer who launched the Carlos Aguilar Match Race in memory of her late husband, says, "You only need two equal boats to get started – that's the best part."
These don't need to be big boats, says St. Thomas' Menin. "Lasers, 420s, and even Snipes will work."
A growing fleet of J/24s in the southern Caribbean is what St. Lucia's Green hopes to use for future match racing events. In addition to boats, Green says, "The next important thing is you need is both on-the-water judging and a full jury. There are now plenty of International Judges, especially in the Caribbean, who will come for just their airfare and accommodation."
Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands-based marine writer and registered dietitian.