It has grand titles of World Championships and World Tours but, honestly, who’s watching?
Who follows match racing? Is there some country or region in the world where this highly specialised area of the sport is closely followed?
The thought crosses my mind every time I get a press release about a match racing regatta or contest. Last week, for example, I received one about the victory of top French sailor Mathieu Richard in the French Match Racing Championships.
Maybe in France it’s a bit thing, but somehow I doubt it.
World Championships and world rankings are the big trophies in match racing and make this tiny niche of the sport sound like it’s not merely a FA Cup Final or Super Bowl, but the FIFA World Cup.
Yet in all my years in sailing and in the yachting media, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone discuss or debate match racing or chat about the sailors or ins and outs of their performance. It’s sailing’s most specialised and obscure corner, far removed from everyday racing practiced by 99.9% of yachtsmen.
It is to sailing what pigeon fancying or aviary keeping are to birdwatching.
Neverthless, this is the form of sail racing practised by university clubs in the UK and elsewhere and the format for the pretty big budget multinational World Match Racing Tour. Mostly importantly, it’s the type of racing deployed in the Americas Cup, which makes the match racing circuit a prime training ground for sailors who aspire to end up in that revered and lucrative world.
There’s no doubting the level of skill required: the helming skills, strategy and crew teamwork needed for those rapid-fire manoeuvres. But that doesn’t make it especially watchable or compelling.
The sad truth is racing under sail is not a popular spectacle and day racing will never go mainstream (other than the America’s Cup with its juicy millionaire-ego backstory). Yes, you do need competition, but what really fires up a larger audience are personalities and a sense of a big, grand, elemental challenge, preferably one with a dash of drama and danger.