Next week's Nippon Cup marks the halfway point of the '04-'05 Swedish Match Tour season

The Nippon Cup marks the halfway point of the ’04-’05 Swedish Match Tour season, and puts a close to ’04.

American Ed Baird looks to regain the championship lead of the Swedish Match Tour 2004-’05 at Stage 4, the Pizza-La Red Lobster Nippon Cup, November 16-21, at the Hayama Marina outside of Tokyo.

A field of 12 skippers is set to race the Yamaha 30s that debuted last year. Racing on Sagami Bay, which opens to the Pacific Ocean, they’ll compete in a single round robin, with the top four advancing to the semifinals and the winners to the final. At stake is a prize purse of 6 million Yen (approximately $56,400) and the Nippon Cup.

The 15th anniversary regatta will be hosted at the Hayama Marina in the Kanagawa Prefecture, about 37 miles (60 kilometers) outside Tokyo to the south.

The list also includes Sven-Erik Horsch (GER), Michele Ivaldi (ITA), Geoff Meek (RSA) and Philippe Presti (FRA). Three Japanese skippers, Yasutaka Funazawa, Takumi Nakamura and Kazuto Seki, round out the field.

Of the top five, Gilmour has the most knowledge of the area. The Aussie skipper owns the Nippon Cup. Gilmour has won the championship eight times in 14 editions, including last year, and he’s placed runner-up three other times.

Baird also has familiarity with the area. The reigning and three-time world champion of match-racing won the Nippon Cup in 1995, and finished runner-up on three other occasions, all to Gilmour. Baird, who trails Russell Coutts by 5 points in the lead for the Tour championship, will race with steady crewmembers Andy Horton, Piet van Nieuwenhuyzen and Jon Ziskind.

Gram-Hansen of Denmark has never raced at Nippon Cup, but comes in with a wealth of experience after a summer of racing with Coutts and steady crewmembers Michael Arnhild, Christian Kamp and Rasmus Kostner.

Brady, the helmsman for BMW Oracle Racing, finished third at the Nippon Cup last year, after losing to Gilmour in the semifinals. He’s slated to race with Sean Clarkson, Chris Dickson and Dirk de Ridder.

Barker placed fourth at last year’s Nippon Cup after bowing to Brady 3-0 in the Petit Final, and makes his return to the Swedish Match Tour this week after taking the summer to campaign for the Olympics. He’s slated to race with fellow Team New Zealand mates James Dagg and Jared Henderson.

While those five are among the favorites to advance to the semifinals, the others will have a say about who moves on. Presti, a versatile sailor with success in numerous one-design classes, is the helmsman for the le Défi Challenge of France. Ivaldi represents the Luna Rossa Challenge of Italy. He sailed with the former Prada Challenge in the last two Louis Vuitton Cups in New Zealand, as well as the 30th Cup Match in 2000 against Team New Zealand.

Meek is the helmsman of South Africa’s Shosholoza Challenge for the America’s Cup. He began competing on the Swedish Match Tour last summer and is still finding his footing in match-racing. Horsch is a 26-year-old German trying to break into the match-racing circuit.

The three Japanese skippers also figure to put up a fight. Funazawa is a regular match-racer, having competed in Grade 1, 2 and 3 events since 2000. He finished 10th at the Nippon Cup last year.

Nakamura is one of Japan’s brightest match-racing prospects. A sailor since age 7, he had great success in one-design dinghies. He took up match-racing earlier this year and spent four months training in Denmark.

Seki, who also started sailing at age 7, won the bronze medal in the men’s doublehanded dinghy, the 470 class, at the Athens Olympics.

Swedish Match Tour standings (After 3 of 8 stages)

1. Russell Coutts (NZL) Coutts Racing – 45 points

2. Ed Baird (USA) Team Musto – 40 points

3. Peter Gilmour (AUS) Pizza-La Sailing Team – 30 points

4. Staffan Lindberg (FIN) – 26 points

5. Jes Gram-Hansen (DEN) Gram-Hansen Racing 25 points

6. Mathieu Richard (FRA) – 21 points

7. Kelvin Harrap (NZL) Team New Zealand – 20 points

T. James Spithill (AUS) Luna Rossa Challenge – 20 points