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A Perfect Match

2009 June 9

Match racing is taking sailing by storm, thanks to a new women's event in the 2012 Olympics. Betsy Crowfoot checks it out, and has the bruises to prove it.

Vanity got the best of me, when I was asked by one of the world's top-ranked women's match racing skippers to join her team for the Mayor's Cup-a Grade 2 invitational regatta held in the same boats and waters as the famed Congressional Cup.

In the past I have covered the event, but when my normal gig didn't pan out, competitor Sandy Hayes called and said, "I was thinking of something crazy … " interrupting herself with nervous laughter. "I'm short one for the Mayor's Cup. Would you have any interest in coming sailing?" The Scituate, Massachusetts, skipper, ranked 16th in the world, was at the Match Cup regatta in Sweden and would be arriving in California in a few days.

Had I been thinking straight I might have said "Thanks, but no thanks," but pride, and a writer's curiosity, prevailed; and I find myself days later packed and driving to Long Beach, California, at 5 a.m. … on an empty stomach. Parched. Gnawing on my nails and bubble gum, because the first dirty little secret of match racing is that you have a cap on crew weight, and I was six pounds over my allotment.

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American's Heartland:
The heart of match racing

For a long time, match racing was something common only at the elite levels of sailing-the America's Cup, Canada's Cup and similar regattas. But now, thanks to the approval of a women's keelboat match racing event in the 2012 Olympics, the duel style of sailing is all the rage.

From coast to coast, match racing events are at the top of the event calendar. Because of the new Olympic event, women sailors in particular are getting into the match racing mode, but match racing championships for male or open crews are attracting teams like never before.

The center of this resurgence in match racing might surprise some people. It's none other than the Great Lakes, where one city in particular-Sheboygan, Wisconsin-is leading the charge to have the United States take home a medal in match racing and create the best match racers in the world. This city of 50,000 with the funny name, better known for bratwurst (don't argue with a Sheboyganite about the proper way to cook the sausages), is the place to be if you are serious about match racing.

It is home of the country's fourth US Sailing Center, this one focusing on match racing. In summer the center expects to take delivery of the first eight Elliot 6M sailboats-the boats that will be used in the Olympics-in the country, said Richard Reichelsdorfer, the center's executive director. In addition, the center has eight Sonars and access to a full fleet of race committee boats, including seven Edgewater powerboats and several large RIBs.

"At some point we could be looking at holding a regatta with up to 16 teams, using both the Elliots and the Sonars," Reichelsdorfer said.

The Sheboygan center has a full schedule of match racing events planned for the summer, including the Area K quarterfinals and the Area E and K semi-finals for the U.S. Match Racing Championship, a youth match racing camp and an advanced open clinic and regatta, both with coaching by match racing veteran Dave Perry. The schedule also includes the center's own Grade 3 women's match racing regatta and clinic led by Women's International Match Racing Association Executive Director Liz Baylis, the Northern Lights Cup. In addition, the center will host team racing and collegiate events this year. Couple that with the center's plans to host Olympic hopefuls to train in the Elliots and a roll-out of a community sailing program, and it's clear things are bustling on the Sheboygan lakefront.

All of these events are run by a large group of volunteers.

"We have a huge base of volunteers who keep the organization going," he said. "If it weren't for them, we couldn't do something like this. People are really excited about having a US Sailing Center here. They are taking seminars on umpiring and judging and even if they don't pass, at least it gets them involved. It makes them better volunteers if they understand what's happening on the water, and they enjoy it more too."

The US Sailing Center Sheboygan base is nestled between the Sheboygan Yacht Club and Sheboygan Youth Sailing. This spring, the center made improvements to the site, including leveling the concrete between the three organizations so boats can be moved among all three, creating a large drysail lot, installing a three-ton davit and modifying a floating pier to make it handicapped-accessible and providing about 200 feet of dockage, Reichelsdorfer said.

"Eventually we'd like to put a building on the site, but that's down the road," he said. "For now we will use the yacht club and then reassess our needs."

Sheboygan has the boats, the volunteers and the site. It also has something Great Lakes sailors have known about for years but is something of a secret to sailors not familiar with the area.

"Sheboygan is a great sailing venue," Reichelsdorfer said. "We have a more consistent sea breeze than most places on the Great Lakes. It's also an inexpensive place to sail. You can probably come and train for a week for a third of what you'd spend in a bigger city. The race area is only a five- or 10-minute sail from the dock, and we have hotels, resorts and a YMCA all within walking distance."

The Elliot 6Ms will be available for Olympic hopeful teams to use for training later in the summer, and Reichelsdorfer said the fleet of support boats will be available for use for coaching or practice races.
Wisconsin does have one downfall as a sailing venue, which is that when the snow flies, the sailing is over. To maximize Olympic teams' opportunities to sail the Elliots, the boats will likely winter in warmer climes, he said.

"We're still working on figuring it out, but the plan is to send the Elliots to Florida for the winter to be used for training and regattas, including the Miami Olympic Class Regatta," Reichelsdorfer said. "Then the boats will come back here next summer and we'll be able to step up our training program here."
So for those serious about match racing, Sheboygan, Wisconsin, is where it's at. And they might want to consider developing a taste for bratwurst.

--Erin L. Schanen

For more on the US Sailing Center Sheboygan and its events, go to www.ussailingcentersheboygan.org on the Web.