Professional match racing was floundering. The sailors were bored, the boats were old, and most teams were barely able to connect one championship to the next. Young teams starving at the bottom of the world rankings had scant access to the World Match Racing Tour’s main stage. Furthermore, the discipline was disconnected from the America’s Cup, sailing’s ultimate one-on-one.
To make it relevant again, match racing needed a savior.
Along came 48-year-old entrepreneur Hakan Svensson, the tour’s new owner. He didn’t buy it to rescue it, however. He bought it as a means to enable younger pro sailors, to provide them, as he puts it, with a “pathway to the top.” At the entrance to this winding path sits the M32 catamaran, built by Aston Harald, which is also owned by Svensson. The $250,000 one-design carbon cat will be the exclusive boat for all World Tour events and championships in 2017, and will be used for most tour events this year. The cost of the boat, Svensson says, is attainable enough for 25- to 35-year-old sailors to launch and sustain professional sailing campaigns, using M32 regattas to seed and hone their squads. Svensson’s endgame, of course, is to pipeline sailors to the World Match Racing Tour and its million-dollar purse.
“I come from a club environment,” says Svensson, a lifelong sailor from Sweden, “and I’m aware that sailing has a big void between 20 and 35 years of age. My thought is to create a setup with a good pathway and provide [young sailors] with a sailing career. But we have to build a structure around it, offer prize money, create salary programs, have them work with sponsors.”
He admits it’s an ambitious initiative with many parts, but the sporting businessman, who sold his 100-year-old propulsion company to Caterpillar in 2013, takes pleasure in using his capital gains to give his sport an injection of cool. It’s also a business for Svensson, who has put experts into key roles, including M32 boatbuilder Killian Bushe, who crafted all four Whitbread winners between 2001 and 2010. Match-racing veteran Magnus Holmberg runs Aston Harald Sports, the umbrella company.
“We are working with something that’s a very expensive project,” says Svensson. “It’s a lot about mentoring the young teams, helping them create their business model, to find the sponsorship and make a living out of it.” Sally Barkow, an Olympian and Volvo vet from Wisconsin, is in on the action, as are Charlie Enright and Mark Towill. Barkow intends to use the M32 Series for visibility and sponsor procurement for whatever comes first: the tour or another Volvo Ocean Race campaign. New teams have multiple choices off the M32 menu, starting with M32 Series events in North America, Bermuda and Scandinavia. Regional events primarily serve the class’s owner/drivers, racing alongside pros.
“We were always trying to get to the tour,” says Barkow, who competed in a recent Bermuda event on a borrowed boat with a 9-foot banner glued to its mainsail that read, “Sponsor Us.”
“This gives us a bit of a more even playing field. For sure we’re fortunate for the opportunity [Svensson] created,” Barkow says. “It’s refreshing to see someone so committed to helping other people. He’s really about helping us promote to our sponsors.”
M32 events provide a platform for teams to raise their profiles and collect points toward invitations to tour-qualifying events, of which there are many. First on the tour’s 2016 “short season” is Fremantle, Australia, in March, sailed in M32s with 20 invitations available. Ten invites go to standing “tour cardholders,” nine are allocated to teams that advance through local qualifiers, and one invitation is reserved for a wild-card entry.
Before any team can compete at tour events, however, each crewmember must also hold an M32 match-racing license, obtained by attending an M32 Racing Academy, which is also managed by Aston Harald, and run by match-racing ace Lars Linger.
“When you’re racing at 25 knots, you need to know what to do with these boats,” says Linger. “You can’t come in and be a cowboy, thinking you’re going to sail around and create penalties. These boats break, so we get people to understand the difference with racing fast, wide boats and with racks. It’s a completely different style.”
Linger’s syllabus focuses on boathandling more so than match racing, he adds, citing tacks and jibes as the maneuvers to master, as well as acceleration. In Lanzarote over the winter, there was a revolving door of teams, five or six at a time, getting up to speed.
“I think this is what match racing needs,” says Linger. “I was doing it from the age of 20 to 50, and what it eventually came down to is that the moves were getting pretty stale.”
Five-time world champ Ian Williams wins because he studies boat-to-boat situations, Linger adds, so with the switch to the catamaran tour, organizers have stripped him of his advantage. For his part, as master to match racing’s new clutch, Linger says it warms his heart to see the sailors stoked on the sailing.
“This is exactly a new era, and is similar to what I went through 30 years ago, when match racing started,” he says. “There was prize money, and it got better and better. This is for the younger generation and is here to stay. The young ones that are coming through the training never want to stop sailing.”
The tour picks up in Long Beach, California, with the Congressional Cup (a monohull event) in April, followed by an unscheduled M32 tour event before moving to Denmark and Newport, Rhode Island, in late May. It all concludes with the world championship in July in Marstrand, Sweden, just south of Svensson’s home in Hono. It’s here where he first sailed the M32 and kick-started his vision. “I got an opportunity to do something I’m passionate about, and we have a tool in a price range which makes it possible,” he says, noting the America’s Cup’s sky-high costs. “I’m not rescuing the tour or the M32 at all. I’m in it to make this a viable business for a lot of young sailors that have the aspiration to do something.” In other words, heads-up to all you millennium day-rate pros and sidelined sailors. Hakan has an alternative again.