Holmberg came back from a bitter loss to beat Pace in the next two races and win his third Crimson Blazer in four years.
"The first one's sweet, but this was harder," Holmberg said. "Pace is a terrific sailor. I had to work harder than I ever have to win."
Holmberg, 40, represented his hometown St. Thomas Yacht Club of the U.S. Virgin Islands but, more relevant, led a crew from Larry Ellison's Oracle America's Cup campaign, currently training 60 miles up the coast at Ventura. Pace, 38 and third-ranked in the world, sailed with a Kiwi crew from his new employer, A-Cup defender Team New Zealand.
Holmberg became only the second sailor to win the Congressional more than twice, following victories in 1998 and '99. Rod Davis, a potential helmsman for the Italy's next Prada Challenge, has won it four times, but he lost two straight to Pace in the semifinals, as Holmberg swept Stars & Stripes' Ken Read to set up the final. Read won two from Davis for third place.
A video of the climactic match should be shown at every match racing clinic. Holmberg and Pace threw everything they had into it and neither could be seriously faulted, except perhaps for trying too hard. A total of 12 "Y" protest flags were thrown and two collisions resulted in critical penalties, one on each boat. Especially after Pace won the first race, their bows became jousting lances as they repeatedly charged head-on in the pre-start skirmishing below the starting line.
Both crews were virtually even in the first race until Holmberg drew a disputed penalty. The on-water umpires flagged him for tapping Pace's hull as Pace tacked across his bow while Holmberg held inside position on starboard tack at the first windward mark. Holmberg yelled back over his shoulder at chief umpire John Doerr of the UK, "What about room, John?" - which, of course, served no purpose except to vent some anger. Holmberg, carrying the burden to perform a penalty turn, quickly regained his composure to take a lead large enough to do a 270-degree turn when he hit the layline for the second windward mark. "It's called the 'Humbug' move," he said, alluding to his nickname - but Pace overtook him with his last gybe before the finish and won by two seconds. Holmberg said, "I was very upset, but I've learned that you have to turn the frustration into aggression. The next starts were more aggressive. I think we had him on the ropes."
The rivals split tacks early in the second race, Holmberg going to the left, which is usually unfavored in a sea breeze at Long Beach. But tactician John Cutler must have seen a shift because when they converged halfway up the windward leg Holmberg was able to cross Pace easily on port tack. Then he covered his foe tenaciously, tack for tack and gybe for gybe, to win by eight seconds.
In the pre-start phase of decisive race, the boats alternately charged and recircled to charge again until Pace was called for "over-rotation" - meaning, umpire Pete Ives explained, that Holmberg had the right of way, so it was Pace's fault when his stern swung into Holmberg's boat.
Holmberg then won the start and, though he never led by more than a boat length or two, Pace never had a chance to do a penalty turn. In one desperate attempt to square penalties, side by side under spinnakers 100 yards from the finish, Pace was flagged again, threw up his hands and called it a day. They crossed the line bow to bow as Holmberg pumped the air with his fist.