Great Britain's Ben AINSLIE, honoured with an unprecedented third ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year Award following his third consecutive Olympic gold medal in 2008, has joined the impressive line up for the 45th Congressional Cup, the 24-28 March match racing classic hosted by the Long Beach Yacht Club.
(GBR), 32, is now skipper/helmsman of the UK's Team Origin challenge for the 33rd America's Cup, a significant switch for a sailor whose Olympic success has been in singlehanded boats: a silver medal in 1996 and gold in 2000 in Lasers and golds in 2004 and 2008 in Finns.
But despite his limited match racing experience, reflected by his #76 ranking on the ISAF World Match Race Rankings
list, Team Origin won 7 of 11 races and reached the quarter-finals of the recent Louis Vuitton Pacific Series for AC teams at Auckland, New Zealand., defeating ultimate winner Emirates Team New Zealand along the way.
"We did the CNEV fleet race regatta in Valencia, but apart from that we went into the LVPS cold,"
AINSLIE said. "It's [been a change from] singlehanded sailing to sailing with 16 other guys, so the teamwork part is massive. Also, the size and weight of the boat means you really have to think each manoeuvre through."
Afterward, with AC teams continuing to mark time as BMW Oracle's case against defender Alinghi creeps through the New York Supreme Court, AINSLIE and Team Origin were looking to sharpen their skills elsewhere when a late Congressional Cup opportunity developed. AINSLIE's countryman, Ian WILLIAMS
(GBR), winner of the World Match Racing Tour
the last two years, reluctantly withdrew because of business reasons.
Event chairman David STOTLER said, "Soon after WILLIAMS' withdrawal Ben popped up with an inquiry on our status, so I grabbed him. Ben is a top skipper and I regretted not having the opportunity to invite him originally, so I was very pleased."
Although the Olympic Games dominated his year, AINSLIE sailed in three World Match Racing Tour events last year. His best finish came after the Beijing Games when he was third in the Bermuda Gold Cup, behind two of his Congressional Cup rivals - Sweden's Johnie BERNTSSON
and New Zealand's Adam MINOPRIO
- and ahead of two others - France's Sébastien COL
and Mathieu RICHARD
, currently ranked #1 and #3 in the world. AINSLIE's Team Origin eliminated COL's French K-Challenge team in a sail off to reach the Louis Vuitton quarter finals.
For the Congressional Cup, AINSLIE will have a Team Origin crew, except for tactician Iain PERCY
(GBR), who had another commitment. Otherwise, he'll be sailing with only five other guys on Catalina 37s, but the competition figures to be intense. AINSLIE's opponents will include Terry HUTCHINSON
(USA), recent recipient of US SAILING's Rolex Yachtsman of the Year award for 2008 and a Congressional Cup winner in 1992 and runner up in 2004.
Also in the field are France's Philippe PRESTI
, ranked #6; MINOPRIO, #10; BERNTSSON, #8; Finland's Staffan LINDBERG
, #14, and local Brian ANGEL
(USA), #61. James SPITHILL
of Australia was originally entered but withdrew.
That opening has been filled by Francesco BRUNI
of Italy, skipper for Giovanni MASPERO
's (ITA) developing Joe Fly Match Race venture, which MASPERO describes as "a natural extension" of the all-Italian Joe Fly Sailing Team that has been a force in the Melges 24 class for several years.
In the Louis Vuitton, BRUNI's Damiana Italia team also beat Team New Zealand and won 6 of 11 races, defeating AINSLIE's Team Origin in the quarter finals. Earlier, BRUNI was strategist for Italy's Luna Rossa America's Cup challenge in 2007 and was Italian match race champion in 2006.
STOTLER said, "Francesco BRUNI should provide a very interesting addition to our lin up. Francesco's Damiana Italia team made the semi finals in last month's Louis Vuitton Pacific Series among 12 of the world's top America's Cup teams and is clearly very serious about making their mark in the match racing arena."
The 10 six-man crews will rotate daily on Catalina 37s owned by the Long Beach Yacht Club Sailing Foundation. Each team will race every other team twice. The top four qualify for the championship sailoffs on Saturday.
The Congressional Cup has maintained a high level of organization over the years with a volunteer force of some 300 club members and their families. Each crew will be assigned boat hostesses and a housing team to deliver the outstanding local hospitality the Congressional Cup has offered now for 45 years.
The 2009 Congressional Cup Fleet
(ISAF World Match Race Ranking - skipper, nation)
1 - Sébastien COL
3 - Mathieu RICHARD
6 - Philippe PRESTI
8 - Johnie BERNTSSON
10 - Adam MINOPRIO
, New Zealand
14 - Staffan LINDBERG
61 - Brian ANGEL
76 - Ben AINSLIE
, Great Britain
106 - Francesco BRUNI
911 - Terry HUTCHINSON