Taylor Canfield: How the Congressional Cup Was Won

Published on April 12th, 2016

Taylor Canfield and his USOne Sailing Team triumphed in the 2016 Congressional Cup regatta, Stage Two of the World Match Racing Tour, making him the first skipper to win three back-to-back titles in the 52-year history of the legendary regatta. But during the final, winner take all match against Nicolai Sehested (DEN), Canfield wasn’t looking too triumphant. Here Canfield describes the historic race…

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Taylor Canfield

Starting right from the beginning as the starboard entry boat, we were quite strong in the dial up, and Nicolai decided to back his main to get out of the dial up early. As soon as he did, I decided to keep the speed we had and circle around him in hopes of getting an overlap to leeward of him on port tack.

But we fell just short of getting an overlap, so we hoisted the spinnaker to help advance the game on port tack away from the start line. The reason this was so important was because we knew that the earlier we could get him away from the line and down near the pier, the sooner he would have to turn back, thus forcing him into a much earlier lead back to the start line than he would like.

As we reached down towards the pier, which was now completely filled with yelling spectators, Nicolai did indeed gybe to starboard and take the early lead back. Pushing him along the pier, we knew he was early so we kept our distance behind him trying not to get an overlap. If we were to have overlapped him on either side, we would have been committed to starting on that side of him.

He then made a desperate move tacking back towards the committee boat and was just able to get enough separation between the boats to make a final tack to starboard back towards the line. It was now up to us to decide which end of the start line we wanted. We decided to tack to starboard ahead of him and lead back to the line, which would force him to do one more tack before the start.

It would be a split tack start. Off to the left we went and off to the right he went. Knowing the tacks are quite costly in the heavy Catalina 37, we split nearly all the way to the corner. As we came back on port layline and he came back on starboard, he was wisely just underneath layline to the 2 boat length zone.

With the new test rules, if he were to have intersected us inside the zone, even though he was on starboard, he would have been required to tack around the mark. So by intersecting us outside the zone, we were forced to tack under him. He had the lead, for now, but we knew that all we had to do was stay close at the weather mark rounding and we had a good chance to pass him on the downwind.

After one of our best spinnaker sets of the regatta, we were no less than a half length behind him as we began the downwind leg. After an initial fake gybe by Nicolai, we were now set up strong just to leeward of his line, ready to gybe on his breeze. After gybing on his breeze several times we were tip to tail. While he made his final gybe to starboard, we did as well, hitting his breeze but then quickly soaking down to the left of him.

We had made the move to set us up for the left turn at the bottom and a dead even match for the next beat. And then I screwed it up.

Pressure was high, but all we had to do was get around the mark and we’d be strong for the next beat with starboard advantage when we came back together. All was good until I got greedy and kissed the bottom mark to get a penalty. So if the match was already going to be hard to win, it was now that much harder as we had a penalty to shed.

To be honest, part of me really thought the match was over when that yellow flag went up on the umpire boat, but the other part of me knew the team had what it would take to win this event. So after another huge split on the beat between the two teams, we came back at the weather mark, bow to bow, except this time we had starboard advantage.

When Nicolai went to take our transom, we tacked in front of him into the zone for the top mark. With too much speed and no room at the mark, Nicolai was forced to get his bow locked to windward of us…exactly where we needed him.

We now had two options to make a penalty play. We could either complete our penalty or offset our penalty by getting one on him. I liked our chances.

At this point, I was told the crowd at the pier was going nuts, waiting for both teams to round the mark to starboard and head for the final downwind leg. But instead, with both boats on port, and Nicolai pinned above us, we were in control and sailed almost directly upwind at slow speed for about five minutes above the weather mark.

When the boats finally came to a stop head to wind, we still had our two options. We could try to shed our penalty, which means that since we were now on the downwind leg of the course, we would need to tack to starboard and get back down to 90 degrees off of the wind. Or, we could try and get a penalty on him, which effectively erases our penalty. Here we go!

As the leeward boat in the dial up, we were strong and there was only about 3/4 of a length between the boats, leaving him extremely vulnerable. Then the gauge began to close between the boats … we were getting stronger. He had left it too late and there was nothing he could do.

He made one final attempt to back his sails and get out of dial up, but we matched his move and both bows fell down on to port tack and then collided. As we were the leeward boat, the umpires agreed he was not doing everything he could to keep clear and was given the penalty. The score was even again.

With our penalty cleared, we lead the spinnaker hoist, and we were leading back to the finish line on port. What could go wrong?

But with the final run being 80% starboard tack, we knew with him hot on our tail that we had to lead the gybe back, and that it had to be early in case he was able to roll over the top. So we rolled into a purposely slow gybe, making sure he went with us. Knowing we’d be above layline to the finish, and if he had not gybed with us we would have been at risk, the slow gybe would have allowed us to gybe back to port if needed. But he bit.

He gybed with us, with intentions to roll us. Knowing this would be his plan if he were to gybe, our goal now was to make the roll as painless as possible. Immediately, we began soaking to a dead downwind course, which cleared our breeze behind and he was now locked to the right of us not laying the finish. My confidence in our chances took a huge step up.

Now with Rule 17 deleted, he could break the overlap and we would still have luffing rights, so all we needed to do was make sure he could not gybe across our bow. Both boats sailed down the entire run on starboard, with us locked to his leeward side. There was nothing he could do to get out of our tight grip, but we still needed to execute the final move to the finish.

We sailed us both past the finish and into the spectator fleet. The low risk move was to get him far enough down below the finish so he had no chance to get around us beating back up to the line. At the critical moment, we doused the kite and gave him a small luff to give ourselves a bit more comfort before we gybed to head back to the line on port tack. It was our final move… but Nicolai had one more.

Instead of gybing and following us, he tacked around, hoping we would have a bad takedown and turn. But our takedown was perfect, and his was… not perfect. We were now three lengths ahead aiming at the finish, and his kite was twisted around his jib. The celebrations began before we even crossed the line as everyone on board knew it was over and that we had just made history!

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Canfield leading Sehested back to the finish for the final race win.

The final race starts at 02:39:15

The 52nd Congressional Cup on April 6-10 featured five days of match racing for twelve elite teams in Long Beach, CA. Founded in 1965 and pioneering the concept of on-the-water umpiring, The Congressional Cup is regarded as the ‘granddaddy of match racing’.

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