Match racing is like chess. Good skippers need to think two, sometimes three, steps ahead, or they will find themselves hopelessly outmaneuvered by a cagey competitor.
"My coach tells me that I have to be a little meaner," said 18-year-old Corey Hall, who, along with three high schoolers, will square off against some of the world's top female sailors at this weekend's Rolex Women's Match. "I am working on it, but it doesn't come naturally to me."
This world-class International Sailing Federation event, which runs today through Sunday on the waters off the Pier in downtown St. Petersburg, will give racing fans a taste of what they will see in the 2012 Olympic Games.
"Women have been match racing for well over a decade," said the St. Petersburg Yacht Club's Pat Seidenspinner, who helped bring the event to town. "You will see a lot more attention devoted to this style of sailing now that it is on its way to becoming an Olympic sport."
America's Cup style
Most competitive sailors race in fleets, where each skipper and/or crew must do their best to master wind and tides. The sailor or team that gets the most out of a boat wins. At the collegiate level, sailors compete in "teams," where the combined ranking of more than one boat determines who wins.
But match racing is a head-to-head duel between two boats, the sailing equivalent of a halfcourt game of one-on-one. This weekend's Women's Rolex Match will feature 10 teams in a round-robin competition, with one skipper and crew eventually emerging victorious.
"You need to not always be thinking about your options, but also all of the things that your opponent can do that will get you in trouble," said Ed Baird, three-time men's match racing world champion and helmsman of the America's Cup champion Alinghi. "Thinking two or three moves down the road isn't good enough. That's how you fall into a trap. Think four steps ahead, and then you win."
The America's Cup, which the Swiss team won last year in Spain, is the most famous match race. It is a skill that only a special breed of sailor can master. Hall, a senior from St. Petersburg High, and teammates Mallory Willett, 16; Mary Hall (not related), 15; and Kelley Simpson, 17; hope they can make the cut.
Not for everybody
Allison Jolley, who in 1988 won the first gold medal in women's sailing at the Seoul Olympics, started sailing with Baird more than 30 years ago.
"It takes a special personality," she said. "Ed gravitated toward it right from the start. I wasn't cut out for it. I've always been a fleet sailor where you have to do your best against the elements."
Jolley, who now coaches the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg's nationally ranked sailing team, said team racing is a good preparation for match racing, but she has had to work extra hard to prepare one of her sailors, Rachael Silverstein, who will lead her own team in this weekend's event.
"Match racing is extremely tactical, and at times, even cutthroat," Jolley said. "You have to be good at blocking, covering …it gets pretty intense. So we have had her out sailing one-on-one against some of the guys who are good match racers."
There is a professional women's match racing circuit, but it has not received the same degree of publicity as the men's tour.
"I think the events such as this one, and the Osprey Cup, which we host here in the fall, will help raise the profile of the sport," Seidenspinner said. "Interest will surely continue to grow when it becomes an Olympic sport."
St. Petersburg has a national reputation for producing top young sailors. Baird, Jolley and Mark Mendelblatt, who sailed with America's Cup challenger Team New Zealand, all got their start through the yacht club's youth program.
"Our sailors compete all over the country," said Todd Fedyszyn, who coaches the youth team. "As a result, they get exposure and experience usually reserved for older sailors."
Hall, Willett, Hall and Simpson have no match racing experience, but they did compete together in the Sonar class of the National Offshore One-Design Regatta last month in St. Petersburg.
"The girls have got a long way to go," Fedyszyn said. "This is a great chance for them to get their feet wet. The intensity level will be a lot higher. In match racing, without a strong aggressive streak, it is hard to be successful."
Baird had some advice for the girls from St. Petersburg.
"Once you get out on the course, the gloves come off," he said. "You can be best of friends before and after, but during the race … you play to win."
Hall, the 18-year-old skipper, admits that she doesn't have a mean bone in her body. But her coach figured out a way to get her fired up.
"He told me that when I get out there to pretend I am racing against my brother (Cameron, 16)," she said. "We love each other to death, but I still like to beat him every chance I get."