Article first published by Live Sail Die on 12th October 2020.
Graeme Sutherland, Sam Meech, Logan Sutherland, and Micah Wilkinson have prevailed in very breezy conditions to win the 2020 Yachting Developments New Zealand Match Racing Championship at the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron.
Sutherland has been trying to win this event for quite a few years, so he was very happy to finally get the monkey off his back –
“I first started doing this event when I was a young fella, we had to jump into the MRX’s and learn how to play the old man’s game and now I’m an old boy and here I am racing against the younger guys in small boats again. It’s taken me a couple times to get back into the young man’s game, but I loved it, I had a great team and it was some really great racing.”
With sixteen teams taking part this year, the fleet was split into two pools, with Pool A racing a round robin on Thursday, followed by Pool B on Friday. Reuben Corbett topped Pool A after going unbeaten with seven wins, and he was closely followed by Leonard Takahashi who had six. Nick Egnot-Johnson and his RNZYS Performance Programme Knots Racing Team were the unbeaten team in Pool B, with Sutherland close behind on six wins.
After the completion of the two round robins, competitors were then ranked for the Super Sixteen Knockout Round on Saturday. The breeze was cranking at around twenty to twenty-five knots, as it did for the majority of the regatta, and the super 16 matchups didn’t disappoint with plenty of action, fast downwind sailing, and lots of spectacular wipeouts. However, there were no upsets and the top eight ranked competitors all made it through to the Quarterfinals.
Finals day on Sunday lived up to the hype, with the breeze again pounding in from the North East, allowing for some superb match racing conditions.
The first quarterfinal had Coach Corbett up against his pupil Niall Malone and his RNZYS PP / Royal Irish Yacht Club Match Racing Team. Malone entered early in the first match which gave Corbett an early advantage, an advantage that he held onto to win and take a one-nil lead. Malone then hung in valiantly in the second match, but Corbett and his experienced team continued to extend their lead throughout, going on to win comfortably and become the first team into the semi-finals.
Egnot-Johnson then took on Robbie McCutcheon and his RNZYS Mastercard Youth Training Programme Team in the next quarterfinal. McCutcheon had sailed really well so far in this regatta, showing he has come a long way in the last year and has a bright future ahead of him, and he also sailed well in this match-up. The pre-starts were close and McCutcheon was hanging in there, but the Knots Racing boys showed their superior boat handling around the track to notch up two wins and secure a semi-final berth.
The third quarterfinal between Leonard Takahashi and Jordan Stevenson was a true classic. Takahashi and his Pacific Racing Team took out the first match fairly convincingly, but the second was a real ding-dong affair. Stevenson and his RNZYS PP Vento Racing team were leading the final downwind but were carrying a penalty. They quickly dropped their kite and did their turn right before the finish line, but Takahashi was charging in super-hot and it looked like he might just come through and snatch the victory. They both crossed the line within milliseconds of each other, Stevenson with very little pace and Takahashi with plenty, but it was the yellow flag that was raised by the race committee, giving Stevenson the win. The boys on board the Vento Racing boat erupted with hoots and hollers as they knew they had just been given a lifeline back into the tie. The final match was also a close one, with both teams hooning downwind to the finish, but this time it was Takahashi who got the last laugh and cemented a spot in the semi-finals.
The last quarterfinal saw Sutherland take on Alistair Gifford. Gifford and his crew of Connor Mashlan, Max South and Crystal Sun pinned a penalty on Sutherland in the first match and went on to win by a decent margin. But Sutherland, who was very motivated to win this event, came back hard to win the next two matches and join the semi-final party.
Corbett, the highest ranked competitor, then chose to race Sutherland in the semis. Sutherland looked dominant in the pre-start whereas the up-until-now composed Corbett looked a bit flustered. Corbett then got a penalty and Sutherland got the better start, and matters were made worse for Corbett when he trawled his kite at the first bottom mark rounding. Sutherland was then able to extend his lead, a lead he didn’t relinquish as he went on to win the first match with ease. Corbett fought back though, winning the next match to send it to a win-or-go-home final match. Sutherland again got the better start, and things were made even easier for him when Corbett went to the wrong top mark and virtually handed Sutherland a spot in the final.
Speaking back on shore, Sutherland said that win meant just that little bit more for him –
“It was great racing against Reuben [Corbett], I had a bit of extra motivation there because I really wanted to beat Harry Thurston so that just kept me going and hiking that little extra bit harder. He got a bit flustered in a couple of pre-starts and picked the wrong mark at one point, but we still had some great races. He was probably the favorite all week, so it was great to take one off him.”
The second semi-final was between Takahashi and Egnot-Johnson, a match that we’ve seen plenty of times in previous years in regattas at the RNZYS and abroad, and it didn’t disappoint. Egnot-Johnson took the first point with a pretty convincing win, but Takahashi fought back to win the second by a good margin after Egnot-Johnson hit the start mark and copped a penalty. It was anyone’s guess who would win the final match, with both boats extremely close throughout. As they both sent it downwind on the final leg it was hard to see who was in the lead, with the Knots and Pacific Racing boy’s neck and neck. But it was the 2019 champion who came out on top, crossing the line a couple of boat lengths ahead of Takahashi to claim victory and close this chapter in the continuing story of their epic battles.
The wind was now howling for the grand finale, with Sutherland looking for his first title and Egnot-Johnson looking to go back-to-back. Both teams were ready for a clash of the heavy weights, with one heading home with the spoils and the other left on the canvas.
Sutherland snatched the first match, although it was very close, but Sutherland managed to just stay in the lead throughout and give himself a sniff of the trophy. A sniff, as it turns out, was all he needed. Leading by a whisker at the first top-and-bottom marks, Sutherland then pushed on in the final two legs, leaving last year’s champion in his wake to coast over the line and become the last man standing after what was a truly fantastic four days of match racing –
“I’ve been coaching Nick and sailing with him for a couple of years now, he’s a very talented sailor and they are a very talented team. They were probably the favorite going into the final in these boats, his boat handling was the best out there all week. But we kept the pressure on him in the pre-start and just backed ourselves around the racetrack, didn’t give him any passing lanes, and that was it, job done.”
Sutherland was really pleased with his team’s performance overall, and says it was anyone’s regatta to win out there today –
“I think anyone in the top group could have actually taken home the win today, they were all really solid teams. Every race was a good battle on what was a very shifty race-course in big breeze, it was all on but we just a kept a roll on from the quarters all the way through, so we are really happy to get the win.”
The RNZYS would like to thank regatta sponsors Yachting Developments, Race Officer Brian Trubovich and his superb Race Management Team, and Chief Umpire Collette Kraus and her expert Umpire Team. A big thank you also goes out to all sixteen teams who put on a real show with four days of brilliant match racing.