Match racing at the RC44 Valletta Cup took place in a 10-14 knot southeasterly in the magnificent setting of the Maltese capital's Grand Harbour, surrounded by the ancient fortified city's towering ramparts.
All RC44 events begin with a day of match racing, points from which are accumulated across the season. Going into this final match racing day of 2016, it also couldn't have been tighter on points, with Vladimir Prosikhin's Team Nika tied in the lead with Artemis Racing. Bronenosec Sailing Team, Team CEEREF and Team Aqua were all tied, three points behind the frontrunners.
Team Nika, the 2015 RC44 World Champion and Fleet Racing Champion, got off to a strong start today dispatching Aleph Racing and Katusha, before picking up an easy win against Team CEEREF, which suffered a terminal spinnaker halyard tangle while rounding the leeward gate. However the Russian team's winning streak came to an end when it lost its flight four match against Chris Bake's Team Aqua.
Meanwhile after being on a bye for race one, Artemis Racing dispatched Bronenosec Sailing Team, Peninsula Petroleum and Charisima. Going into the final match race of the season, this left the Swedes tied with Team Nika. The final race would decide the 2016 Championship.
In this Artemis Racing led off the start line, maintained her advantage through a tacking duel up the first beat and rounded the top mark ahead, before a spinnaker sheet issue on the downwind allowed Team Nika to gain the upper hand.
Artemis Racing helmsman, Francesco Bruni explained: "We had a problem with the old spinnaker sheet having a knot in it. Then we overcomplicated things at the gate and made a bad drop, so we were a little bit on the back foot."
The two boats split at the gate and Artemis Racing picked up a favourable shift that had brought them back into the game by the next cross. Here the experience of the Swedish crew paid, as Team Nika tactician Ed Baird explained: "We went to lee bow them and it was a little slow. They did a nice job of keeping their speed and then ducked us at the last moment to become the leeward boat. Under the new rules we had to tack away and that put them into the lead again."
From there Artemis Racing defended well to finish narrowly ahead of Team Nika and to claim the 2016 RC44 Match Racing Championship title. Bruni commented: "It was great to have such a close match with Team Nika in the last race. It was really intense, like how match racing should be: Very close, lead changes all the time, really good fun. Vladimir and the Team Nika crew did a really good job. They sailed well until the end."
Having hoped to follow up his success in 2015 with the Match Racing Championship title this year, Team Nika's owner Vladimir Proshikin came ashore not in the best of spirits. "I am so depressed, feeling pain," he admitted. "We made one quite basic mistake when we were ahead. I had to tack lee bow and I didn't. It was stupid and it could have changed the outcome. It was one mistake and he [Bruni] didn't allow me to make any mistakes." He added: "Had I not wanted to win so badly, I would have had a lot of fun…"
With Team Nika second overall, an outstanding day for Team Aqua – joint top scorer today with Artemis Racing – allowed Chris Bake's team to claim the third spot on the 2016 RC44 Match Racing Championship podium.
With the wind blowing more across Grand Harbour than down it, the start box was shallow and required teams to reappraise their pre-start manoeuvres, perhaps benefitting the more experienced crews. As Cameron Appleton, who helmed Team Aqua today observed: "There was a lot more reverse circling and picking your time and a lot more shut outs at the committee boat just due to the limited space. So it was a whole different pre-start mind-set and strategy, but we always had a good game plan and were able to execute."
Today was not only the last day of match racing in the 2016 for the RC44s. Going forward the decision has been made to change to an entirely fleet racing regatta format from next season on.