LONG BEACH, Calif. – Time was in the early days of the Congressional Cup when a competitor from out of the country was a novelty. No foreign-born sailor had claimed the traditional Crimson Blazer until Ireland’s Harold Cudmore won the 22nd edition in 1986.
Now they’ve won 13 of the last 22 – plus Coronado, Calif.-born Rod Davis’ last three of four since he moved to New Zealand.
Meet Chris VanTol from Detroit’s Bayview Yacht Club who joins the lineup for the 44th Congressional Cup next week, Tuesday through Saturday. There will be only one other American, Dave Perry, who won the Congressional twice just before Cudmore broke the foreign ice. Triple winner Gavin Brady and local resident Scott Dickson have lived in the U.S. since the 90s but are still officially Kiwi.
Racing will be near the end of Belmont Pier in the protected outer harbor. There will be free seating for spectators, with snacks available. Competition, starting at 11 a.m. daily, conditions permitting, will feature a double round-robin running through Friday, with the best-of-three semifinals and finals Saturday scheduled aroiund a fleet race for non-qualifiers. The 10 six-man crews will sail Catalina 37s owned by the Long Beach Yacht Club Sailing Foundation, rotating boats daily.
VanTol, 26, is currently the top-ranked American match racer at No. 38 (Perry is No. 48), but significant ISAF ranking points are hard to come by for Americans when there’s only one Grade 1 match racing event in the U.S.—the Congressional Cup—and Europeans can find a Grade 2 or 3 event close to home almost any week of the sailing season.
“They do it a lot more than we do,” VanTol said, “so we’re just trying to catch up to them and sail as much we as we can. Most of those guys are doing it for a living, and they’re very professional on and off the water. We’ve had some good races against them.”
VanTol’s team has won six events—all Grade 2 or 3—over the past two years. When they won the Grade 2 Knickerbocker Cup at New York last August, his conquests included three of his rivals in next week’s lineup: Perry, Russia’s Andrew Arbuzov and France’s Pierre-Antoine Morvan.
“The Knickerbocker was a pretty cool thing, winning it with my brother John and Mike Hoey [as crew],” VanTol said. “We felt like we had reached somewhat of a goal. It also got my insurance agency a lot of recognition, so they liked that, and it gave us good local street cred among the sailing community.”
Most of America’s top professional match racers, including former Congressional Cup winners Peter Holmberg, Terry Hutchinson, Ken Read and Ed Baird, have sought steadier, guaranteed income elsewhere in the America’s Cup or fleet and ocean racing. VanTol’s day job is selling insurance in Detroit.
“It worked out nicely because I was doing marine insurance for the first two years,” he said, “so they were giving me time off to sail whenever I wanted because I was networking among the boaters. But I’ve recently moved to commercial insurance, so the million-dollar question for the last 12 months has been to decide whether sailing is something I want to do fulltime or if I need to cut back.”
VanTol started match racing seriously only two years ago and earned his ranking the hard way in low-point events. This will be only his second Grade 1 event, which could provide a major springboard in the world rankings.
“I didn’t do any sailing in college at Purdue, and when I moved back to Detroit I kind of got bored with fleet racing,” he said. “My attention span is very short, so match racing was the perfect fit because the races are only about 25 minutes long, and the aggressiveness of match racing fit in with the personalities I sail with on the boat. A couple of them are hockey players.”
The on-water umpires are forewarned. This marks the 20th anniversary of the game’s standard officiating system that started in the 1988 Congressional Cup.
Other competitors are France’s Damien Iehl and Philippe Presti, Sweden’s Johnie Berntsson and New Zealand’s Simon Minoprio.
Event sponsors are the Port of Long Beach, Farmers & Merchants Bank, Catalina Adventure Tours, the Long Beach Press-Telegram, West Marine, Long Beach Memorial Hospital, Union Bank of California, Newmeyer & Dillion attorneys at Law, Mount Gay Rum and Gladstone’s Restaurant of Long Beach.
A high level of organization has been maintained over the years by a volunteer force of some 300 club members and their families.
The Long Beach Yacht Club, founded in 1929, has from its beginning sought to encourage future generations of sailors and power boaters. Located on a promontory of Alamitos Bay in the Long Beach Marina, it has a dynamic junior sailing program whose members compete in various youth regattas. There is also a junior swim team and an enthusiastic big game fishing program.
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