Ian Williams interview

The Royal Southern Yacht Club’s Match Cup (12-15 June) is a Grade 2 event attracting some top international match racers racing against home-grown young talent including sailors of the RSthnYC's Academy.

Top seed for the event was four times world champion Ian Williams, a ten-times winner on the World Match Racing Tour with 29 podium finishes and the only European to hold multiple match racing World titles. He has been shortlisted twice for the ISAF World Sailor of the Year Award and also twice for the British YJA Yachtsman of the Year Award.

Just two weeks before the Match Cup Ian was at the Royal Southern to promote his campaign and the event, and was interviewed by Jonty Sherwill (also a match racing champion at the 1990 Viyella Cup) and who asked Ian what makes his team so effective:

JS: How do you maintain your form to stay on top of your game. You have your crew around you - do you self-coach or do you get help from outside?

IW: Primarily we are self-coached but occasionally we bring coaches in at different times. With match racing so much of it is how you improve during the regatta, and you are sailing a different [type of] boat each time. It’s the rate of improvement that’s important.

It’s the same for everybody and you have just a two-hour practice session beforehand to figure things out. A lot of that’s internal anyway so we have pretty intense de-briefs on how we are sailing the boat and with a view to hitting our stride on the last day. You just have to qualify for the next round in the early stages so much of it is down to that.

JS: What happens when you are sailing against ‘rookies’, the unknown quantity? Is there an etiquette of the sport amongst the seasoned professionals, a code of conduct that can be upset? Where is your strength against their weaknesses because of their lack of experience?

IW: Yes I think that’s interesting. We tend to be at our strongest against strong opposition. My philosophy is to structure my positioning and my tactics by assuming the other person will do right thing and I try to ensure we are one step ahead of them - but someone doing something unexpected because they are less experienced can sometimes throw us off our rhythm.

Quite often you’ll see that we go to an event and win the round robin and beat all the top teams, but the teams at the bottom of the scoreboard put wins against us. That’s because we are less good at adapting to the weaker teams who perhaps go more aggressive by trying to put penalties on, and holding them out at the start is really not our style. Our style is more to try and start on the favoured side. Occasionally if you pick that wrong and the weaker team is sailing their boat well and they go the right way, and we go the wrong way, they will beat us.

JS: Do you have set plays as you initiate a pre-start and for attacking your opponent?

IW: Yes, there are four main outcomes to a pre-start and that assumes both boats on the line and up to speed, in terms position of the boats versus each other and which tack they are on. We work out which will be a winning start for us, sometimes it’s just one or two of those and even three of the four that will be winning outcomes for us and basically we work back from there at to how we can end up in that position at the start time. So we pre-plan all the way back to the dial up, what time do you need to peel out of the dial up and do you need to be leading or following away from the dial up. Also as we are going in to the entry we have an idea whether we want to dial up, although with a port entry you do not always get that option. Also when you want to pull out of it quickly and when to be patient.

JS: Do you recognise the particular style of your major opponents and does it matter to you who is on the helm of the other boat?

IW: I think when there are particular people who you are having trouble with we will look closely at their game and try and work out if there are any weaknesses that we can exploit but mostly we focus on what we are doing and we feel that if we execute correctly our game plan we should win against anybody. But you’re right, if there is someone that we are having particular problems with, we will look at what they are doing, how they are sailing, and if they are beating us we will try and adapt our style specific to that person. It may be a generic thing that we can adapt against everybody.

JS: Tell me about the umpiring - is it the same team at each event on the world tour?

IW: We tend to get a pretty consistent group – which makes up about half the umpires – the others will be locals plus some up and coming umpires. How good the local availability of boats is makes a difference and if they have good gearboxes. Sometimes the boats are too big or not powerful enough so the umpires can’t always get into good positions.

Where we went wrong in the final of the Monsoon Cup last year is that we forced the umpires to make decisions and they decided to penalise us and in a couple of instances we could have allowed them to green flag the incident. We might have been better off if we hadn’t forced the issue.

JS: But how do you decide how hard to push it and how consistent is your mindset through the year? You are working towards another world championship – how do you and the crew pace yourselves so the level of your performance is consistent?

IW: It’s all about controlled aggression and not being over-aggressive. For example Rule 16 ‘changing course’, you want to be aggressive enough to dominate the situation without infringing the rule and different umpires put different weight on changing course - it’s quite a big grey area there. If you are the right of way boat you want to put the other boat at risk of getting a penalty without risking one yourself.

JS: And I guess that is influenced in each competition by the type of boat you are sailing with different displacement and performance characteristics, etc.

IW: You have to adjust your game for the different types of boats – in Bermuda it’s very slow, a circle takes over 30 seconds to turn, while the J/80 takes 16 seconds, half the time, and they accelerate out of it in 5-10 seconds – but it’s 40 or 60 seconds in the IODs [International One-Designs].

JS: And confidence levels in your team this year?

IW: You’d have to ask them I guess! We were in the mix last year, we had it in ours hands, and it’s obviously a big shame that is hindsight we probably gave ourselves too much to do at the Monsoon Cup. We lost 2 petit finals last year so we got two 4th when perhaps we should have had two 3rds, so really it’s about maintaining consistency throughout the year but making sure you peak in Malaysia. We certainly feel that if we perform on the day we can win.

JS: So what about the upcoming Grade 2 event at the Royal Southern Yacht Club? How many of that type of event do you do in a year or is this one special because it’s at home.

IW: I don’t think we did enough last year and so we are putting a big focus on more training events. So far this year we have done the Congressional Cup, which is Grade 1, Hong Kong, Poland, and this one at the Royal Southern which are Grade 2’s, as our pre-season preparation. This one comes after Germany and we may do one more, possibly the National Championships before Malaysia, just to make sure we are peaking.

JS: So looking a bit further ahead, what about the America’s Cup?

IW: I’d love to do the America’s Cup, it’s the pinnacle of sailing, but it’s difficult at the moment. When I turned pro in 2005 there were 12 teams in Valencia and half of those teams had two full boats worth of crew with an afterguard of 4 or 5 people - now it’s down to 5 of 6 teams with one boat per team with an afterguard of 1 or 2 – a massive contraction in terms of roles that I could potentially do. The America’s Cup is something I’d love do but I’ll have to wait for something to come up.

JS: Ian Williams, thanks very much, and good luck!

© Jonty Sherwill 2014
No re-publication in whole or part without written permission.

Royal Southern YC Match Cup report: