Terry Hutchinson, the winner in 1992, will face France's Sébastien Col, Great Britain's Ian Williams and France's Mathieu Richard - currently 1-2-3 in the ISAF rankings - in a deep field of talent that also includes Australia's James Spithill, who drove Italy's Luna Rossa in the 2007 America's Cup at Valencia.
Spithill happens to be in the Southern California neighborhood, now as the primary helmsman for BMW Oracle’s 90ft trimaran that has been testing 100 miles south in San Diego, as the world awaits resolution of the America's Cup legal limbo.
Williams has won the World Match Racing Tour the last two years, while Richard spent time as No1 after winning the Congressional Cup in 2007. Col was France's K-Challenge helmsman at Valencia.
Last week Hutchinson was announced as winner of America's most prestigious sailing honor, but not for match racing. He was tactician for Congressional Cup winners Ken Read in 2003 and Dean Barker in 2005, the latter en route to the America's Cup finale with Barker and Emirates New Zealand in 2007, but calling tactics doesn't count in the ISAF match race rankings.
That's why Hutchinson currently resides in the black hole at No. 919. He hasn't driven in any match races lately. It was in the 2004 Congressional Cup that Hutchinson led Ed Baird around the last mark of the decisive race and then sailed into a windless patch of water as Baird glided past to victory.
"That was the last time I helmed in a match race," Hutchinson said of his humble ranking, which, he said, "puts zero pressure on me."
Hutchinson won the 2008 Rolex award primarily for scoring four prestigious major regatta victories in Europe, including the Trophy of Sardinia and Copa del Rey regattas, which led to his overall win of the Audi MedCup series aboard the TP52 Quantum Racing, while adding triumphs in M30, Melges 24 and Melges 32 classes in his spare time.
For the Rolex, tactics do count. Not only did Hutchinson call the moves for Emirates Team New Zealand in the 32nd America's Cup, but he launched his big year as tactician aboard Jim Richardson's Farr 40 Barking Mad, which won Acura Key West and Acura Miami Grand Prix.
Was it really 17 years ago that he collected the traditional Crimson Blazer as a youth of 23? Does the last-leg loss to Baird in 2004 still gnaw at him? "Losing from ahead in the America's Cup gnaws at me a lot more," he said.
Speaking of the AC, which is adrift in court . . . "It's beyond reason," Hutchinson said. "If the parties were reasonable they would have settled this already. In the bigger picture, the match racing helps to prepare us for the racing we're going to do this summer on the Transpac 52 and the Farr 40s. Obviously, the lineup is really good and all the guys are current. We'll work to make sure we're in the top four [for the sailoffs] by the end of the week and go forward from there. But the top four is going to be a struggle."
With a smile, he added, "For me, it's more about coming back and seeing everybody at the Long Beach Yacht Club, where there happens to be a regatta that gets in the way of having a good time."
Tucked in between the new Louis Vuitton Pacific Cup in New Zealand next month and the start of the 2009 World Match Racing Tour in May, the Congressional Cup this year offered an open window to the best match racers in the world. Also among the elite are France's Philippe Presti, No. 6; New Zealand's Adam Minoprio, No. 8; Sweden's Johnie Berntsson, No. 9, and Finland's Staffan Lindberg, No. 14.
The local hope is Brian Angel (No. 60) of nearby Redondo Beach, who qualified for his third Congressional Cup by winning the competitive Ficker Cup last fall.
Spithill, the onetime 20-year-old boy wonder of the '99-2000 America's Cup at Auckland, is ranked 167th after spending a couple of years driving Luna Rossa but, like being a tactician, America's Cup service - even as a helmsman - doesn't count for ISAF ranking points. However, Spithill is on his game, at least in multihulls. Just last week he finished sixth among 94 boats in his first A-Cat (singlehanded catamaran) Worlds in New South Wales.
The Congressional Cup, although not part of the World Match Racing Tour, is the only Grade 1 match racing event on the North American continent. Since it was launched in 1965 by a Deed of Gift recorded in the U.S. Congress, world-renowned sailors such as Ted Turner, Bill Ficker, Dennis Conner, Rod Davis, Peter Gilmour, Peter Holmberg, Dean Barker, Ken Read, Ed Baird, Chris Dickson and Gavin Brady have won the Crimson Blazer emblematic of victory in the prestigious event.
The 10 six-man crews will sail Catalina 37s owned by the Long Beach Yacht Club Sailing Foundation, rotating boats daily. Each team will race every other team twice. The top four qualify for the championship sailoffs on Saturday.
A high level of organization has been maintained over the years by a volunteer force of some 300 club members and their families. Each crew will be assigned boat hostesses and a housing team to deliver the outstanding local hospitality the Congressional Cup has offered now for 45 years.
(in order or world ranking):
1. Sébastien Col, France
2. Ian Williams, Great Britain
3. Mathieu Richard, France
6. Philippe Presti France
8. Adam Minoprio, New Zealand
9. Johnie Berntsson, Sweden
14. Staffan Lindberg, Finland
60. Brian Angel, USA
167. James Spithill, Australia
919. Terry Hutchinson, USA