20th anniversary

Rich Roberts looks back at the Congressional Cup and the introduction of on the water umpiring

Monday April 14th 2008, Author: Rich Roberts, Location: United Kingdom
Before Dave Perry could claim the second of his consecutive Congressional Cup championships in 1984 he had to suffer an agonizing couple of hours waging his case against two-time champion Dick Deaver in the protest room and then forlornly pacing under a full moon outside the Long Beach Yacht Club while the jury made up its mind.

Those were the bad old days of match racing. The 44th Congressional Cup presented by Acura April 29-May 3 marks the 20th anniversary of how the event changed the face of the game by replacing protests ashore with instant justice on the water. Since then it’s been: competitor protests opponent, umpires rule yes or no; if no, opponent does penalty turn; race goes on.

The 1988 Congressional Cup was the first major match racing event in the world to feature on-the-water umpiring, which immediately became the standard.

Perry returns this year, competing against younger guys who never knew any other way so, as a rules author and lecturer, he appreciates the transformation more than most, especially when he recalls that night in ’84. “I’ll never forget it,” he says now. “That was not a nice one. Very unpleasant.”

Deaver gave Perry credit for his presentation in the protest room, noting, “He was very good.”

But that, Perry says now, misses the point. His second match racing career is a lot more fun than the first. “The game was being held back by not having umpires,” he says. “You couldn’t do the match racing game now without umpiring. The tactics are much more aggressive now. The boats are much closer together most of the time. In the days before [umpiring] you dreaded getting near somebody because you might have to go to the room. Having the umpires there means you can play the game.”

Competition starts Tuesday, April 29, with a double round-robin running through Friday, with the best-of-three semifinals and finals Saturday and 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.

The field has two former winners - Perry in 1983 and ’84 and New Zealand’s Gavin Brady going for his fourth title after wins in 1996, 1997 and 2006, plus Chris Van Tol, the highest-ranked American, and, in order of international ranking, France's Damien Iehl, Pierre-Antoine Morvan and Philippe Presti; Russia’s Andrew Arbuzov, Sweden’s Johnie Berntsson, New Zealand’s Simon Minoprio and Scott Dickson, a New Zealand native but a longtime Long Beach resident and Congressional Cup regular.

The seeds of on-the-water umpiring were planted in the 1986-87 America’s Cup at Fremantle where the dusk-to-dawn protest hearings marked Australia’s defense as an extreme example of taking the fun out of the game. But it was the only protest system match racing knew. From there, the frustration and foresight of certain people who knew there must be a better way took the bold steps to make it happen.

Tom Ehman, now head of external affairs for the BMW Oracle Racing America’s Cup team, was instrumental. As a racing judge and rules advisor for the New York Yacht Club’s America II team at Fremantle, he knew the dysfunction firsthand.

"We figured that if juries were right 75 per cent of the time [in settling protest hearings], if umpires could do that well it would be great,” Ehman said recently. “It turned out to be better than that. It has led to instant decisions and made television practical, which in turn brought in sponsorship."

After Dennis Conner won the America’s Cup back for the San Diego Yacht Club in ’87, Ehman rounded up enough support later that year to try the scheme in the match racing finals of the Maxi Worlds fleet racing regatta hosted by Sail Newport. It worked.
The next major full-on match racing event was the 1988 Congressional Cup. Ehman later wrote in Seahorse magazine that he agreed to serve as jury chairman on one condition: “That you let me do the umpiring thing."

He recalled, “The whole thing was risky at best, having never been tried in a high-level match racing event - and Congressional Cup is the granddaddy of them all.”

The late Chuck Kober, an LBYC member, former US Sailing president and a senior racing judge, exerted his influence to persuade the elders to at least try an experimental event a few weeks earlier. That trial swayed any skeptics.

Ehman said. “It changed the relationships among the sailors themselves. Once the umpires made a call and, if necessary, somebody did a penalty turn, everyone went back to racing. Long Beach Yacht Club deserves an enormous amount of credit for having the vision and the gumption to try the system. And after the '92 America's Cup there was no question about it. But LBYC was the incubator."

As for the degree of penalties to be imposed, Ehman said, “We discussed dropping the headsail or [doing] 360 and 720 [circles]. We wanted to make it a meaningful penalty without making it a killer. Two loops was too much, the drops not enough. We settled on a single turn that evolved into a 270 -a gybe upwind or a tack downwind.”

One of the umpires for that event was Kirk Brown, an LBYC member and international judge who last year served as an on-the-water umpire for the America’s Cup at Valencia. “In ’88 I was the jury secretary,” Brown said, “but they quickly found that they needed more umpires, so I got pressed into service.”

So it started then for him, too. Brown also will be officiating on the water this year, along with Jan Stage, chief umpire; Alfredo Ricci, deputy chief umpire; Henry Menin, Flavio Naveira, Dave Pyron, Angelo Buscemi, Pete Ives, Eduardo Porto, Gary Shoemaker, Doug Sloan, Stephen Van Dyck, Charlie Arms-Carfee, David Blackman and Serge Jorgensen.

Since the Congressional Cup was launched in 1965 by a Deed of Gift recorded in the US Congress, other world-renowned sailors such as Ted Turner, Dennis Conner, Rod Davis, Peter Gilmour, Peter Holmberg, Dean Barker, Ken Read and Chris Dickson have won the Crimson Blazer emblematic of victory in the prestigious event.

Event sponsors are the Port of Long Beach, Farmers & Merchants Bank, Catalina Adventure Tours, the Long Beach Press-Telegram, West Marine, Jones Lumber, Union Bank of California, Long Beach Memorial Hospital, 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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