How Swede It Is
Sweden's Johnie Berntsson staved off elimination three times in two days to win his first Congressional Cup yacht race on Saturday at Long Beach Harbor.
Berntsson, who had placed second the last two years, swept Italian Francesco Bruni, 2-0, in the best 2-out-of-3 final match play. Hundreds of gatherers cheered the Swedish team as they crossed the finish line just within shouting distance off Belmont Pier.
"We were not doing our best and needed to do better and better and we were lucky," Berntsson said.
In the first match, the 2008 Melges World Champion Bruni led from the beginning until about 100 feet from the finish, where Berntsson looked to catch a good wind and snuck just past the Italian team for a quarter-length win.
"[I didn't know we won] until the flag came up," Berntsson said. "It was a really close match."
Berntsson trailed Bruni by several boat lengths until he closed the gap at the middle turn. He veered strongly into the wind, or a tack maneuver, and ended up right on Bruni's tail and stayed close until the end.
"It's going to take some time to digest. Johnie, it's been great to race against you, except for the first race," Bruni said during the Cup ceremony at the Long Beach Yacht Club, eliciting audience laughter.
Trailing 1-0 in the semifinal going into Saturday, the 8th-ranked Berntsson defeated world No. 3 Mathieu Richard of France, holding off the Frenchman to win by a half a boat length to tie the match round, 1-1. Before the third and deciding match, Berntsson's No. 9 boat collided with Richard's, earning the Swede a penalty. The race continued without either side knowing the severity of the penalty. Berntsson won and seemed set to advance into the final round to face Bruni, who had defeated American Terry Hutchinson.
When officials looked at Richard's standard 37-foot boat after the race and determined the damage that Berntsson had caused exceeded $250, they deducted a point from Berntsson, dropping his score to 1-1 and requiring another race. It was the first time in 45 years of Congressional Cup racing that a semifinal round needed 4 matches to complete.
In the fourth match, before the final of three turns, Berntsson took the side closest to the wind and shielded Richard from it, gaining a boat length advantage heading around the final orange buoy. Berntsson had been inspiring positive reactions from the crowd Saturday with his team's quick ability to let out its front sail, the spinnaker, in order to catch the northeasterly wind blowing into the harbor.
With Catalina island silhouetted against the blue sky, his spinnaker twisted and took several seconds to unravel, giving Richard a chance to close the gap. But when Richard turned around the buoy, his spinnaker twisted as well, and Berntsson cruised to the finish line.
Going into Friday, the final day of round robins before the top four advanced to Saturday's semifinal, Berntsson was 7-8, trailing New Zealand's Adam Minoprio, who was 10-5. Minoprio lost all three matches on Friday afternoon while Berntsson won all three. Their records were both 10-8 and the tiebreaker was how they did against each other in the most recent match. Berntsson had defeated Minoprio in the middle match earlier that day, moving Berntsson into the semi-final round.
"It didn't feel really good on Friday," Berntsson said. "We needed to strike from behind, we needed to do whatever we needed to and we didn't have any pressure on us."
Finishing the round robins on Friday, world 911th-ranked Terry Hutchinson (he doesn't race on a regular basis anymore) led the pack, 15-3, landing the top seed and allowing him to choose his semifinal opponent. He chose Bruni and lost the first match late Friday afternoon and the first match Saturday as he was eliminated.
"Two words, Francesco Bruni," Hutchinson said. "We've raced each other the last two years, and I should've known he'd kick our teeth in."
Race officials decided Friday to hold the first round of semifinal matches because the harbor had held strong winds and there was still plenty of daylight at 4:30 p.m.
The field of six teams who didn't make the semifinals raced in what's called a fleet race, where they all race at once and the two-mile match race course is extended to six miles to fit the teams. The fleet race was the first held Saturday, won by Britain's Ben Ainslie.
Redondo Beach's Brian Angel ended the round robin 1-17 and finished last in the fleet race. World No. 1 Sabastien Col of France finished the round robin 8-10 and fourth in the fleet race.