Great Briton rules the waves

Ian Williams is the world's top-ranked match racer and will be the man to beat when Hong Kong hosts an international regatta next month

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 April, 2013, 6:29am

Ian Williams tweeted the other day that he wished he had taken up tennis: "Wimbledon prize money to increase by 40 per cent - seems I'm in the wrong sport."

But if that was the case, it is doubtful Britain's four-time World Match Racing champion would be enjoying being top of the roost, ranked world number one, for history would weigh against him; Fred Perry, in 1941, was the last British male tennis player to be ranked world number one.

The forks in life's pathway could easily have taken Williams, 36, elsewhere. As a talented teenager, he could have chosen any number of sports, but he answered the call of sailing, something which started as a recreation following in the footsteps of his parents, but has now reached a professional career - albeit without the immense monetary rewards of other professional sports.

"I played a lot of sports as a schoolboy, particularly hockey and rugby, but I would have liked to play more cricket which is a game I really enjoy. Unfortunately, it is a summer sport and it clashed with sailing," said Williams, who will be the man everyone will be aiming to beat at the 1010 4G Hong Kong International Match Racing Regatta from May 10-12.

It is Williams' first visit to Hong Kong and he is excited at the prospect of taking part in the grade two match-racing regatta as well as taking in the sights of a city "I have heard about a lot from my uncle who used to live there for many years".

Work, though, will come before play for Williams, who is a nine-time winner on the world match-racing tour, and he will not have it all his way as he encounters a strong field including two others ranked in the top 10 - New Zealanders Phil Robertson (four) and William Tiller (five) - in the 12-strong fleet, which will take part in 60 races over three days in Victoria Harbour.

"This is only the second year that we are having the regatta, but unlike last year, this is bigger and better," says Hong Kong Yacht Club sailing development manager Richard Knight, who is also running the show.

"We didn't have a sponsor last time and 12 months ago the highest-ranked sailor in the fleet was 50th in the world. This time we have three of the world's best which will make it an exciting spectacle that the public can view from shore," Knight said.

One of the best things about match racing is it will be a level playing field for all competitors. They will sail the same type of boats - J/80s. It is this reason that attracted Williams to the sport.

"When I was 16, I did not own a boat, so it was hard to do any other type of competitive sailing. But in the match-racing circuit the boats are supplied by the event [organisers], so it was an opportunity for me to do some competitive sailing without it costing much.

"I found I really enjoyed the intensity of the racing and the fact that everybody had to use the same equipment made the racing very close. I had some early successes and that encouraged me to keep going," said Williams, who in 2005 gave up his job as a lawyer to devote himself full time. to the sport.

An illustrious career is peppered with titles. He has now won four world championships, four national championships and three youth national championships in the discipline. He is the first European to hold multiple match-racing world titles.

Williams is also well known on the professional big-boat circuit as an accomplished tactician, having won regattas in many classes. He has been shortlisted once for the ISAF World Sailor of the Year Award and twice for the British YJA Yachtsman of the Year Award. In 2009, he even dabbled with the America's Cup for China Team. Skipper of the team for the Louis Vuitton Pacific Series, they beat Greek Challenge, Shosholoza (of South Africa) and K-Challenge (of France) overall.

"That regatta was for America's Cup teams to compete while they waited for the legal battle between Larry Ellison and Ernesto Bertarelli to be decided. We hoped to continue, but the legal battle dragged on and the momentum was lost. I enjoyed that stint and would be very interested in the future to help open up the sport to more people in China through an America's Cup challenge," Williams said.

A total of eight skippers from overseas, including Williams, will battle it out with four local skippers in the 1010 challenge. The four local crews will be decided at the Hong Kong Nationals on May 4-5.

"There will be 60 races with each race lasting 10-15 minutes. All 12 boats will take part in a round-robin competition, so that Williams will come up against everyone else. The top four after the preliminaries will enter the semi-finals, and then the finals," Knight said. "It is a big coup getting Williams to race here. Even though he will not have his established crew - each boat has four to five sailors - I believe he will be among those to beat and we are confident that the public will witness some of the best match-racing seen in Hong Kong."

Williams is likely to have only one of his regular crew with him in Hong Kong. The rest will be made up of locals.

"This event is an opportunity to help raise the profile of match-racing in Hong Kong and sailing with local youth sailors will be good," Williams said. "It will also be useful practice for me looking ahead to my future competition and also to engage my sponsors GAC, a shipping and logistics company. I am not too focused on our result and I am sure some of the other teams will see it as an opportunity as I am not sailing with my usual team."