Henri-Lloyd’s Chairman Hans Eckerström wanted to put the 2020 range to the test. Not the standard factory and model tests of materials, fit and wear, but the kind which really put the kit through its paces.
The Swedish investor and sailor decided to enter two J/70 teams in the Frostbite Challenge at Marstrand and have Henri Lloyd as title sponsor of the event – with just eight hours of sunshine in November until this point and temperatures hovering around zero, surely this would provide the kind of gruelling conditions that would test both sailors and their kit to the limits?
For those who haven’t had the pleasure of sailing at Marstrand, or watched racing in the World Match Racing Tour events or the 44Cup, the venue is a picturesque island off the west coast of Sweden, with clusters of islets dotted around its coast. Racing usually takes place in the more open water to the west of the town, but the Frostbite Challenge is a bit different. Initiated in 1989 by Stellan Westerdahl, who sailed in the Star class with Pelle Pettersson, the social side of the racing has always been the focus, with many crews donning Santa Claus beards and great camaraderie between the crews, albeit with a few stronger words when spinnakers ‘brushed’ shrouds and backstays in the confined waters… nothing that a shared drink ashore didn’t resolve though.
Almost a 'stadium event', the eight races held over the weekend spanning November and December have the marks tucked up into the harbour and close to the many rocks and headlands with two classes taking part; the J/70s and CB66 sportsboats. The course was a simple triangle-sausage, but taking straight lines between the buoys is usually impossible, unless your boat has suddenly become amphibious or can straddle pontoons. These natural and man-made obstacles make the racing incredibly fun to watch and many of the locals turn out to enjoy the spectacle.
Hans invited a select group to sail on the two teams. The brand's Chief Technical Advisor is none other than Sir Ben Ainslie, so he was naturally one of the helms, sailing together with Peter Gustavsson, who helms the Swedish J/111 Blur and describes himself as an 'entrepreneur, angel investor and troublemaker', Henrik Ottosson, Manager at North Sails in Sweden, and myself on bow. Hans himself helmed the other boat with INEOS TEAM UK's Ben Cornish, Henri-Lloyd's Ross Partridge and regular Christian Düring on bow. The two Henri-Lloyd teams arrived on Friday evening, slightly delayed by heavy snow in Stockholm which closed two of the three runways and delayed flights to Gothenburg later in the day. A precursor of conditions to come? Hans had slow-cooked a chilli and we quickly settled into the delicious meal while chatting about sailing, participation and flying 75 footers amongst other things. The first of the competitive aspects then started with round-the-table ping pong, providing much entertainment and one mobile phone taking on a curved aspect and not being so useful for calls... or anything else for that matter.
Saturday morning dawned with light winds and not a cloud in the sky but was a cool -2 degrees Celsius. The Henri-Lloyd mid-layers were definitely welcome when rigging the boats and washing the ice off the decks with salt water! It wasn't quite possible to double the hours of sunshine in November since there are only seven hours of daylight at this time of year in these northern climes. Five races were scheduled with a break for lunch ashore - after all, this is a social regatta
From the off it was clear that the local Swedish teams were well-practiced and weren't holding back. Tomas Skålen's team laid down the marker with a bullet in the first race, with Ben's team fifth and Hans in ninth. The racing was super-tight and many places could be lost with the slightest error or wind shift. The approach to the windward mark, set right up the harbour channel, was one of the trickiest areas, followed by the reach round the pontoons and past the Södra Strandverket fortress. It was at this corner that Ben's team were caught out by a lack of practice in race two, dropping the spinnaker into the water and tearing it on the keel - not the greatest start to the event!
Hans and his team put it all together beautifully in race four with a well-deserved race victory, showing the fleet a clean set of heels around the race track, and Ben's worry was beginning to grow... While both teams were mid-fleet in the results, Hans was a point ahead of Ben going into the final race of the day and bragging rights were seriously on the line.
We've learned through the years to never write off Ben during an event - his comeback in the Finn class at the London 2012 Olympics and of course the famous fightback on Oracle Team USA against Emirates Team New Zealand in the 2013 America's Cup being two of the most famous instances - and he showed his fighting spirit in the final race of the day. Fast off the line, second round the windward mark, and then a quick pair of gybes saw him take the lead, never to be relinquished. Still mid-fleet in the event, but ahead of Hans in the ranking going into Saturday evening. The relief on his face was evident!
Hans and Ben then gave a talk to the sailors and their families at the Villa Maritime in Marstrand. Since the acquisition of Henri-Lloyd, Hans and his team have been incredibly busy planning the iconic brand's future direction and focus. 2019 saw the award-winning Fremantle range released, and Hans explained that 2020 is when Henri-Lloyd fully returns to the market, showcasing and giving the M-PRO range a real-world test at the Frostbite Challenge.
Ben then spoke about INEOS TEAM UK, their first AC75 (which is known in-house as 'The Beast') and how it is more akin to flying a plane than sailing at times, but at the end of the day sailing skills are paramount when racing. The Swedish sailors had many questions for Ben, which he happily answered in this relaxed setting. It was very evident that Ben was hugely enjoying the Frostbite Challenge. The America's Cup is so much about technology and testing the new foiling 75 foot monohulls, meaning that both Bens, Ainslie and Cornish, have had to let fleet racing take a back seat. The sparkle was in their eyes as they engaged in the tight racing in a one-design fleet. The sailors than settled into a great evening of dinner and chat at the Villa Maritime, followed by another round-the-table ping pong tournament, ahead of the final three races the next day.
Sunday morning dawned with a few clouds in the sky, a freshening breeze and another layer of ice on the pontoons and decks. Points were incredibly close in both the J/70 and CB66 fleets, and pretty much the whole fleet were still in the running. Ben and his team were clearly fired up after the win in the final race on Saturday; a combination of a great start, improved boat handling and good use of lanes took another race win, with Hans and his team in fourth.
The Race Committee, led by Annika Bjurmalm, mixed things up for the final two races of the event, deciding on starboard roundings which led to some 'close calls' throughout - the already tight racing became even tighter! The two Henri-Lloyd teams saw both the front and back of the fleet at various points throughout race seven, with Ben eventually taking fourth and Hans sixth. It was all down to the final race. Magne Klang was tied with Tomas Skålen on 19 points, with Thomas Vigenberg a point behind them, and Ben Ainslie was in fourth on 21 - just about as tight as it can get.
Ben and his team shot out of the blocks and led around the course, working well as a team to spot the lanes and opportunities. The question was whether the race win was going to be enough? A third place for Tomas Skålen left them tied on points with Ben, but the three race victories gave Ben and his team the Frostbite Challenge title on countback. Ben can now add this event to an already impressive list of comeback victories.
A huge thanks to Annika and her Race Team, also Marcus Blomberg and all those at Marstrands Segelsällskap (MaSS) for the superb weekend of racing. It's hard to imagine a better setting and more fun way to race in late November / early December. Hans then invited the team back for a traditional Swedish sauna, followed by a dip in the sea for those willing to give it a go. The sauna was hot, the sea less so, but when in Sweden it's important to take part in the local pastimes!
The Henri-Lloyd Frostbite Challenge offered real racing with hugely passionate sailors and showcased various aspects of sailing which stands it apart from other sports; the welcoming nature of sailors around the world, multi-national teams coming together and quickly improving, and how the very top sailors are more than happy to mix it up in local events. This really was the sport of sailing at its very best.
Hans summed it up beautifully saying, \"I loved every second of the weekend. It is so great to be able to show friends both new and old the best of Marstrand. I really love the genuine passion for grass root sailing that Ben demonstrated as well as the huge commitment by Marcus Blomberg, Commodore of the local sailing club, to re-establish Marstrand as a premier arena for all kinds of sailing.\"