The best part of Nick Egnot-Johnson's 2023 Congressional Cup wasn’t the realisation of a childhood dream of standing on the dais in match racing's most prestigious event, or the potential springboard to achieve another long-held goal of winning a world championship.
It was facing the most successful skipper in the history of the World Match Racing Tour (WMRT) and a sailor he grew up idolising - and beating him to the bronze medal.
Egnot-Johnson and his Knots Racing team finished third at the Cup in Long Beach last Sunday (April 23) after defeating British match-racing great Ian Williams in the petit final. Williams is someone Ehnot-Johnson had looked up to while cutting his match-racing teeth – and who he had lost to in his two previous Congressional Cup appearances.
“We had all basically learned to match race off this guy. We’ve watched his videos all over YouTube, watched him beating so many different people and dominating the World Tour for years,” Egnot-Johnson said.
“To then come up against him and get the win was pretty cool.”
The 24-year-old Aucklander and his crew of Alex Higby, Bradley Mclaughlin, Sam Barnett, Alastair Gifford and Zak Merton defeated Williams’ China One.Ningbo team 2-0 after earlier being knocked out at the semifinal stage by the eventual winner, American Chris Poole (Riptide Racing).
Williams has won five Congressional Cups and the world championships six times - a title awarded to the overall winner of a select series of events on the annual WMRT schedule.
The Congressional Cup is considered the 'grandfather of match racing' and has been contested since 1967. It is also the first of four events counting toward the 2023 world championships, with the GKSS Match Cup Sweden (in Marstrand in July), October’s Bermuda Gold Cup and the Shenzhen Bao’an Match Cup in China in December the others.
Despite Williams' reputation, Egnot-Johnson was confident they could beat him in a must-win race after twice lining up against him in the round-robin stage last week.
“He beat us in our first two Congressional Cups (2019 and 2022) but we definitely thought we could do it this time as we had beaten him in the first round-robin race and only lost the second when we made a small mistake on the second beat,” Egnot-Johnson said.
“We felt like we were sailing really well and we knew we just had to ignore the Williams name tag on his sail. We decided to pretend he was someone else and not let his name make us nervous.”
The Knots Racing crew announced themselves as a rising force on the scene when they narrowly missed out on the semifinals at the 2019 Cup: “We had a really good one that first year, a bit of beginner’s luck ending up fifth, but last year we had a shocker and we were ninth out of the ten teams".
What makes their success at this year's event even sweeter is the fact that they all work full-time to fund their own way to international events, while many of their competitors are fully sponsored.
"We still don't have a sponsor for our team and we all have full-time jobs to pay for everything out of our own pockets. The top four teams on tour have everything paid for and they can go over to events early and train on the boats beforehand. It definitely makes things trickier for us, but we work with it."
The team was hastily assembled ahead of a Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron-run trial for the match racing youth world championships in 2018. They decided to "stick with it" after winning the trial and "going OK" at the worlds, Egnot-Johnson explained.
The podium finish in California is a career highlight “right up alongside” his team’s victory at the WMRT finals in Sydney in December - but it hasn't changed much in practical terms.
"Basically, it's put us in a good position to get an entry for the next event (GKSS Match Cup Sweden), which is the next step to our big goal of winning the world championships," he said.
"But ultimately, we do it because we love match racing and to get a good result every now and then – like at the Congressional Cup – is a nice little bonus. It's our passion and we'd like to think we're pretty handy at it."
Full results from the 2023 Congressional Cup here.