Thursday, 9 July 2009

Finn Gold Cup: 60 Years of the Finn

Sail numbers 1, 2 and 3. Dan Slater, NZL 1, is currently in first place overall. Image copyright Vallensbæk Sailing Club.

by Sailing Intelligence

Tonight (8th July) at Vallensbæk Sailing Club on the outskirts of Copenhagen, the 89 Finn Gold Cup sailors, who are mostly over 90kg and prop forward-sized, will be donning their dancing shoes for a knees-up to celebrate the 60th birthday of their beloved men’s heavyweight Olympic singlehander.

4.5m long with its cat-rig (mainsail only), the Finn was designed in 1949 by Swede Rickard Sarby ready for the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. It has held its place at the Games ever since. During this time some of the greatest names in sailing have earned their stripes in the class, from triple gold medallist in the Finn, Paul Elvstrøm, to America’s Cup legend Russell Coutts, to John Bertrand, skipper of Australia II, the first boat to prise the America’s Cup off the New York Yacht Club in 132 years, while recently the class has been dominated by another profound talent, British star Ben Ainslie.

A Russian sailor rounds the windward mark. Image copyright Vallensbæk Sailing Club.

At the Finn Gold Cup off Vallensbæk the most capped Finn sailor is Michael Maier of the Czech Republic. Today he is 45, but due to his giant size even then, Maier started his Finn career at the impressively young age of 14. “In one year I grew 35cms!” he claims. In 1980 he won his first Czech Finn Nationals and in 1986 he sailed his first Finn Gold Cup, the class’ World Championship.

Maier’s Olympic career got off to a tricky start. Prior to the Barcelona Games in 1992 he qualified the Czech Republic, but come the Games themselves the Czech Olympic authorities were forced to drop one athlete. “I got to the airport in Barcelona and then I was told ‘Michel you stay home’. I was very angry,” he recalls.

After this unfortunate incident Maier says he stopped sailing and instead bought a Mistral, the Olympic sailboard, and lost 21g to get competitive in this. However he was gradually enticed back to the Finn when a friend of his sponsored him with a boat. “He just said ‘look, your new boat is in Hamburg’. If you like it, take it or not'." recalls Maier. "So I took that and it was my first regatta in SPA and in the first three races I was 1, 3, 1. And I have continued until today.”

He subsequently finished 14th in Atlanta, but in Sydney in 2000 suffered two penalties and ended up 19th. He has since followed this up with a 15th and a 25th at the Athens and Beijing Games. Thanks to his wrestler-like frame, between Athens and Beijing he was recruited by Iain Percy and Luca Devoti to complete in the last America’s Cup as a grinder with their +39 team, mostly comprising friends from the Finn class.

So celebrating his 30 years in the class, what has changed over the years? “Now there is more physical preparation,” says Maier, who admits he feels his age in the class. “Before guys were stronger, but the equipment has changed and we have new materials. Sometimes downwind you think it is gymnastics, not sailing, and if it is free pumping some guys have double the speed of me.”

Techniques have also changed, thanks to the influx of Olympic sailors from the Laser class. Despite equipment changes and the boat getting lighter, the boat remains a handful particularly in strong winds. Maier remembers the Worlds in Cascais in 2007 when at times they experienced 35 knots down the runs. “If you didn’t capsize you won! Once I capsized (but I still had the mainsheet) and I ended up at the top of the mast!”

What hasn’t changed in the class is its comraderie, that may be down to the sailors all being big blokes, or the wide mix of countries and the culture of helping out those who are new to the class. As a result for example it is felt that Sydney Gold medallist Iain Percy may have moved on to the Star, but he will forever be a Finn sailor at heart.

Race start. Image copyright Vallensbæk Sailing Club.

Tonight’s celebrations are just a small prelude prior to the main 60th anniversary event for the Finn class. In August the 60th anniversary regatta will take place in Uppsala, organised by the Sweden Finn Assocation. Already 60 sailors from eight nations have pre-entered. Star of this regatta will be Finn No1, the boat used to convince the authorities to use the Finn for the first time at the Games in Helsinki. This is on loan from a local maritime museum.

Meanwhile Finn class historian and journalist Robert Deaves is preparing a 224 page book to celebrate the anniversary. This is to be published in September. “We have 60 sailors from years past to write a story about their time in the class. It includes all the famous sailors, from Elvstrøm through to Ainslie,” says Deaves.

Finn Gold Cup 2009

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