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Finn de siècle - Early history of the Finn class dinghy

by Dougal Henshall 8 Sep 2022 16:00 BST
Medal races on the final day of the Princesa Sofia Mapfre Trophy in Palma © Guillaume Durand

There is a wonderful old adage that says, "if you can remember the sixties then you weren't there!" All the same, it was a period of huge changes in everyday life, for whilst in 1963 the Beatles were wanting to hold your hand and Martin Luther King was having his dream, new undersea cables were linking up the world, the 'smiley' face was created, and Tab went from being a key on a typewriter to the first form of a Diet Coke.

Yet even as the sixties started to swing, dinghy racing was about to be given an equally radical shake up. At the top of sailing's pyramid, the international scene was enjoying a period of stability, after the successful introduction in 1960 of the Flying Dutchman onto the Olympic scene where it joined the Finn, which could already celebrate three appearances at the Games.

But just as the world was changing, so the pressures were already building on the IYRU (now World Sailing) to do more to reflect the demands of youth. Those pressure had been ratcheted up even further when Peter Milne had introduced his stunning Fireball, which became a boat that would use up the full dictionary of superlatives. It was light, fast and flat (see All the Fs in sailing - Fantastic, full on, fast, fun, and FLAT) and was easily accessible to all.

It was a development that perfectly matched the moment and would provide Yachts & Yachting columnist Jack Knights with a big new stick that he could use to prod the sailing authorities, or (as he described them) a club of old men.

Jack would go on to point out that fast was fun and that youth were surely the future of the sport. In a way the IYRU had already tacitly admitted as much, as a decade earlier they had helped usher in the genre of performance sailing with their selection of the Flying Dutchman, the biggest, flattest and fastest of all the options available.

The question they now faced was if it would be possible to repeat the trick and produce a 'performance singlehander', but simply asking the question was itself fraught with difficulties.

For a start, the IYRU already had their top of the range boat in the singlehanded genre, but interestingly the Finn was not perceived by them as a performance boat, moreover, it had started to attract a number of negative comments. The only singlehander that did have impeccable credentials to be called a 'performance boat' was the International Canoe, but as this was being administered by the Canoe Union it was therefore not considered as an eligible boat by the IYRU.

This left the Finn, the boat that had already cemented its position as the Olympic singlehander, although the DNA of the boat was rooted in events leading back even before the war years. Singlehanded dinghies had been a part of the Olympic regatta since 1920 with the International 12, then in 1932 the Americans sailed their Snowbird at the Games in LA.

For all their aspirations to be seen as 'proper' racing dinghies, both of these though were throwbacks to an earlier era of dinghy design. Moving forwards to Berlin in 1936, the search was on for an Olympic singlehander, with the result being Helmut Stauch's powerful Olympic Monotype or O-Jolle. At a full 5 metres in length and with 10.5m2 of sail, this was a boat that would be demanding of Olympic levels of strength and ability.

Although a clever take on the idea of a top singlehander, sadly the O-Jolle could not escape the close association with Germany, so when the Games restarted in 1948 at Torquay, it would be the Fairey Firefly that would eventually be press-ganged into service. Ahead of the Games many in the yachting media had talked of the shortcomings of racing the Fairey boat on the world stage out on open water, with the many capsizes that impacted on the results rather proving their point.

Looking forward to Helsinki in 1952, the search was once again on for a boat that would fit the bill as an Olympic singlehander and for a while it looked as if an even bigger boat than the O-Jolle, designed by Harry Karlsson, would be given the nod. Then the Rickard Sarby-designed Finn came in and was selected for the Games which were now little more than two years off in the future.

At 4.5m, with a 1.5m beam and 10m2 of sail set on an unstayed mast, from the outset the Finn was seen as a boat that could plane fast offwind, but getting back upwind could be a challenge.

The UK media were not that kindly towards the new boat, with comments that suggested how with the heavy wooden mast set right up in the bow, the boat looked all wrong! Rig-wise, the boom was seen as too long, with the gooseneck set too low, which raised questions of safety on the reaches and in the gybe.

There was also the dreaded question of 'weight aloft' as the mast, which was made up of four separate lengths of wood, had a minimum weigh of 10kg (when a Merlin mast of similar length weighed in under 6kg). Interestingly, from the start Sarby intended the Finn to have the mainsheet taken from the middle of the boom, which like the mast would be made of flexible wood, so that in breeze sheeting in hard would bend the boom, thus helping flatten the middle of the sail.

Sarby continued to stress the Finn's strong Euro credentials, with the Sharpie-like triangular metal centreboard easily recognisable to continental sailors.

The hull form though was almost a throwback to past ways of thinking, with one influential designer describing them as 'positively ancient, even pre-Uffa [Fox]' with the fullness forward, a lot of rocker, and with long and straight buttock lines leading to a small, pulled in transom. Sadly, in the days leading up to Helsinki, the RYA in the UK also exhibited a less than positive attitude towards the Finn and unlike other sailing authorities, refused to buy in a central pool of boats that aspiring helms could use.

Instead, the action would shift to Bosham Sailing Club, down on the beautiful waters of Chichester Harbour, which became something of the spiritual home for the Finn in the UK in these formative days, helped in no small manner by the presence of Charles Currey. The story of Charles, and how he didn't get to sail in the Fairey Firefly in 1948, despite him being our best helm in the boat, and then for him to overcome the odds to not just compete at Helsinki in 1952, but to bring home the Silver Medal are for another article, but his success has to be taken in the context of the overwhelming presence of Paul Elvstrøm.

Elvstrøm had taken the Firefly Gold in 1948, then over the next 12 years would add three more Golds with the Finn. Yet, in a way, his incredible success was almost counter-productive for the Finn itself, as other sailors tried to match the Danish star's wearing of multiple wet sweaters and the time dedicated to the hiking bench, only to still come up short.

Although the boat was highly tuneable, at the Olympic Games the deal would be that the host nation would provide a number of identical boats that would be allocated to sailors on a lottery basis, so the sailors had to race with what they were given, which makes Paul's three consecutive Finn Golds all the more of an amazing achievement.

After the Rome Games in 1960, with the Olympic regatta taking place out on the Bay of Naples, there was a growing body of opinion that the Finn was too much about that one man and not enough about the ideal that the Games were there for the best of the young. Part of the issue was undoubtedly in the boat itself, for the still unsophisticated Finn was heavy, slow and lacked the sort of glamour that was surrounding the 'new' Flying Dutchman.

The time was right for a change and although by now there were more singehanded dinghies appearing, with the Solo and OK to the fore, the only boat that could be classed as 'performance' remained the International Canoe which was unlikely to ever get the chance of Olympic glory.

Instead, the IYRU followed the same process that had brought them both the Flying Dutchman and the 5o5, with the hopes that a set of formally constituted Trials would produce a worthy winner. Now the whole issue of international dinghy design philosophy was laid bare, as most of the better boats that would appear at what would eventually be three sets of Trials owed much in their hull shapes to the Finn.

Even the best of the first tranche of boats, David Thomas's collaboration with Jack Chippendale to produce the Unit, still followed many of the 'older' lines of thinking with regard to hull form.

It would be Paul Elvstrøm himself who would lift the veil onto what a future dinghy hull form would be like with his revolutionary Trapez dinghy. However, whilst the Trapez was indeed ground-breaking in many ways, the inherent flaws in the construction, the radical foils and rig and the harsh facts were that even with the great man helming the boat from out on the wire, Trapez was never that far ahead of the rest of the fleet.

Part of the problem lay right at the fundamental level of Elvstrøm's hull design philosophy, for although Trapez was undoubtedly radical, in some ways it wasn't radical enough, as it still tried to maintain a connection to the current lines of thinking on hull design.

Sadly, the pressures that were present in his private life meant that after showing the world what the future could be, Elvstrøm disappeared from the story and neither he nor Trapez would appear at any of the subsequent Trials. Its place would be taken by the all Australian Contender, which was just about as different in hull form from the Finn as it was possible to be. The Finn was heavy and deep bodied, whereas the Australian Contender was light, flat, fast and shallow hulled.

Just how low profile the hull had been can be seen when, just to get the first tick in the box for the final set of Trials, designer Bob Miller (Ben Lexen) had to add extra freeboard to the hull. Importantly for Miller, the boat was easily built at home, with a simple double-chined hull being laid up on frames before a sacrificial cedar strip was glued on between the two chines, and this was shaped to create the curved turn of the bilge.

For the IYRU, the Contender ticked all the boxes, as here was a boat that surely answered the Olympic ideal, as it demanded strength, agility and the top levels of talent.

However, even as the Contender was demonstrating to the world what a wonderful boat it was, the Finns were leading the fight back against the potential usurper of their coveted Olympic slot. Just how desperate they were to hold on can be seen in their offer to add a sliding seat to their own boat, but in the end this wasn't necessary, as the well-organised supporters of the Class proved highly adept at playing the Committee games in the smoky corridors of power.

The Contender could have - should have - been given the chance to appear at the Games in 1972 and 76, but by now the Finn had a stranglehold on a number of key roles in sailing's administration and it will come as no surprise to read that Belgium's Jacques Rogge, who became such a dominant and influential presence within the IOC, was a three times competitor at the Games in a Finn!

The arrival of the Contender had certainly been something of a wake-up call for the Finns who now knew that they had to adopt change or be sidelined. Double-bottomed hulls, allowing easier construction, and the change from wooden spars to aluminium would all be divisive topics that would have to be addressed.

A highly prescriptive set of scantlings had been created to ensure that the hull construction would avoid expensive 'specials' that would restrict access to competitive boats. The Finn Class would now look to a clever scientific solution to this problem, with the introduction of Gilbert Lamboley's pendulum test, which allowed measurers to determine the weight distribution in the hull, defeating those who tried to pervert the rules by building boats that were excessively light in the ends.

Having seen off the challenge from the Contender, taken on aluminium spars and created a more modern boat, the Finns now set about building up their status even further and, with the names of those who had competed in the boat reading like a who's who from the topflight of sailing royalty, the legendary aspect of the Finn story started to be written.

A measure of the depth of talent that the class could attract was seen at various Olympic Games, when a pair of incredible sailors, Russell Coutts and John Bertrand, would both win medals before going on to become giants of the America's Cup scene. Another giant, in every usage of the word would be none other than Luca Devoti, who in addition to his Silver Medal at Sydney in 2000 would go on to lead the charge to build ever better boats.

Part of this 'package' came from the fact that although the focus was still very much on the four-yearly Games, there was so much more to Finn sailing on the international circuit, with the Gold Cup being one of the great mountains for a sailor to climb. Here, instead of the purity of the Olympic Regatta, with one entry per nation, the competition was even tighter, as the top Finn sailing countries could end up sending multiple entries, each of which was well capable of ending up on the top of the podium.

With so much pressure being generated by the demands of success in the fleet, a clear gap had started to appear between the current highly trained athletes and the sailors of yesterday, with the Finns being very much in the vanguard of promotion of the Masters circuits, with pre-Covid numbers of 300 boat entries that ranged from the recently retired from the mainstream scene to true legends of sprightly 80 year old stars of the sixties.

Nothing stand still though, and dinghy sailing was again changing rapidly, with the arrival of the sailboards followed by the skiffs, with one of the clear trends being in the reduction in weight of top competition sailors.

Even FD helms had a certain size to them whilst their crews could happily rank with the Finn sailors as being from the upper quartile of physical size (sailors such as the talented American Cam Lewis would not only be a multiple Finn Gold Cup winner, but as a crew would take two consecutive 5o5 World Championship titles, even more incredibly with different helms) but once the Flying Dutchman was dropped, the Finn was left as the only 'heavyweight' option for Olympic hopefuls and even this would now come under scrutiny again.

Just as they had done 35 years earlier, World Sailing set up another set of Trials for a top singlehander and despite still sporting an alloy rig the winner from back in the 1960s, the Contender, was still good enough to come in as runner up, but the undoubted winner would be an even more brilliant boat, the Musto Skiff.

If there was ever a boat that should have graced the Olympic regatta then it would have to be the Musto, as it placed a whole new level of demands on the sailor in terms of strength, agility and athleticism, plus it had the added advantages of top-quality construction on the basis of very strict one design manufacture. This last point would be increasingly important, as the Finn was attracting the wrong sort of publicity surrounding some of the excessive and expensive lengths that teams were prepared to go to in pursuit of that ultimate 'Nth' degree of performance.

Some of the rumours may have been apocryphal but others, such as the milling down of a single block of alloy to create a perfect centreboard without any of the stress points in the metal that come with traditional construction, are probably true!

And yet, for every negative, there seemed to be a growing number of positives, with this being the era in the UK of Percy, Wright, Ainslie and Scott who collectively represented the new breed of Finn sailors that were the 'crème de la crème' of their generation and they all had focused on that one class.

However, in the end, the Finn would not be undone by one of the two brilliant singlehanders that were supposed to replace it, nor even by the boat at the other end of the weight scale, the diminutive Moths, as they grew foils and took flight, but by the changing nature in the Committee Rooms of World Sailing. The keywords were now diversity, youth, accessibility and the idea that you could achieve all this without actually needing a boat.

Instead, the Olympics would be about relying on a tea-tray sized board with foils and a kite, with this headlong pursuit of a more telegenic mode of sailing forcing the Finn to fight just to keep its long held Olympic status. It didn't seem to worry World Sailing one jot that when they consigned the Finn to history, that the very diversity they sought to achieve would be even more restricted, for at a time in history when the human body has never been bigger, strong and heavier, their changes would result in there being no longer a place at the biggest sporting event for people of a 'normal' size.

Just how short sighted that decision may turn out to be in the long term is, as yet, unclear, but what is without a doubt is that the Finn, far from struggling in the post-Olympic world, is continuing to thrive amongst not only the existing main sailing nations, but across new countries as well.

Just how strong the message that the Finn isn't going to go away can be seen in the way that it attracted attention this summer, with the start of a bumper season of events to celebrate 70 years of world class service. Here at we've been closely involved in a number of recent big number celebrations, the British Moth 90th, 70 years of the Flying Dutchman and even older boats from the earliest days of International 14s, yet none of these has attracted the media attention that the 70th Finn Festival at Bosham was able to generate.

Despite clashing with the Masters over in Finland and then being hit hard by the latest variant of Covid, Finns and Finn sailors of all ages went back to their roots, to the glorious stretch of water where names such as Stratton, Currey, Beale and Creagh-Osborne laid the foundations for Finn fanatics to follow in the decades to come.

Today there are undoubtedly better boats, certainly there are lighter and faster singlehanders, but there is no other boat that tells you so clearly, that when you're sailing, you are doing so on the shoulders of the giants of sailing, however they might be defined!

You may also like to read The story of singlehanded sailing at the London 1948 Olympics written by Dougal back in 2018.

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