Finn sailing has been a part of my life for nearly two decades. It has taken me to places I never I imagined I would visit, much less sail a dinghy. After sailing nearly every Finn event since 2000, in the United States and Canada, I decided after eight years to venture abroad to Europe, and then Barbados, for the Finn World Masters, an event that attracts fleets of 150 to 350 entries.
As a young sailor, I’d read and heard reports about sailing venues in Europe, but I never thought I would ever sail in places such as the Isselmeer, the Baltic, the Mediterranean, the Irish Sea, the Bay of Biscay, Lake Garda or the Caribbean. I was a college English teacher with a mortgage, family, responsibilities. I had presumed sailing in Europe was for the elite and financially endowed. I was neither.
The explosive growth of Masters Finn sailing, however, presented me a new opportunity. Every year, six weeks after Easter, nearly 400 die-hard Finn sailors, from ages 40 to 70, flock to what is possibly the largest one- design dinghy regatta in the world. The sailors are designated as Masters, Grand Masters, Grand Grand Masters and Legends (70-plus). There’s even the octogenarian class of Super Legends.
At conclusion of the 2017 Finn Masters World Championship in Barbados, I sat with Gerd Bohnsack, the 80-year-old who won the Super Legend trophy. He’d sailed three races in the 20-knot trade winds, in 6-foot waves. I remembered him sailing at my first master worlds in 2009 at Maubuisson, France, on the famous Lac du Carcans. Taking a big puff of the cigar hanging out of his mouth, Bohnsack passed me on the downwind leg. When I tell people how good the European Finn sailors are, I use this as a perfect example. That was one adjustment I had to make to my expectations; while I occasionally might achieve the podium in a small in- country regatta, on the international stage, I get passed by old masters smoking cigars.
My Lac du Carcans experience also gave me the seminal moment that really hooked me on large-fleet sailing. On the last day of the regatta, there was a two-hour postponement and talk of abandoning the racing that day. But the sea breeze filled in from the Atlantic,
With a dinghy and a passport, a life-long sailor discovers a greater sense of purpose on racecourses around the globe.
and we were off for a Sunday race in conditions similar to what I’d grown up with in Southern California.
After the start, I sailed directly to the windshift on the course’s favored side, and tacked and rounded the weather mark in 20th place. I felt good. I got the boat up to speed and looked back at the 100 or so boats behind me. I thought to myself that I would surely be engulfed by the fleet if I didn’t sail one of the best downwind legs of my life. I focused and did just that. Afterward, I resolved to sail the Finn Masters Worlds every year as long as I’m able.
Over the past eight years, I’ve used my time off from teaching to sail nearly 20 international events, self-funded, with the help of a personal network of friends and associates in the Finn world. My most stellar memories include racing in 20 knots of wind and 355 boats on Lake Garda in the Italian Alps, racing in the World Sailing Cup Hyeres in France in the notorious “mistral,” and enjoying the trade winds and island culture of Barbados, which included a rum-tasting tour at the Mount Gay Rum distillery.
I had a sabbatical from my college teaching job in 2009 and was studying second-language acquisition. So, I thought, what better way to test my knowledge of learning a second language than by immersing myself in other countries to practice my skills. It was the warm welcome I had received from several top international sailors at the World Cup in Miami that pushed me to attend the Finn World Masters Championship that year in Maubuisson on Lac du Carcans Southwest, France.
My commitment to do this event every year for 10 years until I was classified as a Legend at the age of 70 at the Finn World Masters led me to buy a secondhand Finn built for the Athens 2004 Olympic Sailing Games rather than charter or borrow a boat in Europe every year. The seller even arranges the boat’s transport to the Finn World Masters every year for me. And every May, I’m reunited with my boat.
I’ve sailed eight of these world championship events, a number of Finn Gold Cups, European Championships and European national regattas. One unique feature of our sport is its open access worldwide — anyone who can bring a boat can sail in the regatta at any level. Unlike golf, where I would never get on the course for a major tournament, I regularly sail with the best sailors in the world at Finn events.
Who would’ve thought that at age 12, when my father and I built a Sabot together, that I would achieve at such a high level of competition. From the Sabot, I went on to Snipes, College FJS and Lasers. As an adult, I settled into a sailing life as a weekend warrior, with an occasional national championship in the summer. I went to work, paid my bills, and dreamed of someday owning a 36-foot Islander when I got too old for dinghies.
But when my home club on San Francisco Bay, Richmond YC, was selected to host the 2000 Olympic Finn Trials, jumping into the Finn was a no-brainer. Among longtime racing sailors, the Finn is legendary. The day I bought a secondhand Vanguard Finn was the day that changed my life.
I spent two years sailing weekends in California and the eight- day trials, and was hooked. I went to nearly every event in North America, driving a secondhand Ford 250 Econoline as my home, transporting three Finns plus mine in order to defray expenses and recruit others into the class. Now I probably hold the record for most appearances by an American at the Finn World Masters in Europe. The first few times I attended this annual event, I was the only American sailor, and once carried the U.S. flag in the Olympic-games style opening ceremony along with two dozen representatives of the world’s sailing nations.
Sailing the Finn has involved me in more sail design, meteorology and physical fitness that I ever could imagine. It’s brought me to more than two dozen countries and some of the world’s distinguished sailing clubs, training centers and yacht clubs. Next year’s Masters Worlds will be in the Mediterranean Sea near Barcelona — with expectations of 400 boats. In 2019, we go to Denmark and the home club of the late, great Finnster Paul Elvström. I will certainly be there. Q
Taking a big puff of the cigar hanging out of his mouth, Bohnsack passed me on the downwind leg. When I tell people how good the European Finn sailors are, I use this as a perfect example.