Great Es­capes

Sailing World - - Starting Line -

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.

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