Sixteen year old Callum Dixon from Great Britain is sailing his first overseas event in the Finn at the Open Finn Europeans in Barcelona this week, and is revelling in the experience of big fleets, big names and big races.
It's just over a year since he first got into the Finn, moving out of Lasers as, even at aged sixteen he was just too big. He towers over most of the seniors here and weighing in at well over 100kg the Laser was no longer a viable option. He says he is trying to lose weight to become more competitive in the Finn.
One of the biggest attractions to the Finn for him is the physicality of the boat. “It's definitely one of the toughest boats I have ever been in, physically speaking. The hiking position is very different, you have to use your legs and your core, and downwind as soon as the free pumping flag is up it's about who is the strongest to go as fast as you can. So it's really, really tough racing.”
In Tuesday's second race he came up against one of the true legends of the class. He described how the race evolved. “I had a good start and an all right first beat and then coming down on the last run it was free pumping so we were were allowed to do whatever we like and Henry Sprague [from the USA] and I went round the windward mark together.”
Sprague was world champion in 1974 and, at age 70, is currently competing in the US Olympic trials in Barcelona, where he is lying third overall. He is well aware of the fact that if, for some reason, he wins the trials, he would be the oldest sailing Olympian ever. He is proof that Finn sailing really is a sport for life and credits his enthusiasm for the class in keeping him fit and strong. He has had a personal trainer for 15 years helping him condition his body for Finn sailing.
Dixon continued, “Then Henry went to the right and I went to the left and I was really pumping quite hard to get in front of him, but we got the leeward mark at the same time, which is quite impressive if you go in opposite directions. As we rounded the leeward mark together he got round the back of me, and on top and then we had an incredibly tough fight all the way to the finish and it was really close.”
The breeze was up to 15-16 knots at this stage at the end of a gruelling 75 minute race. It was so exhausting he just collapsed in his boat after the finish to recover and catch his breath. “I was trying so hard downwind and was just flat out, so I was just dead.” Dixon pipped Sprague on the line by a boatlength.
“I was out in Valencia training at the Dinghy Academy with Luca recently and Henry was also out there training for this event, so I knew who he was. He's a really nice guy. It's quite funny, but he's really impressive as he can still hike as hard as the rest of us, which is slightly insane at the age of 70.” How many sports, or classes, can a 16 year old and a 70 year old compete on equal terms?
Dixon has dreams of sailing and campaigning the Finn long term but admits he has a lot of learning to do first. “This week the goal is to get experience and get used to the boat more in big fleets because it is quite hard to get really big fleet experience at home, so to come here and race against 90 other Finns is just great.”
“I came up through Toppers and all the British Topper squads and then the Laser and I got into a few of the squads but not all of them because I was still quite young. I won a few of the age categories, under 14s, at the Laser nationals which was quite cool, but nothing major.”
“I'd like to be in the Finn long term. Perhaps go down to Weymouth and try to get in the squad and train with all the top guys, but that may be three or four years away as they are all a lot older than me.”
What has he learned so far this week? “It's back to the basics. Clean air off the start line, clean air up the beat, so you can round windward mark in a good position, and then you just have to hold it. So clean air is the biggest lesson.”
Dixon is currently 58th in the event after picking up a credit worthy 21st in the only race on Wednesday. “The Finn is great. I absolutely love it and it's an amazing boat to sail.”