The story of how the 2013 Finn Gold Cup came to be in Tallinn is a long story, but one worth telling. It involves friendships nurtured under the controlling glare of Soviet rule, of an American sailor's immediate affinity with the Estonians of the Soviet times, his determination that the sailors would have their day and how those friendships shaped his life for the next 30 years, of iceboats and sailmakers and reciprocal hospitality, of class divisions in Soviet society, and of KGB subversion. The story begins more than three decades ago.
The Finn has been an active class in Estonia’s sailing scene for a long time with names such Alexander Chuchelov, Jüri Saraskin, Aare Kööp, Tõnu Tootsi, Aare Taveter senior, Tammo Otsasoo, Imre Taveter, Harles Liiv and now Lauri Väinsalu and Deniss Karpak. In the Soviet era it was not easy for an Estonian to make it to major regattas, never mind get the opportunity to win a Olympic medal.
However, Alexander Chuchelov from Tallinn won the silver medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics for the USSR. Later, Imre Taveter twice represented Estonia at the Olympics and today Deniss Karpak is Estonia's most successful sailor and a former world number one. Jüri Saraskin, twice Estonian champion, has been the international class chief measurer for 21 years and is respected worldwide for his knowledgeable and diplomatically firm approach to equipment inspection at Finn championships, as well as transforming the process into education as much as enforcement. This small nation of just 1.3 million people has had a major effect on Finn sailing worldwide.
In the late 1960s a group of Soviet DN Iceboat sailors travelled to Detroit, USA for the World DN Championships. Local sailmaker Howard Boston, gave the visitors the run of his shop to fix up their iceboats. Those DN sailors returned the favour to the group of USA pre-Olympic Finn sailors during the 1978 and 1979 Baltic Regattas in Tallinn, which is where our story really begins.
August Miller (USA), who had worked for Howard Boston in the 1960s, was in the middle of his second Olympic Finn campaign. He started campaigning Finns late in life and narrowly missed the USA spot in 1976. He had travelled to travelled to Tallinn to test himself and the waters ahead of the ill fated 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Miller explains, “Estonia had good Finn sailors but because they were Estonian and not from Moscow, they had little chance of going to big international regattas. Because of this, while walking the streets of Tallinn early one morning in 1978, the Soviet Finn officer, Viktor Hendrikson, and I came up with a plan to bring the Finn Gold Cup to Tallinn Bay. However, Jimmy Carter’s 1980 boycott put the plan on hold until after Ted Turner’s 1986 Goodwill Games regatta in Tallinn, and it was not until 1994 that the Finn Gold Cup finally came to Estonia, at Pärnu.”
“Getting the 1994 Finn Gold Cup to Estonia was a major undertaking for a chaotic and financially burdened country starting from scratch in climbing its way out of 52 years of Soviet control. But it also inspired the nation in what could be accomplished.”
“I have probably made more than 20 visits to Estonia involving the Finn. Additionally, I have been with them at numerous international regattas. It all started with friendships formed in 1978 and 1979 at the Pre-Olympic Regattas when I felt an affinity with the Estonians of the Soviet times.”
“When the iceboat sailors came to Detroit, chief among the introductions was Maija Imelik who had led the delegation of Estonian iceboaters, some of whom were also Finn sailors. In Soviet times, as the chief of sports in Estonia, she was the woman to please if you wanted an international Finn career. A classic multi-faceted Estonian woman, it is not enough to say she was smart, beautiful, an accomplished athlete, feminine, KGB playing a double game, a party member, powerful, generous and dangerous. She was a woman about whom a great piece of literature could be written. She was born the exact same day that I was.”
“In 1986 I raced in the Baltic Regatta during the Goodwill Games after the boycott. I returned in 1988 to do a big multinational training clinic that included most of the active Estonian Finn sailors during the Sporticade Regatta where all the Soviet Republics were present along with many socialist countries like Cuba, Cyprus and North Korea. It was part of the IFA pre-Olympic series of clinics that included Miami, Brisbane, Barcelona and Pusan. To help with the physical training there was the chief aerobics instructor from the Moscow Central Stadium.”
“I returned again in 1990 for another clinic with primarily Estonian Finns. Afterwards I went to the Greek Embassy in Helsinki to obtain visas for the Estonians to attend the Finn Gold Cup in Porto Carras, Greece but the KGB intercepted Margus Kukk when he had all the passports and the Estonians never got to Greece.”
“Then in 1991 four Estonians (Imre Taveter, Tammo Otsasoo, Meelis Männik and Margus Kukk) stayed at my house for six weeks along with Luca Devoti for training and regattas including the Finn Gold Cup in Kingston, Canada. After the Gold Cup we drove to Marblehead for the CanAm regatta. During the drive the radio news said that the Soviet parliament had just given the Estonian Republic its freedom. So the Estonians took the Soviet ‘SR’ off their sails and replaced it with a ‘C’, the pre-Second World War country code of a free Estonia. They thus became the first athletes to represent a free Estonia in international competition in 52 years.”
Imre Taveter remembers, “As Estonia was part of the Soviet Union from 1939 [when the Molotov - Ribbentrop secret codicil divided up control of the Baltic States and Poland] to 1991, there were many Estonian sailors who first used SR on their sails and later EST. I was one of them. It was an interesting time, sailing the Finn in the wind of social and political changes.”
“Later, Estonia got an historic chance to move step by step towards its independence. The process started in 1987 and finished with the Soviet coup in August 1991. Our team was in Kingston, Canada at the Finn Gold Cup in August 1991. Gus Miller took fantastic care of us there and put a lot of effort to realise the dream of the Estonian sailors to sail at the Finn Gold Cup.”
When the sailors left for the USA in August 1991 they left behind the Soviet Union, but when they arrived back in September it had become the independent Republic of Estonia. Imre Taveter said, “It was an indescribable feeling for Estonians, to get back their independence and freedom. However, from a sporting point of view it was tough for active athletes. My coach was forced to leave his profession; there were few options for training clinics or to buy new equipment or to participate at international regattas. The Soviet sport system was professional and quite well financed. Coaches had great support teams, including scientists from different fields. However, despite these difficulties, the 1994 Finn Gold Cup was organised in Pärnu.” This was of course won by Fredrik Lööf (SWE).
Miller said, “In 1994 I spent a month in Parnu before the Finn Gold Cup training with the Estonians. Margus Kukk had become a principal of Eesti Kutus the Estonian National Oil Company which primarily funded the event. I later lent Imre my Finn and coached him, among others, at the Savannah pre-Olympic Regatta but Estonia later refused to send him to the Games. I also coached Imre at both the Sydney and Athens Regattas with IOC credentials.”
The Race Director this year Ants Väinsalu, first met met Miller during the Goodwill Games in Tallinn in 1986 following the two Olympic boycotts in 1980 and 1984. He said, “I got the idea to bring the Finn Gold Cup to Tallinn from Lauri [Väinsalu] when he took part in the 2010 Finn Gold Cup in San Fransisco. Lauri stayed together with Gus on a yacht and asked Lauri Gus if it good idea to have the Finn Gold Cup in Tallinn in 2013. Gus was very positive and supportive. Also Juri [Saraskin] was very supportive and helped a lot. And then I decided to go for it. We did the presentation in 2011 at the Helsinki AGM and got the event.”
The Finn and the culture of its sailors have an incredibly long reach for those who become involved. It has been a long road to get the Finn Gold Cup to Tallinn Bay but it is finally here. Miller concluded, “The Estonia hosting this 2013 Finn Gold Cup is a mature, modern country after starting from very little beyond structureless post Soviet rubble 22 years ago. Now a member of the European Union, the inventors of Skype, providing troops in Afghanistan, a leading producer of gifted musicians, home of some of the most attractive women in the world and always at the Olympics, with surprising number of outstanding athletes for such a small country.”
* This story is one of many that appear in the Finn's 60th anniversary book, 'Photo FINNish', which can still be purchased online through the FinnShop: http://www.finnclass.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=35&Itemid=20