The Finn was born from the hand of Swedish canoe designer Rickard Sarby in 1949 as his entry in a design competition to select a new monotype dinghy for the 1952 Olympics Games in Helsinki, Finland. Whatever else he was thinking on that day, he cannot have imagined that sailors across the whole world would still be enjoying and racing the same design 60 years later. In 2012 the Finn will be sailed for the 16th time at an Olympic Games and is the longest serving dinghy in the Olympic Regatta.
For over six decades this thoroughbred singlehanded dinghy has had an incalculable influence on the sailing world, being a blend of a popular club boat, Olympic legend and teacher of many top sailors. The Finn is one of the survivors of the sailing world. It has survived numerous re-selections of Olympic classes and 60 years of careful technical development, from the wooden hulls, wooden masts and cotton sails of the 1950s to the GRP hulls, to the carbon masts and kevlar sails of the 1990s. It has sustained criticism over the years for being hard to sail and expensive to campaign but it has always won through. And in spite of all this it has strengthened its position as the world's premier dinghy for tactical as well as technical singlehanded sailing.
If the Finn has proved one thing, it is that change for the sake of change is rarely a good idea. The Finn is still providing the yachting world with top-calibre sailors who move from the class onto greater things. It is perhaps no coincidence that two of its most famous helmsmen - and both Finn Olympic medal winners (John Bertrand (AUS) - Bronze 1976; Russell Coutts (NZL) - Gold 1984) - have both helmed to America's Cup glory.
But the Finn is salo much more than just the Olympics - a pinnacle that many aspire to, that few reach but that all Finn sailors can identify with and learn from. Sailing the Finn goes hand-in-hand with developing strength of character, perseverance, tenacity and the challenge of doing something difficult really well. To many, the Finn is the perfect embodiment of the Olympic ideal, wherever it is sailed, and perhaps this is the ultimate attraction of a dinghy that has thrived for half a century as a leading class on the world yachting scene.
It all began back in 1948 when the Finnish Yachting Association were considering which boats to use for the 1952 Olympic Games at Helsinki. With the lack of a suitable dinghy in Scandinavia, they instigated a design competition to find a single-handed dinghy which could be used primarily for inter-Scandanavian competition, but could also be used at the Olympics.
A Swedish canoe designer, Rickard Sarby, entered a design into this competition and although it was not initially selected, he was invited to take part in the trial races because he had already built a prototype. Several trial series were held and on May 15th 1950, the Finnish Yachting Association adopted the boat as an Olympic dinghy. This boat was the Finn and an Olympic legend was born.
So, in Helsinki in 1952 the Finn made its Olympic debut, and over the following years, names such as Paul Elvstrøm, Willy Kuhweide, John Bertrand and Jochen Schümann sailed themselves into the record books. Elvstrøm won three of his four Olympic Gold medals in the Finn (the other being in the Firefly), completely dominating the class in 1952, 1956 (Melbourne) and 1960 (Naples). The first Finn silver medal went to Charles Currey of Great Britain and the first Finn bronze medal went to her designer, Rickard Sarby.
Birth of the International Finn Association
After the 1952 Olympics interest in the Finn waned, but the class was kept alive because in 1953 it was reselected for the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. Control over the administration of the Finn was handed over to the IYRU in 1955, then in 1956, the first ever Finn Gold Cup (the Finn World Championship) was held at Burnham-on-Crouch after F.G. Mitchell of the Royal Burnham Yacht Club was persuaded by Vernon Stratton of the British Finn Association to present the class with a Gold Cup. Until this moment there was no real basis for the International Finn Class and it is believed that the firm footing of the class started here. Also in 1956 Henri Leten organised the first AGM of the class at the European Championships and the International Finn Association (IFA) was born. This gave the class a strong foundation for future growth and development.
In 1961, the first issue of the Finn international newsletter, FINNFARE, was published from the USA, bringing the separate corners of the class together. All these years later this publication is still going strong having been published from various parts of the globe at different times with more than 140 issues published to date.
Defining the Rules
The early wooden Finns gradually gave way to experiments in GRP after the IFA decided to free-up the construction material in 1961. At the Gold Cup that year (now an established event), the top three places were filled by GRP boats and many sailors then thought that their wooden boats were now obsolete. In fact the magically fast GRP boat that finished third in 1961 was found to have a secret distribution of lead in the hull (improving its gyration) when it was remeasured the following year. It was at this time that Richard Creagh-Osborne took over from Sarby as Chairman of the Technical Committee and he was given instructions to sort out these problems. However, wooden boats staged a comeback in 1964 when Hubert Raudaschl won the Finn Gold Cup with a home built wooden hull.
With the increasing strictness and changes in the class rules, measurement of the boats became easier to control with less manipulation of the rules taking place. Perhaps the biggest problem to overcome was controlling the weight distribution within the hull. It was soon realised that Finns with light ends were fast and, as proved by the matter of the illegal lead, the rules could be circumvented. After various attempts to control weight distribution by means of measuring the bow weight and tilting the hull on a gunwale (which were never satisfactory), a Frenchman named Gilbert Lamboley devised a pendulum test. The boat was suspended and timed over a series of oscillations. For the first time this provided an accurate method of controlling the weight distribution within the hull. It was then possible to free-up construction methods and to allow double bottoms in the hulls. The day of the ‘magic Finn’ was over. This ‘swing test’ method was introduced into the Finn class in 1972 and has since become the standard method of weight-distribution testing for many other classes. In this, as in many other areas it is not unusual for the Fimn class to lead the way.
Early rigs were of the telegraph pole variety - very stiff and also uncontrollable. Wedges were used to keep the boom down offwind; these went through a slot in the front of the mast, underneath the boom. When the wedge was pulled aft, the boom was forced down. Theoretically, it could be controlled by a control line, but in practice this did not always work.
During the 1950s, Elvstrøm gradually moved away from the stiff mast and developed a bendy rig with a full sail that was progressively flattened in strong breezes. Throughout the early 1960s one of the most widespread rigs in general use was in fact Elvstrøm’s mast and sail combination. But by 1968 Jörg Bruder and Hubert Raudaschl had developed rigs still further, and masts once again became stiffer with flat sails. But the tops of these masts were very flexible sideways, allowing the rig to depower for lightweight skippers. This Bruder/Raudaschl combination completely dominated the class until the early seventies. However, the seeds of change were in the wind in 1969 when Jack Knights from Great Britain turned up at the Finn Gold Cup in Bermuda with a metal mast. He was the only competitor that did not have a wooden mast, and over the next few years use of wooden masts gradually declined to be replaced by aluminium.
When aluminium masts were organised for use in the 1972 Olympics at Kiel, (supplied of course as was all Finn gear at the time), some within the class tried to reverse this decision. However after much argument, all competitors were eventually supplied with the new aluminium mast made in the UK by Needlespar. The British did not have the advantage, as was feared by many, and the metal mast soon became commonplace. Various manufacturers built metal Finn masts over the years, but the Needlespar maintained market domination until 1993, when experiments in carbon resurfaced all the old arguments about change. By the 1980s, North had a virtual monopoly on Finn sails and it wasn’t until the early 1990s that other lofts managed to break their stranglehold and produce race winning sails.
Nowadays carbon masts have penetrated to virtually all levels of Finn sailing, and aluminium masts are mostly regarded as obsolete. However they are still widely used in the lower ranks though, as an inexpensive, durable alternative. Carbon construction also allowed builders to exploit the full extent of the mast dimensions and produce wing masts. These masts have an aerodynamic fore and aft section which has become the standard compared to the round sections.
Following the freeing up of the construction rules, due to the revolutionary Lamboley Test, double bottoms were permitted for the first time in 1974. UK Finn builder Peter Taylor was the first to take advantage of this new rule and for a few years Taylor glassfibre hulls were frequently at the front of international fleets. In fact at the 1976 Finn Gold Cup in Brisbane, Australia, his hulls finished in 1st, 2nd and 4th places.
In 1978, a group of ex-Laser sailors from the United States took up Finn sailing and a period of American dominance began with names such as John Bertrand, Cam Lewis and Carl Buchan figuring in many International regattas. They all sailed the US built Vanguard hull, which proved to be far superior to any other boat available at the time. They dominated the Finn class until 1980, but after the US boycott of the 1980 Olympics, US interest in the Finn waned slightly and the Europeans regained their former dominance. However by now the Europeans were also sailing the US Vanguard hulls. This hull together with a Needlespar mast and a North sail, was to be the standard equipment amongst Finn sailors right up until 1993. The Vanguard, which is an all GRP hull, has a fine bow to aid upwind performance and a broad transom to promote early planing. It is a remarkable credit to the Vanguard hull that it was used to win the Finn Gold Cup during the fifteen years up to 1992 on no less than fourteen occasions.
The class today
The class these days is very different to the one Sarby created in 1949. The hull is almost exactly the same, with tight controls still in place to keep the boat as one-design as ever. What has changed is the technology available to the class. The modern hulls are now all optimised GRP with carbon masts and kevlar sails, something which in 1949 would have only been a figment of the imagination. Devori hulls first appeared in 1994 and have dominated the class ever since, though there is now a wide range of builders available across the world, perhaps more than at any time since the 1970s.
The Finn Gold Cup
The first Finn Gold Cup (the World Championship of the Finn class) was held at Burnham-on-Crouch in 1956 and forty-five competitors from twelve countries attended. The largest fleet ever gathered at Cascais in Portugal in 1970 where 180 boats from thirty-four countries competed for the cup. This event was won by the mast builder from Brazil, Jörg Bruder.
When the Gold Cup was first presented by F.G. Mitchell in 1956, the deed of gift for the cup stated that the event had to be staged in the UK in Olympic years, and so it was from 1956 to 1968, but after an unsuccessful event in 1968, the rules were changed so that the event could be held outside of Europe at least once every four years. Over its long history the Gold Cup has been staged in 24 countries right across the world. From Canada to Brazil, from USA to Russia, from New Zealand to Finland.
The Finn Gold Cup is the highlight of the Finn sailing calendar and is widely regarded as one of the foremost sailing events in the World. To win it is an exceptional achievement, to win it twice is remarkable, but to win it three times is quite outstanding. Until recently this has only been done on four occasions: Willy Kuhweide of Germany in 1963/1966/1967, Lasse Hjortnäs from Denmark in 1982/1984/1985, Fredrik Lööf from Sweden in 1994/1997/1999 and Jörg Bruder of Brazil who won it three times consecutively in 1970/1971/1972 but remained unbeaten as he was tragically killed in an air crash in 1973 on route to defend his title. However since then Ben Ainslie from Great Britain has dwarfed all other accomplishments to win the trophy six times – 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2008 an 2012.
The Finn has remained at the forefront of International and Olympic dinghy sailing for the past six decades. It has done so because it offers the opportunity for sailors to push themselves to their limits; because it offers technical education and development for sailors; and because of the love that thousands of sailors all over the world have for sailing a great boat. And this is why it should hopefully remain at the forefront for the foreseeable future.