Exquisite Finns are being temporarily mothballed around the globe. Ynglings are a barn find. Europes are rarer than hen’s teeth. Flying Dutchman’s (Dutchmen?) are collector’s items. Stars are, and always will be, magnificent beauties on the eye and are being built again. Dragons are sailed by Oligarchs. 12 Square Meter Sharpies are sailed by the classy. Tempests are a ‘thing’ in America. Tornados are for the wealthy be-bearded. Fireflys are still used in schools. And Solings are due a comeback.
I follow the eclectic on my various timelines and one that’s grabbed me this summer is the Soling class. Great racing all over the world on multi-continents and it’s a timeless machine that still looks right. It always did.
Quite how the Etchells stole the limelight from under the Soling’s nose is anyone’s guess? As very much an ex-Etchells sailor, I don’t miss those days of coming off the water with my arms feeling like they’ve been extended three inches and more bruises than a two week old banana, one little bit. The Soling would be a far better alternative. And I love, buy into and wish it true of the apocryphal Cowes Soling story about the greatest America’s Cup winner, loser, winner of our time.
The legend has it, and I’ve been told this by multiple sources admittedly towards the end of evenings in local watering holes, that Dennis Conner has a fully tricked-up Borresen Soling sitting in pristine condition, under cover in a shed somewhere in the Vectis vicinity. I’m pretty sure it’s untrue now, perhaps it always was just a boating industry legend, but I’d love to believe in it. Finding it would be like pulling your Uncle’s discarded Ferrari Dino out of a long-forgotten barn – wouldn’t it be great?
But the broader point of my fascination in Olympic boats of the past is really to see how they fare once the five ring circus has evaporated and the athletes of the day have moved on.
The Star Class has always been a fascination – I just have to own one one day – and they are more than thriving. The gold star that denotes a World Champion is still as coveted and hotly contested today as it ever was – 166 athletes are showing up in Kiel this year. I note the recent press on Mateusz Kusnierewicz, a truly brilliant sailor, receiving financial support from Bacardi to enter the World Championships on the back of winning the Bacardi Cup last year (and the previous running in 2019 – how good are he and Bruno Prada?) and suddenly you can see the levels that are being hit.
It’s still one of the hardest fleets to win in and to say that you’re the Star World Champion, even today, carries unbelievable weight in any yachting circle. Kiel will be white-hot competition starting this weekend.
The Finn class is one that I have every hope of survival and thriving. I read with interest their internal debate about whether free-pumping should still be allowed as the class comes down from its Olympic heights. Recognising that the athletes/participants/backbone of the new fleets might be a little less kinetic than the Olympians of recent times going forward shows a class that is thinking about its future but I will bet a pretty penny that the racing is just as tight in the coming years at the World and European Championships.
The good news is that there’s life after Olympic death. There are many of us that through the ages take inspiration from the Games. I’m guilty as charged. I own a Laser and in my mind’s eye I’m as good as Elliot Hanson, better than Tom Slingsby in his prime and Robert Scheidt is mere dust in my wake.
The reality is somewhat different. In fact it’s the polar opposite. More ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ than rock ‘n’ roll but I watch the You Tube training videos relentlessly and maniacally and every time I go on the water I try to remember and enact that week’s lesson.
As an example, I got it into my head that I would try the ‘hiking pump’ upwind that the Olympians make look so easy, fanning the sail through excessive upper body and core kinetics in anything above about 10 knots. I lasted precisely one minute (it may have been 30 seconds) before saying: “s*d this for a game of soldiers.” I was knackered. Deep respect was engendered for those at the top of the game. But it’s a lot of fun trying.
And again, in my mind’s eye I think I could sail a Star. I mean how difficult can it be? I know I’m kidding myself and would probably miss-duck and get swept into the briny on the first gybe as the ultra-thin mast crashes to the deck but I’m Freddy Loof, Iain Percy and Mark Reynolds incarnate in my own little world. I’d love to give it a go and with decent Stars occasionally coming on the market at reasonable rates, it surely has to be the ultimate mid-life purchase? The Ferrari and the inevitable gold chain can wait.
And what of the Europe? Well it’s absolutely red hot at the moment. The Scandinavians are back in the game in a big way and huge fleets are in operation once again. The Spanish builder, Winner, are rammed out on build slots, a new British builder is in final tests of their mould and that’s a boat that just looks right. Fabulous pathway vessel for the juniors and a more manageable Finn for those of us of a slighter build with misty-eyes and youthful intentions. Devilishly difficult to marry the mast and sail combination but rewarding on all points of sail and, importantly, pretty cool in the dinghy park. A Bachelor’s degree in rope-work is preferable but that’s the same for all the ex-Olympic classes.
Olympic exclusion seems like the end of the world. The case for the defence however suggests otherwise. Yes, Olympic classes dwindle for a while. They meander whilst the market settles but pretty quickly with a little bit of direction, a little bit of enthusiasm and a few people caballing together, they emerge as exciting, social, progressive classes that are rewarding for their participants.
In time, as the tricked-up ex-Olympic boats end up in the hands of us normal sailors and one further cycle on, new boats start being built. Solings are coming out of the Borresen yard again. Stars are being built by Mader, Lillia and Folli in decent numbers. Dragons are pieces of fine art being crafted by artisans for an uber wealthy new elite. Europes are being pressed out in quantity whilst the true classics like the FD are being lovingly restored in lockdown garages all over the world.
It’s not the death knell when the final Olympic bell tolls, rather the opportunity of a beautiful re-birth of classes with bright futures. The five rings will undoubtedly be throw-away foilers and wing boards in the very near future as that’s what’s needed to keep the discipline in the Games and keep it relevant but there are bright pastures for those that get axed.
There’s something very special about sailing an ex-Olympic boat (even a current one)…the endless search for a Star continues…