The Finn dinghy: THE Olympic singlehander

By Joe Cooper

Finn SailingMy adopted mother (I adopted her, and her husband, Tony James) posted a Facebook picture a few days ago. It was of the Australian Sailing Team for the 1972 Kiel Olympics including amongst other notables, her husband Tony. It brought back some serious memories.

Success in the Finn, exemplified by US Sailing Team Sperry athlete Caleb Paine, who represented the USA in the Rio Olympics and won a bronze medal, demands considerable strength and stamina.   © US Sailing Team Sperry/Will Ricketson

In 1975, I was sailing a Laser and working at Elvström Sails in Sydney. The Top Gun Finn sailor was Tony, and he used Elvström sails. I knew who he was, and he would come into the loft once in a while. One day I saw he and Mike Fletcher, one of the principals, talking and looking at me. Huh, oh, what had I done this time? Fletch beckoned me over and introduced me to Tony. We exchanged pleasantries and talked Laser sailing for a bit longer than a Formula One pit stop before he asked me what I was doing on Saturday. In even less time, I had agreed to meet him and sail a Finn with ‘some of the other blokes.’ I had just been recruited into THE most demanding, and Olympic, boat on the planet.

After sailing on that Saturday, we went to Tony’s house to wash off and get something to eat. Since he had been to the Kiel Olympics, he had a goodly supply of  ‘Olympics stuff’ and pretty soon it was clear he was dangling the idea of the Olympics in front of me. Photo albums, posters of Kiel, funny stories of tooling around Europe in a VW bus, his hiking bench…and so on. It worked. For me, at about 19, with no particular direction and no pressing desire to do anything except surf or sail, the idea of the Finn AND the Olympic vision struck a chord. Here was something I could sink my teeth into. This focus became even sharper after spending time in the boat, reading about Paul Elvström, sailing with Tony and the boys and being exposed to the Olympic theme at chez James.

The Finn won the design contest in 1947 for a new singlehanded boat for the 1952 Olympics. It has the distinction of being The Olympic singlehanded class ever since. That is sixty-four years of serious, hard sailing. It has progressed from wooden hulls and masts to glass boats and carbon masts. It has a remarkably strong worldwide class. The roster of great, spectacular and seriously successful sailors that the Finn has produced is the Who’s Who of international sailing.

The Finn is heavy, slow and by modern standards not at all telegenic, unless you know what you are looking at. (Just like American football, right?) At 107 kg (235 lbs) on a nearly 15-foot LOA and with 114 square feet of sail but no trapeze, spinnaker or foils, sailing a Finn fast demands a level of physical fitness roughly equal to a hybrid of a marathon runner, a weightlifter, a single sculler and a shotputter – in fact, any other demanding athletic activities but all rolled into one. Then there are the technical aspects of the boat, and all this is before you get on the racecourse and retain sufficient mental acuity to deal with the art and science of sailboat racing.

Gary Hoyt sailed Finns for a bit and wrote a book that inspired me to excel in the Finn. Go for the Gold is a primer on one-design sailing with a focus on the mental approach, and includes two chapters on the Finn: ‘Sailing a Finn’ and ‘Gybing the Finn.’ Find it and read it. From the chapter ‘Sailing a Finn’ (paraphrased):

‘Above all, the Finn requires a certain toughness of mind and spirit. Pain is an integral part of the performance…your willingness to suffer is directly related to your speed…Finn sailors tend to be a class apart.’

Rather like ultra-marathons and the Ironman event, the Finn is the sailing boat that brings the primal urge for survival and capacity to override your brain’s screams to STOP to the fore. Unlike any other marathon event, a Finn regatta goes on for several days or several races over a weekend. After three races in 20-plus knots, the mettle of the man, for they are all men, is sorely tested. Sore being the operative word.

Sailing a Finn, at least in less than say 10 knots is satisfaction and pleasure personified. It just feels great. The way it rolls through the tacks and, after you get over the fear of gybing, through the gybes. The feel on the tiller, the way the mast and sail work together after several hundred hours of testing and fiddling, The top of the mast and sail are ideally matched to the crew weight so that when at full hike, the top of the mast depowers automatically. The smoothness, feel and joy of the Finn is sensuousness unmatched by anything else…in sailing, at any rate.

Let me say a word on the ‘hiking’ part of sailing a Finn. In most hiking boats, you put your feet under the straps and lean out. Depending on the boat the fitter you are the faster you go, without, compared to a Finn, all that much pain. In a Finn, your feet go under straps, your knees go on top of the side of the boat and the rest of you is hanging by your knees and quads off the side of the boat. The loading is taken on the biggest muscles in your body, your quadriceps. Big muscles need lots of blood and so oxygen to keep working. This physiology demands physical fitness of Olympic proportions. Mock up this position in your gym one day and see how fit you are.

In a lot of boats the downwind part is a kind of break time…well, from the serious physicality of hiking upwind, anyway. In the Finn, over 10 knots, no such luck. Several years ago, the Finn Class abandoned the Kinetics rules at wind speeds over 10 knots, thus with the hoisting of the appropriate flag, pumping, ooching and rocking is a free-for-all. It is possible the downwind part of sailing a Finn in over 10 knots is harder than the upwind part. Think I am kidding? Go to the Finn YouTube channel and watch Sir Ben Ainslie sailing downwind in 20 knots.

For all of you high school sailors, male and too big for Lasers, looking for a challenge, go find and sail a Finn. I guarantee you it will change your life one way or another. Taking on the Finn will be one of the biggest challenges you will face in your sailing career and quite possibly in your life, for the lessons learned in a Finn are useful in all aspects of life.

Ever since the introduction of the Laser, the Finn has been referred to as the Olympic Heavyweight single-handed boat. Well, they got that right. The Laser is a sailboat in the Olympics. The Finn is an Olympic boat.

Australian born, Joe ‘Coop’ Cooper stayed in the US after the 1980 America’s Cup where he was the boat captain and sailed as Grinder/Sewer-man on Australia. His whole career has focused on sailing, especially the short-handed aspects of it. He lives in Middletown, RI where he coaches, consults and writes on his blog,, when not paying attention to his wife, teenage son, dog, two cats and several, mainly small, boats.

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