Michael Staal Interview – FWM2020 magazine

Several Danish sailors have been very pro-active in discarding the negativity felt by many about the situation regarding the Finn and the Olympics. They regard the class as vibrant and healthy and that in reality nothing much has changed for 95 per cent of the fleet. One of those is Michael Staal, from Dragør Sejlklub, just south of Copenhagen.


He is quite outspoken on the subject. “Nothing changes for us except we can’t look at 19 very good athletes every four years sailing in strange conditions under the rules of commercial television. For sailing in general it is a huge mistake to believe that the Olympics has any significant impact on who goes sailing.”
“The values in and around sailing can only be experienced when you try. That is our strongest asset and this is how we get people to sail the Finn. Put them into a Finn with a life vest on. Our regular activities in our local clubs are the key to show our case and recruit more fools. I don’t see a transition in relation to the majority of Finn sailors.”


“Sometimes I feel that having Olympic status is counterproductive to attracting new sailors. It happens when the Finn is portrayed as ‘the most brutal boat that demands nearly in-human capabilities of its sailors’.”
Michael came to Finn sailing late in life. “After starting in Optimist in 1970 at the age of 11, one year later I started crewing in a Flipper, which is a scow type two-person youth dinghy with trapeze and spinnaker. Thereafter I sailed my own Flipper for some years until at the age of 18 I switched it for an old Elvstrøm Trapez dinghy. At the age of 21 I began sailing 505s and this is where I got a little ambitious. For a few years a friend and I made some decent international results until I had to retire from the international scene for money reasons.”


“Instead I did some budget sailing with my future wife in the 505 for a number of years. When our kids were born we changed to a racing keelboat and did some successful racing and cruising until priorities demanded a pause from having our own boat. Since 2004 we have a 39 feet old and solid cruising sailboat that we use for holiday and weekend sailing in Denmark and neighbouring countries. It is as important to me as Finn sailing. And the purpose of holiday sailing is something else. I don’t mix the two different purposes of cruising and Finn sailing.”

INTO THE FINN
The Finn bug hit in the mid 1990s.
”It was some years into my boatless period in the mid 1990s that some crazy people in my home club re-invented Finn sailing in Denmark. And after some time, they persuaded me to try. Having a legacy in fast two-person dinghies and with a clear opinion all my life about never, ever sitting in a slow boat like a Finn, I was taken a little by surprise. Despite the low speed it was a nice boat to sail. However the most important part was the camaraderie and culture that reminded me of the old days in the Trapez and 505s. So it was my sailing friends who are guilty in me starting in the Finn.”
Today it means a lot for him to be a Finn sailor. “It is my meditation. It is the reason for my exercises on shore – otherwise I would be in poor shape. It is a source of fun and quality of time spent. To some degree it has become a part of my identity. I am not sailing a Finn – I am a Finn sailor.”
“The Finn combines the needs of mastering technique with strategy, tactics and your physique to a higher degree than most other dinghies – given your average personal displacement is around 0.1 tons. The Finn Masters gives me the opportunity to test and learn from sailing peers in a large variety of ages, which is unique in sailing.”
He has now competed in 11 Finn World Masters. “My first was in Split in 2002 and for that reason memorable. Schwerin, Pwllheli and Kavala are probably the three best organized events I remember. I remember La Rochelle for the foul weather and my best result; and Barbados for the nice weather and cold beer.”
He is concerned about the demographic progression in the Masters fleet. “The core of the Finn Masters are long time Finn sailors. They daily build the huge following. It is about who we are and to a lesser extent the Finn itself. With the diminishing youth activities around the world, all senior dinghy classes suffer from low succession. Looking at the age distribution in the last ten Masters we can calculate the end of Masters sailing. The Masters age group used to be the largest. Last year it was the GGM age group.”
“The Olympic status has nothing to do with our huge Masters following. We might even be better off in the Masters without Olympic status. But I truly believe the Olympics deserve the Finn in the future.”

DANISH GROWTH
But in Denmark, numbers are growing again. “The Finn is today at an all time high in Denmark. We are about to register more than 50 active sailors, which equals close to 10 Finn sailors per 1 million inhabitants. Last year’s Masters in Denmark played an important role in attracting attention to our activities, but it is the continuous efforts of enthusiasts in our community that has attracted so many middle aged and elderly men to our class. Honestly speaking, we are a bunch of old fools nerding with something not many people understand. And we like to pamper our one and only Under 23 year sailor as well as our one and only Olympic candidate.”
In terms of the Masters events, “We could pay more attention to some of the basic requests that have the greatest impact when people are coming from far away, such as a decent piece of water to sail on with a weather pattern that usually lies within our limits for a Masters regatta. There have recently been a couple of venues where I consider it to be too much of a compromise.”
“If this means we have to restrict the number of participants, then I favour this, and I trust our local fleets will find a good way to share the number of participants they can have.”
“I favour venues off the beaten track, such as Schwerin, Pwllheli and Kavala, where there is something to discover apart from the clubhouse and ramps. Mostly you also have a better and more enthusiastic local club crew doing a better job in such places.”

THE OLYMPIC QUESTION
Turning back to the Olympic question he said, “Look at us. We are not brutal beasts. We are accountants, plumbers, consultants, IT nerds, real estate agents and demolishers. And we don’t need Olympic budgets to have fun and be fast.”
“We will not keep the people who do it mainly because of funding and fame. If rock stars really believe the Finn is the best boat – and the only competitive boat – for people over 85 kg, then I expect them to keep on sailing. It is one of the less costly boats to sail competitively, and it is for sure one of the classes where they can learn the most (also from us old fools). And it can never ever be an excuse for them to stop sailing, if they really love sailing.”
“Last but not least, it can’t be an excuse to stop sailing when only 19 oddly selected persons once every four years get to sail in a somewhat strange format.”
That being said, he thinks the IFA should continue the fight to get back into the Olympics. “But for the benefit of sailors over
85 kg, not for the Finn itself. As mentioned, I don’t believe the Olympic status is a life saver for the Finn Class.”
“I would also like the Finn Class to develop good and honest information for local clubs around the world, that is built on best practice examples of how a local fleet of Finns is created and maintained. We know how to do this. Let us tell it to the sailing communities.”

FINN GOLD CUP
Likewise, he thinks the Finn Gold Cup is incredibly important for the class.
“The Finn Gold Cup is an institution in the sailing community. This is where the young and most talented sailors fight and become heroes. The Finn Gold Cup is much bigger than the Olympics. We must try to keep it as the pinnacle of our sport, and in sailing, as such.”
“I would favour initiatives to create support, and possibly funding, to maintain the Finn Gold Cup as it is. It has a platform within sailing that should make it possible. Compare what, for example, the 505 class is able to do with a sponsor like SAP. Or what the Star class is achieving. We may see lower participation for a period, but let us not dilute this event ourselves. Masters should leave the Finn Gold Cup to the fittest and best. Stay home and do some training with your friends.”
“The Finn class should become the nesting place for all future sailing talent over 85 kg until re-instated at the Olympics or another even better boat will be designed for people over 85 kg.”
Lately he has had to chance to put some of this into practice. “I am involved in business but today in a more flexible role as a non-executive board member. It is only last year that for the first time I started to use the flexibility to do some more sailing. Probably one of my better decisions for a long time.”
“I have sailed for 51 years and am still eager and able to learn to be a better sailor.”

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