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Russian Finn revolution - Interview with Vasiliy Kravchenko

by Robert Deaves on 2 May 2011
Vasiliy Kravchenko, National Finn secretary, sailing in Moscow Robert Deaves/Finn Class
2011 Open Russian 2011 is being held from 13-18 September and the 2011 Silver Cup 2011 (Junior World Championship) is being held from 24-30 July in Moscow. Charter boats are available.

After the success of the 2005 Finn Gold Cup in Moscow, the Russian Finn fleet staged something of a revolution. During the last six years, Finn sailing in Russia has gradually and methodically been transformed from a small number of professional sailors and a group of die-hard amateur enthusiasts into a modern, thriving and competitive fleet that can boast big numbers attending regattas at home and abroad.

The legacy of that monumental event on Pestovskoe Lake had far reaching consequences, completely changing the face of the class in a country that was, in the 1960s, one its biggest strongholds. That legacy perhaps became most apparent at this year's Princesa Sofia Trophy in Palma when there were an unprecedented 12 Russian Finn sailors competing.

For those who don't remember, for the 2005 Finn Gold Cup, the Moscow Sailing School secured government funding to purchase 100 brand new, identical Devoti Finns for the competitors to use. Those boats are still in use today at various locations in Russia and are a key component in the growth of the class, as well as being used as charter boats in various championships held in Moscow such as the 2007 Silver Cup – the Junior World Championships – and the Open Russian, held every year since 2008.

The Silver Cup returns to Moscow again this July, while the Russian Finn sailors are also bidding to bring the Finn Gold Cup back to the country, this time most likely in St Petersburg in 2013, and this bid will be announced during the ISAF Mid Year meeting, also in St Petersburg.

The secretary of the Russian Finn class is Vasiliy Kravchenko, and he has been the driving force behind the success of the Russian Finn fleet over the last six years and is the face behind the growth of the class and many of its initiatives to make sailing more popular and accessible. The following, shortened, interview is the story of how it all came about and holds many simple lessons for us all. It is long story, but worth the journey.

Finn Class: How important was the 2005 Finn Gold Cup for the Finn fleet in Moscow (and Russia)?
Vasiliy Kravchenko: The 2005 Finn Gold Cup gave the possibility to attract a huge budget from the Moscow government to renovate Moscow Sailing School and to buy a big fleet of modern Finns and motorboats for race support. That gave us a very good tool and the chance to develop sailing sport in Moscow, and in Russia as well.

Several of our local non-professional Finn fans, who had kept the Finn class alive in Moscow for all years since the USSR breakdown, were allowed to participate, and this was very influential in developing the class. The director of Moscow Sailing School (MSS), Margarita Kuznetsova, supported this and invited the core of the newly formed Moscow Finn Association to organise a Finn class group at the MSS. We invited many good Finn sailors, former USSR, Russian national team and Moscow team members, who did not have a boat and had left the sport. Such a group enabled us to create good competition and to reproduce the atmosphere and the traditions of the Finn class, and we started to attract newcomers, juniors and sailors from other classes.

As the result, the International Moscow Regatta of 2006 attracted 33 Finn sailors. Later on the Moscow Finn Association and the Russian Finn Association in cooperation with MSS managed to increase the number of participants up to 60 (Open Russian 2009).

The availability of the such a big charter fleet and of such well equipped onshore infrastructure gives us good possibilities to invite sailors from other areas and countries, to create a tough competition with a big fleet in one place and show off the Finn class to juniors and newcomers from other classes. Several sailors have decided to stay (or return) to the Finn class and to buy their own boats after such events.

How have the 100 boats built for that event been used since 2005?
Some of the boats were used for Juniors and for sailors of the Moscow Sailing School as well as being distributed to some other regional sailing schools for development of the Finn class in a partnership agreement with MSS. Several boats were also allocated to the Moscow Finn Association.

Ten boats were moved to the Black Sea to Sochi for a special development programme. We invite all sailors who want to develop in the Finn to participate in the programme, organise training sessions and clinics for juniors, as well as giving these boats to perspective sportsmen and juniors to compete in regattas. So everybody is welcome to take part. There are no limits of age or standard. The only condition is that the sailor has to show an intention to stay and to develop himself in the Finn. The rest of the boats (about 50) are kept at the Moscow Sailing School as a charter fleet for big events.

Where are the main centres of Finn sailing in Russia?
Of course one of the strongest centres of Finn sailing is in Moscow and the Moscow area, where we have a number of active people and a big charter fleet. At this moment we are developing a private fleet programme – in partnership with Devoti Sailing – to motivate and to help people to buy new or nearly new boats. The rest use charter boats from MSS. Usually more than 70 people come to Finn class regattas in Moscow every year.

The next active place is Krasnoyarsk (Siberia), where sailors are trying to rebuild old boats. They are hunting for old boats and building wooden masts and in 2010 they got 24 boats together for the Siberia Cup.

We have an active group of 10 Finns at the Black Sea at Adler town (very close to Sochi), and others in Taganrog, Rostov, Toliatti, St Petersburg, Saratov, Vladivostok, Krasnodar and one in the Volgograd area. There is also very good support of our Association at Sochi Sailing Centre, but we don’t have active sailors from there so far. In total we have database of about 200 people that are connected with Finn class somehow.

How is the Finn viewed by the sailing public in Russia?
The Finn class used to be the most public Olympic class in the USSR. Our veterans remember regattas in Moscow when they had up to 100 Finns at the start. So that is a big stratum of Russian (Soviet) history. The majority of yachting people in Russia came through the Finn class and remember it.

The Finn class was in quite a difficult situation during the period after the USSR breakdown. In our former system all sport was funded by the state and controlled by the state. Almost none of the fleet was private. Due to a decrease in the funding and the orientation of the state towards children and juniors only, the Finn class was almost dead. It was the non-professional senior sailors who remembered the nice atmosphere of the class, and kept the Finn class alive in Russia. They collected and renovated old boats and continued racing in the local regattas.

Interest in the Finn class also stayed alive due to Christmas regatta in Sochi, which was organised by Oleg Khopersky just after the USSR breakdown and that is still carried on nowadays.

The situation changed after the Finn Gold Cup in 2005, but the real change of attitude to the Finn class appeared not right after the gold cup, but only after the competitive events in Finn class started. I would say that ‘the class is alive not by its fleet but by events in that class’. So we put all our effort and resources to create attractive events, which could attract our target audience to the class.

One of the main indicators of the positive movement is that more and more people started to invest their own money in buying modern boats. For the last two years the private fleet of Finns has grown considerably.

We used to organise our own races just by ourselves without any race committee, jury and so on: we brought our own small marks, laid a course and one of us counted time. But later on some our members did not take such races seriously; we had many discussions and decided to invite a race committee and sometimes a jury. It takes money and that is a task for our association now to keep the right balance between budgeting good organisation and keeping the races fair for all sailors, including young sailors with their lack of own budget.

The Russian Finn Association has become one of the most active associations in Russia. Due to that, the Finn class is always in the centre of sailing life now. There is a very unique atmosphere of the friendships and strong traditions in the class. The Finn class gives a very long sporting life for the sailors, where young sailors can win by their physical condition while old sailors are still able to win by their knowledge, experience and technique. Due to that you can meet very many interesting people.

How did the class develop after 2005?
The Russian Finn class used to be represented by the Russian Yachting Federation before, because Russia did not have a strong Finn community. My goal was to build the Finn Association in Russia and to develop the class in Moscow – and then in Russia. During my work I set up many international contacts with Finn sailors around the world.

The Moscow Finn Association was organised before the Russian Finn Association. Actually we did not have enough political weight at very beginning and decided to start just with the regional association. Later many people from other regions of Russia joined us with the intention of developing the Finn class in their regions.

After growing in 2006 and 2007 a small ambiguous situation appeared with the 2008 Russian national Finn championship since nobody wanted to organise it. In the end the Moscow Finn Association took the responsibility of organising the championship. It was successful and due to all our previous activities, the Russian Yachting Federation – which had maintained the official contact with International Finn Association before – acknowledged our Association as the real driving force of the Finn class in Russia. Oleg Ilyin, the general secretary of RYF, nominated me as the official National Secretary of the Russian Finn class.

Then it was high time to organise the Russian Finn Association or to ‘rebrand’. We decided to keep both brands because the name of the Moscow Finn Association was widely known already. So officially the Moscow Finn Association is a part of the Russian Finn Association now, but in most cases the same people are there.

How do you attract new people to the class and how do you promote it?
I think that the most successful marketing initiative for us is direct work and personal involvement from the association with each potential sailor whom we want to be among us – that means news distribution and contacting each of them by telephone. That is very hard work, but it really helps, and it is due to that direct work with each sailor we manage to get such big fleets at our regattas.

We also realised that the key factor to keep the Finn class alive and stable in Russia was to build up a private independent fleet and to build a secondhand market of modern boats. For that purpose we needed to set up an easy way for Russian sailors to get modern boats and rigs, because there were language, logistics and visa problems for many of them. So we decided to organise a partnership with a boatbuilder, Devoti Sailing. Now Russian sailors can buy new boats and rigs from us without any headache with logistics and customs clearance, or can place an order direct with the factory while we can help or advise them how to import the boat to Russia. Also we invested some money for instant deposit on another new boat. So there is always one spare lot of production, which we can use for the customer who needs his new boat urgently.
In Russia, sailing and many other sports are suppressed by football and hockey. It is extremely difficult, in fact almost impossible, to get the proper media space that sailing deserves. I am faced with huge obstacles when I want to promote our national championships. But I do not believe that it is impossible to promote sailing and the Finn to a high level since there are very successful examples of promoting cross-country ski races and biathlons. I think these kinds of sports are very close to sailing from media point of view since the racing area is very large and you cannot see the whole picture at once. We can improve the picture if we put many cameras in different points across the course, and use online-onboard cameras. But also I think that the key for success is not the breathtaking picture, but a good commentator, who is capable of expressing the atmosphere and mood, so that spectators can experience the race.

I have made a big target for myself – to make the sport of sailing and the Finn class popular to such a level that the media would compete and be ready to buy the rights to show our events. I do not know the exact path to this target, but I keep trying different ways, making many experiments and I am sure that some day I will come to it.

MSS is hosting the Silver Cup for the second time this year. Why is it so keen to host these events?
The words from a popular Russian song are: 'The airplanes live only when they fly'. Actually the whole infrastructure of the Sailing School and the charter fleet will stay alive only if they can be used continuously. Otherwise there is no motivation to spend money and energy keeping the boats in good condition. Also we have to say that the new events help to focus attention on the sport, to the Sailing School, to attract newcomers, to attract new budgets for developing the fleet and for involving more Juniors in the Finn class.

You are also bidding for the Finn Gold Cup in 2013. Can you explain a little bit about this bid?
Russia has a number of new good facilities with good water areas that are able to accept big fleets, to provide a good location for the sailors and to carry out big events at a high level. One of them is new yacht club in Toliatti, which has hosted the joint Russian national championship in Olympic classes. Another example is a new club in St Petersburg. Besides the racing programme all the centres have unique culture points, which will be interesting for the guests. We also have good facilities and support in Taganrog. These centres all have a good history of strong Finn sailors. New infrastructure and relationships, which are to be prepared for Finn Gold Cup, will help to revive and to develop the class in these centres, as well as to motivate local government infrastructures to invest more into the Finn class. That is also a big challenge for our association to consolidate all positive forces in these areas, which are currently acting independently.

I think that the bid of St Petersburg has more chances to win the right to host the Finn Gold Cup, since it is a fantastic city – a cluster of culture and history – that many people would like to visit. St Petersburg is also very convenient from a logistics point of view. But I still do hope that we will get some big event to our other centres like Toliatti or Taganrog in the centre of Russia as well, where we have very strong support from potential sponsors and organisers. (So far I am not inviting everyone to Siberia. But… who knows? Why not?)

What is your ‘vision’ for the future of the class in Russia?
I think that Finn is not just a class of boat, it is inseparably linked with people and events. So we promote not only the class itself, but the people, the events and the lifestyle as well.

When I started the Moscow Finn Association, I made a target for myself – to make the Finn class in Russia invulnerable and stable. I think that we have reached that target – we have built a private fleet of modern boats and have an instant core of people, who participate in most of the Finn events in Russia and outside Russia independently from the state programme. We also managed to create interest in the Finn class in many sailing schools across the whole of Russia. So the class has many platforms and is well distributed across the country.

The state programme supporting the class has tended keep its distance from the mainstream members of the association. That is mostly a problem not only of the people, but the problem of our state system, which is oriented to Olympic medals. The state support is essential, but it creates some problems for us since their targets differ from ours. The real progress depends on flexibility and cooperation.

So the role of Association will grow in the near future and many things will depend on how active we stay and how we manage to manoeuvre between political streams. I guess that the situation should change qualitatively because the country and the people in Russia have changed considerably since the USSR breakdown. Anyway I am sure that the Finn class will continue to develop in Russia and nobody can stop this Russian Finn Class Silver Cup website

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