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Regatta Magazine Online

 News and Features

 Issue 123 - November 1999


Sulkava Regatta, Finland

The Finns at prayer

Pat Sherwin writes from the not-so-frozen North

Sulkava regatta is probably the greatest rowing spectacle in the world. There were a record 9500 competitors this year. It started in 1968 when a boat builder in the small lakeside community of 3000 people situated 190 miles north east of Helsinki, became concerned at the use of plastics in boat building and feared the art of building in wood would be lost. The local history society adopted his plan to hold a 65km race in traditional wooden boats round a large island in the lake. In the first year 36 scullers in singles and doubles entered, and the singles was won by a 67-year-old farmer who sculled 12km from his farm to the start, and after the race he had a bowl of soup before sculling home! This amazing fellow entered each year until he was 82 and each year the race drew more and more entries and spectators.

Skiing is the main sport in the long winter in Finland, but once the thaw comes in mid-May, recreational rowing takes over. There are now three main classes of boat, all built to traditional designs but of lightweight marine ply. The 12-metre church boats contain 14 rowers and a cox, with oars attached to a single pin so they cannot be feathered. Recent boats have a smooth plastic cover on the seat with similar material sewn into the seats of the all-in-ones so that limited sliding can be achieved. Simplicity of rig means any one can learn quickly, and the boats are very popular with companies. Church boats cost 3,000, which compares favourably with a nine-person eight.

Change boats are aptly named. They resemble a single scull but have room for a second person who paddles at the stern. Every three minutes the crew religiously change, the paddler diving into the bows and the sculler to the stern. Good crews take three seconds to change.

The third boat type is the traditional single scull.

At the regatta there is a massed start of 150 church boats each morning followed by about 70 change boats and 100 sculls. At the finish the boats are attached to pontoons or beached and used by different crews for the evening rowing which is in the opposite direction, returning the boats to the start ready for the next morning. There are also tourist events for church boats which cover half the course one day and finish the next. The third day counts as the Finnish National Championships.

The atmosphere over three days is contagious, with everyone helping each other, and the sense of achievement at the end of a race is immense. Most people either camp or sleep on foam mattresses in schools or public buildings. With only two hours of dusk, partying does go on all night.

To organise all this there is a full time director with two secretaries for two months. However, 600 locals give their time to the vast catering operation and in marshalling the many safety boats. Each competitor receives a certificate which is proudly displayed in the office or at home. Business conversations in Finland now start with 'When did you row at Sulkava?' or 'How often have you rowed at Sulkava?' Politicians and the clergy now compete to get vital street cred.

As a committed recreational rower who gave up racing to give more time to club administration, I firmly believe that club rowing in Britain has become too competitive (especially for veterans), and that there is a lesson to be learnt from Sulkava. Enjoying yourselves while involving all the family and work mates could greatly expand rowing and bring in more people to help run our clubs. Pat Sherwin

© Copyright Pat Sherwin, 1999.

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