Friday, January 7, 2011

The Finn: take another look at this WYC boat

Learn more about the club's Finn, a boat that gets great reviews from club members Jay and Alexia. 

BY Jay Flaming and Alexia Fischer

Alexia takes the Finn out on the bay. Credit: John Courter
There has been quite a bit of debate around the sailing world concerning the appropriate classes for the next summer Olympics. The current classes include the Europe, Finn, 470, 49er, Laser, Star, Tornado, and Yngling.

One of the most contentious classes has been the Finn, which is the men’s heavy-weight single-handed dinghy. Some people have pushed for eliminating it, arguing that there is no need for multiple classes of men’s SH, while its supporters argue that the Laser’s design leaves large, muscular sailors without a competitive boat. If you are interested in comparing, we have a 470, Lasers, and a Finn in our club. The Laser is the basic novice single-handed boat in the WYC, and the Finn requires an intermediate SH and a rig rating.

The Finn has a Portsmouth number of 90.8, just a bit faster than the Laser, at 91.1, and a bit slower than the Lightning or 470 at 87. It has a reputation for being the most athletically demanding single-handed dinghy, especially in high winds. The Portsmouth numbers indicate that the Finn is only slightly faster than the Laser, despite a much larger sail area (both are cat rigged, with only a mainsail... the Finn has an are of 10.6 square meters to the Laser’s 7.06), so it isn’t the most efficient hull.

Portsmouth numbers are calculated for optimal crew weights. The Laser’s optimal crew weight ranges from 143 pounds to 187 with the standard rig, while the Finn’s optimal skipper starts at 187 pounds and ranges up to about 250. Height is an advantage on both boats, as getting the weight out farther on a lever arm provides better ability to combat heel. Competitive Finn sailors are generally taller than 5’ 10”. Does that mean you must be 6’ tall and 200 pounds to sail it?

Our Finn is one of the lesser sailed boats in the club. Club members have mentioned that the boat’s reputation for having a low boom, complex rigging, and a perceived need to be a big sailor are reasons they haven’t taken advantage of it. Jay Flaming and Alexia Fischer, both first time Finn sailors, took it out for test sails this fall to evaluate how those concerns bear out in real life.

Jay’s Report

I should state from the beginning that I am not a fan of the Laser. I find it uncomfortable, too small, and to me it feels slow. In general, I prefer to sail keelboats or daysailors for social sailing, or catamarans when I want to go fast. However, I have been wanting to get more practice in the single-handed class, to work into a skipper rating, and I just never feel like going out on a Laser. So, on October 31, I took the Finn out for a try. At 6’4” and well over 200 pounds, I anticipated finding the Finn a better fit than the Laser.

It was a shifty day, with winds varying between five and fifteen knots, with gusts to twenty knots, predominantly from the south. Rigging the boat was pretty simple. The halyard has a hook on the mast, like a Hobie 16, but easier to operate, because it is lower down and easier to manipulate from the deck. There are a lot more sail controls, mostly run to the cockpit, including a boom preventer, outhaul, a vang with a tremendous mechanical advantage, cunningham and adjustable hiking straps. There is no trap wire. The lines were all colored differently, and it was fairly easy to make adjustments under way. The traveler was very difficult to adjust, because the continuous adjustment line was pretty short, making it hard to adjust without pulling the line out of the cleat.

The winds were stiff from the south when I left the dolly launching ramp, so I tried to short-tack my way out down to the ship canal end of the docks. However, I kept popping the traveler loose when tacking, which resulted in the car sliding completely to leeward, and making it hard to make progress upwind. Since there was a small crowd on the docks, and I didn’t want to look like too much of an idiot, I decided to turn and run downwind rather than beat. The big boom whacked me on the head on the gybe, but the boat accelerated like a rocket on the turn. I was immediately impressed by the performance on a run. The preventer pulls the boom out easily, so you don’t need to push it out like you do on a Laser.

On the turn past the outer docks, I picked up a gust at the wind line and the boat easily planed out towards Webster point. I looked back and saw an impressive rooster tail behind the transom. The boat feels very fast. When I brought the boat up onto a beat, I had to hike out harder than I have done on any other dinghy in any conditions. I quickly found myself with the backs of my knees on the gunwhale realizing that I needed to flatten the sail. I had tied the Cunningham too loosely, and I wasn’t able to harden down on it sufficiently, so I never got it as flat as I’d like. There is a block arrangement that provides advantage below decks, which limits the travel of the line. I had been warned about this on the docks but thought it was ok. I recommend checking this before you leave the docks, as it is impossible to fix underway. The mast bend on this boat is awesome.

I spent about three hours sailing the Finn, and I found it to be very responsive, easy to tack, and a real blast. I hit my head fairly regularly, and so I often eased the sheet and/or vang to keep the boom up a bit higher than a truly competitive sailor would like, I think. I still ended up with a big lump on my head at the end of the sail, but there really is plenty of room to clear under the mast if you’re more coordinated than I am. Towards the end of the day, I found myself missing easy maneuvers, and eventually realized that I was just physically exhausted. In the puffy winds, I had to move in and out of the boat continuously, which was quite a body core workout, and sailing the boat in the higher puffs required a bit of muscle... the sheet loads are higher than most dinghies, and you can’t get by with lazy hiking.

I never felt like the boat speed was as high as it should have been (and at one point I found John Courter keeping up with me in a Bravo, but I’m getting used to this in any boat). I did find a big bushel-basket sized wad of lily pads and weeds on the rudder at the end of the day, which must have been slowing me down quite a bit. With a bit more practice, a repaired traveler, and no weeds, I think it would be faster.

Before I de-rigged, John recommended that I try a capsize test, since the boat reputedly brings in a lot of water after recovery. I was surprised at how difficult it was to capsize the boat, as it developed quite a bit of stability at about the time the rail hit the water level. I wasn’t able to do a dry capsize, as I felt like the mast was going under when I started to climb up the centerboard trunk, so I jumped in. The boat righted easily, but it brought in about a foot of water in the cockpit. I wasn’t able to get enough boat speed to get the auto-bailers working, and any movement in the boat made it very unstable as the water flowed around. I think if I had bailed for a couple of minutes first, it would have been fine, and the bailers would have functioned with less water in the boat. There was a plastic bailer lashed to the mast.

At any rate, I found the Finn to be a fun upgrade for a sailor of my size versus the Laser. It felt faster at my weight, and more comfortable. However, I don’t think I could sail it as long, at least without some more conditioning. I was surprised by its stability, and interested to see if a smaller sailor would find it enjoyable.

Alexia’s Report

I watched Jay take the Finn out on October 31 to capsize it. He had a little bit of an audience because we were all curious about how it would right. I heard stories about how it capsizes easily, is nearly impossible to right, and if you do right it, it comes up full of water and is pretty much unsailable after that. These reasons and the stigma that it is only for heavier sailors in any wind had caused me to be apprehensive about the boat and not bother with it. After all, I could take out a Laser, which I enjoy doing.

We all gathered around Jay and watched him try and try again to capsize it, but it wouldn't go over! Once he got it over he had it upright in no time and was able to sail it full of water. After seeing this I realized that all these stories were for the most part bogus, and I had to give the boat a try.

I took the Finn out Sunday, Nov 7. The boat rigged very easily. The main rigs like a Hobie 16 where you hook a grommet in a fork in the mast. Then, you adjust the downhaul, outhaul, boom vang, bailers and other rigging. The trailer is a bit heavy but I was able to put it in the water with little trouble. The rest is like rigging an FJ; put the centerboard down and the rudder in and it's good to go.

There was stiff 10-12 knot breeze on the bay with gusts up to 17 knots. I also tried to tack it out of the South end of the docks but had little room because of a submerged tree and a huge motor boat tied up at the guest dock for a wedding. I ended up heading down and running out of the North end. I jibed around the North end of the docks, got into some wind, and the boat took off. I had to hike out hard and feather up in big puffs to keep the boat level, but it was pretty stable and not too difficult to sail. The boat had a lot of power but it wasn't too overpowered. It was a blast on a beam and I was only a little slower than the cats cruising around. I intended to only go out for an hour but two went by very quickly! The boat was incredibly fun and fast.
Alexia hiking out on the Finn. Credit: John Courter

The whole time I was out there I didn't have an accidental capsize. It was easier to jibe than a Laser because the main sheet block is by the centerboard like and FJ. It also felt more stable than a Laser going downwind. Tacking was not a problem either. The boom looks low but there is a lot of room in the boat to duck under it.

I wanted to give capsizing a try to see how someone lighter would do with righting the boat. I decided to try and sail it over but failed miserably. I would get going real fast on a beam reach, sheet in all the way in a puff and try to keep the boat heading straight. The boat would lean over hard, then round up and level out. It was surprisingly very stable at a 50-60* angle of heel. Finally after about 6 attempts, I just jumped over to the leeward side when it leaned over and it finally capsized. Because I was on the leeward side I couldn't do a dry capsize but I believe it is doable. The boat was very easy to right. Unlike the Laser and the FJ, the centerboard is almost at water level, which means someone with minimal upper body strength can easily get themselves on top of the board. The trailing edge of the board is very sharp though!

It didn't take much effort to get the boat up, but it did come up full of water. I sailed it around with all the water to see if it would empty, but it didn't. It was still pretty stable with all the water; I just had to be more aware of the heal and how far the bow was being pushed down. I started bailing it with a plastic bottle which worked and then I headed in.

I was also really tired at the end of my sail. Hiking the boat was physically demanding and a great core work-out! I was a bit sore the next few days. I can't say if it was more or less fun than a Laser, they are too different. I would definitely take the Finn out again though!