2014_2 the hull story master

The hull story

As they zip over the flat Long Beach harbour, Finnish sailors Lauri Lehtinen and Miikka Pennanen are getting a feel for what they’ll face in Rio de Janeiro. In two years’ time, that’s where they will be fighting for Olympic gold.


Lauri Lehtinen, 27, doesn’t recall a life without the sea.

“I was probably in a sailboat long before I can even remember. I learned to sail at the same time that I learned to walk,” the Helsinki native says.

Still just a boy, he met Miikka Pennanen, who’d spent his first ever outing, age five, throwing tennis balls at other Optimists in the off-shore version of a game of tag. He loved it.

Together, they went on to race 29ers, competing across the swell of the Baltic and beyond. In 2004, they finished second at the World Championships on Lake Silvaplana in the Swiss mountains.

Then things changed.

“Miikka wanted to focus on his studies and his future yacht design career, so I sailed for ten years without him,” Lauri says over a crackly Skype connection, a slight audio delay tracing the call.

The sound of the Pacific waves breaks in on the conversation. Lauri is in Long Beach, California, and he’s not alone. Beside him sits a young man with inch-long, shock-blonde hair.

“Now he’s back,” Lauri says with a smile.

“We’re back,” interjects Miikka, 28.

The pair reunited in early 2014 with two and a half years to go until the Olympics. Two weeks in Long Beach will prepare them for similar conditions to the ones they’ll face in Brazil – breakers keep the sea flat within the commercial harbour of the Californian town.

“Similar seascape, similar wind speeds, but here, the water is very, very cold,” Lauri points out.

In Rio, the natural Guabarana Bay will offer them some protection. At its widest, the bay stretches 28 kilometres. The mouth to the sea is a slim kilometre and a half, guarded to the east by the 1000-metre Parrot’s Peak, and to the west by Sugar Loaf mountain, the iconic thumb-print of a mountain that pushes some 400 metres into the sky and has come to define the silhouette of Rio.

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Before they get as far as sailing on the bay, however, there are logistics to consider.

“Rio is not an easy place,” Lauri says. “It’s a complicated new place, we’ve never been there.”

Finland’s Olympic sailing team will have the help of Wärtsilä, however, which keep the boats safe at the company’s Niteroi site.

The solution means that the sailors – not just Lauri and Miikka but the entire national team - can nip back and forth to Rio as they train, never having to worry about the boats. In total, the team will store some twenty boats in Niteroi, where Wärtsilä has a 4600-square-metre facility.

The duo has high hopes for Rio, but they are keeping a watchful eye on the teams from New Zealand and Australia.

“They’ve been the ones to beat,” Lauri says.

Last time Lauri took on the Olympics, he placed seventh. The Australians zipped to victory then and are still doing well.

“But I’m sure the rest of the world will wind down that gap well before Rio,” Lauri says. ”There is still more than two years to go, so everything can happen.”

His sister Silja Lehtinen was also at the last Olympics. She and Miikka’s girlfriend Silja Kanerva took home a bronze medal.

Silja and Lauri used to harness a bit of sibling rivalry at the start of their careers, until they realised it was damaging their chances of winning.

“After couple of regattas we agreed that we will race the fleet not each other,” Lauri says. “Ever since, we’ve been more encouraging and we push each other.”

Brother, sister, teammate, girlfriend… it’s a tight-knit community, one that offers social support. It appears to go a long way to offset the unrelenting travel and the aching muscles of hours at sea.

Sailing has dominated Lauri’s life since before he could walk, but Miikka took a break, not from sailing as such, but from competing. He first enrolled in a naval architecture course in Finland and went on to spend two years in Southampton studying ship and yacht design.

Afterwards, he took on work as a technical consultant for the Swedish and the Finnish Olympics teams. Somehow, slowly, competitive sailing caught up with him. By the time Lauri’s gast Kalle Bask retired to spend more time with his family, Miikka was ready again for the open sea,

“When Kalle’s decision to quit came, my mindset changed pretty straight away. I really felt I wanted to get back into the same boat with Lauri again and sail a second round - now on professional level,” he says.

Which took Lauri by surprise.

“He seemed very satisfied with his situation in life,” Lauri recalls. “So I thought he would not be interested.”

Lauri realised his mistake when Miikka - after a weekend of non-stop pondering – finally called him.

“We closed the deal then pretty quickly and started work straight away,” says Lauri, who calls Miikka fun, talented, and dedicated not just to sailing, but to picking it apart, dedicating hours to analysing how their boat performs on the open sea.

If only the open sea was all there was. Miikka has to get his strength back. He trains on top of sailing seven times a week, currently focusing on becoming more flexible and building endurance. He’ll add weight training later in the year.

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Somewhere between the sea and the gym, there’s not much time for other things. Miikka and Lauri may be training in Long Beach, but so far they’ve not seen more of the coastal town than the local grocery store. In large part because the practical aspects of competing internationally eat into their time.

“Maybe we spend 20 percent sailing, no, not even that, unfortunately,” Miikka says. “The logistics, the planning, getting the boat to the other side of the world, finding the money to do this.”

Having Wärtsilä on board means they have to worry less about the logistics of Rio, which leaves more time to prepare. They think, they talk, they analyse, they watch videos. Their notes from a day’s training in Long Beach are concise:

At first we were quite slow, but improved dramatically when our technique in chop improved. Trim: light version mentioned above where the jib is 3cm above the svedge, easy halyard and jib approx 1 inch inside spreaders.

Keys to success:

- Main sheet in all the time

- Trapezes pretty low so puffs are taken easily and range of crew and skipper movement is big

- Finding the rhythm of changing pressure due to waves

- Steering minimal and exact. Steering low from high puffs with right timing.


Both young men are now enrolled in marine engineering degrees back home in Finland, which has proved a valuable asset as they dissect every twist and turn of their 49er.

“We talk about the training as much as we train,” Miikka sums up.

At its fastest, the 49er will reach speeds of 20 knots – in landlubber lingo, that’s about 40 kilometres an hour. At times, the dinghies cluster, then break apart as the teams pull away. Sailors can be inches apart, as the hulls spit swell, and the frothy wakes stream out behind them in near-perfect tandem.

“Every time you go out sailing, you always think how you can do it better next time,” says Lauri, echoing the symptoms of addiction… just, one, more, hit. 

Do they ever get hurt? The sailors respond with silence at first, throwing cautious, bemused - almost boyish - glances at each other, until Lauri finally says scrapes and bruises are part of the deal.

“You get a little hit once in a while,” adds Miikka.


Wärtsilä in Brazil

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