Skip to main content

Formidably Finnish

In a land where muscular boats are often a necessity, builders are turning an eye toward the U.S. market

Finnish boats are known for their capabilities in rough water. They're designed and built to take a pounding.

{loadposition position10}

Off the coast of western Finland, the seas have built up and are rolling in from Sweden and Denmark, the length of the Baltic Sea, when they meet the shallow waters of Finland's Turku archipelago, creating steep, tight waves.

We're running the Minor Offshore 28, a pilothouse boat with single-diesel sterndrive propulsion, into a strong wind and 4-foot seas. Our speed is 26 mph. Manning the helm is Thomas Sarin, a third-generation Finnish boatbuilder, who throttles up to 29 mph once we've turned north around Korpo Island and into a quartering sea. The boat offers a secure, stable and, frankly, quiet ride in an often confusing sea state.

"The demanding conditions here in the Finnish archipelago make it a perfect place to test the quality and the seaworthiness of our boats," says Sarin, sales and purchasing manager for family-owned Sarins Boats, builder of the Minor line. "Our boats are designed to be used during all seasons and most of our customers use their boats from early spring to late autumn."

A long boating season in Finland - where the consensus seems to be that summer lasts one to two months - would be an all but endless season in the United States. With that in mind, Soundings in late June ventured to the biannual Floating Show hosted by Finnboat, the Finnish Marine Industries Federation, to sea-trial a variety of Finnish-built powerboats.

The cruising grounds of Finland are immense. The Baltic Sea envelops the western and southern coastlines of the country. It stretches from the Gulf of Bothnia - located between Finland and Sweden in the north - to the Archipelago Sea and its thousands of islands in the southwest, and to the Gulf of Finland and the capital, Helsinki, on the southern coast. Inland, the map of Finland is splashed with countless lakes. With so much of the countryside more easily accessed by boat than by car, it comes as no surprise that boating and boatbuilding are so ingrained in the culture.

"Finland has an incredible number of lakes and [more than 24,000 miles] of shoreline, including the islands," says Finnboat managing director Jouko Huju, noting that there are 189,000 lakes with a width of at least 1,640 feet. "The industry originally evolved from the necessity to move on water for practical reasons. A lot of the design and style of our boats reflect the various needs - summer houses on the lakes, recreational fishing, remote islands in the archipelago."

Image placeholder title

Finland has a population of 5.3 million people - and 744,000 boats. "This means, in practical terms, that every seventh Finn has a boat, and some 35 percent of all households," Huju says. "Finland has the biggest density of boats in the world, per capita."

SEASTAR 720 LOA: 23 feet, 7 inches BEAM: 7 feet, 11 inches DRAFT: 1 foot, 6 inches DISPLACEMENT: 2,205 pounds HULL TYPE: modified-vee TRANSOM DEADRISE: 17 degrees TANKAGE: 53 gallons fuel POWER: single outboard to 150 hp SPEED: 44 mph top, 31 mph cruise (Honda BF150) PRICE: $65,950 (includes freight to U.S.A.) CONTACT: Terhi Oy, Rymättylä. Phone: +358 2 275 3400. TG ALFA LOA: 23 feet, 7 inches BEAM: 8 feet, 10 inches DRAFT: 1 foot, 4 inches DISPLACEMENT: 3,970 pounds HULL TYPE: deep-vee TRANSOM DEADRISE: 22.5 degrees TANKAGE: 53 gallons fuel POWER: single outboard to 250 hp SPEED: 49 mph top, 32 mph cruise (single 225-hp outboard) PRICE: $66,500 (Suzuki 225) CONTACT: TG Boats by Freja Marine, Porvoo, Finland. Phone: +358 19 549 500. MARINO APB 27 LOA: 26 feet, 11 inches BEAM: 9 feet, 6 inches DRAFT: 1 foot, 3 inches DISPLACEMENT: 7,055 pounds HULL TYPE: deep-vee TRANSOM DEADRISE: 20 degrees TANKAGE: 77 gallons fuel POWER: single gas or diesel sterndrive to 300 hp SPEED: 40 mph top, 29 mph cruise (260-hp Volvo Penta D4 diesel) PRICE: $171,515 CONTACT: Oy Marino Ab, Sipoo, Finland. Phone: +358 9 272 1422. MINOR OFFSHORE 28 LOA: 28 feet, 10 inches BEAM: 9 feet, 10 inches DRAFT: 3 feet, 3 inches DISPLACEMENT: 9,259 pounds HULL TYPE: modified-vee TRANSOM DEADRISE: 19 degrees TANKAGE: 99 gallons fuel, 26 gallons water, 10.5 gallons waste POWER: single or twin diesel sterndrives to 440 hp SPEED: 44 mph top, 30 mph cruise (single 370-hp Volvo Penta D6 diesel) PRICE: $213,748 CONTACT: Skarne Marine, Milford, Conn. Phone: (203) 283-5300. NORD STAR 31 PATROL LOA: 32 feet, 8 inches BEAM: 10 feet, 3 inches DRAFT: 3 feet DISPLACEMENT: 12,125 pounds HULL TYPE: modified-vee TRANSOM DEADRISE: 18 degrees TANKAGE: 108 or 174 gallons fuel, 42 gallons water, 22 gallons waste POWER: single or twin diesel sterndrives to 640 hp SPEED: 51 mph top, 32 mph cruise (twin 300-hp Volvo Penta D4 diesels) PRICE: $275,000 (single Volvo Penta 370-hp D6 diesel) CONTACT: Nord Star USA, New Haven, Conn. Phone: (877) 833-1219. TARGA 37 LOA: 40 feet, 6 inches BEAM: 11 feet, 5 inches DRAFT: 3 feet DISPLACEMENT: 18,000 pounds HULL TYPE: modified-vee TRANSOM DEADRISE: 18 degrees TANKAGE: 343 gallons fuel, 61 gallons water, 21 gallons waste POWER: twin diesel sterndrives or Volvo Penta IPS pod drives to 740 hp SPEED: 44 mph top, 35 mph cruise (with twin 370-hp Volvo Penta D6 diesel sterndrives) PRICE: $405,000 CONTACT: Oy Botnia Marin AB, Falax, Finland. Phone: +358 207 641 400.

About 500,000 are small boats - under 16 feet and less than 20 hp - and 10,000 are sailboats, Huju says. "We are building some of the finest sailboats in the world," he says. "Names like Swan, Baltic, Nauticat and Finngulf are known to many U.S. sailors. In terms of powerboats, there seems to be an interest in our midcabin 'archipelago Jeeps,' like Minor, Nord Star and Targa. These boats offer exceptional seaworthiness, strength, ageless design and, at the same time, the suitable touch of luxury."

'Connected to the water'

Carl Skarne, president of Skarne Marine in Milford, Conn., imports and sells the Minor Offshore line of powerboats from 25 to 37 feet. A native of Sweden, Skarne has lived in the United States for years but had a relationship with Sarins through his father, who still lives in Sweden and has owned a handful of Minor boats through the years.

"One of the things that makes, in my eyes, the Finnish boats so popular in Europe - and here, to some extent, with the sailboats like Swan, Baltic and Nauticat - is that the boats have a solid and sturdy feel to them," Skarne says. He attributes this to the Finns' celebrated boatbuilding heritage.

"They are so closely connected to the water, whether it's lakes or the ocean - they need boats over there," he says. "The heritage is that it's a necessity and you can see that in the lines of a lot of the boats, that workboat heritage."

The "archipelago Jeeps" - what might be referred to as "fast trawlers" in American parlance - have a salty look: the straight sheer of a workboat, a deep walkaround, tall stainless rails, and a forward-raked windshield on the ubiquitous pilothouse.

"As a transport boat in this archipelago, you need rough boats," says Finnish boatbuilder Johan Carpelan, founder of Botnia Marin, builder of the Targa line.

Carpelan says that for many Targa owners, a trip by boat can't simply be postponed because of weather and water conditions. For example, if you live on an island and have a business meeting in Helsinki, you don't have much choice. The result? "We focus fully on practical things," Carpelan says.

That's not to say these boats are Spartan. A rainy morning aboard the Targa 37 provided the perfect opportunity to inspect an exemplar of Finnish woodwork. There are storage compartments throughout the dash and beneath the helm and companion seats, and there is even a wooden chart locker in the pilothouse overhead. The material of choice is oiled teak.

"All the fiberglass and woodwork we do ourselves, in-house, just to be able to control the quality of the work and to be able to modify parts quite easily," says second-generation Targa team member Robert Carpelan.

The Finnish focus on practicality encompasses design and construction. The boats are built to take a pounding - and to last. Every fiberglass powerboat available for sea trial at the Finnboat Floating Show had an all-composite hull, for instance. "We don't use wood in Finland in the boat because after 10 years, it's no good," says Markku Hentinen, technical director of Finnboat.

This includes everything from the most utilitarian transport vessels to racing-inspired performance boats. The Marino APB 27, a boat with cutting-edge styling and a bevy of luxury features - like a power sliding transom, aft bulkhead and doors - is no exception.

"We're speaking of Finnish boats, with sandwiched hulls, with Divinycell, and hulls that are not sprayed but handmade," says Robert Fagerström, general manager of Marino, another multigeneration, family-owned company. "We're not looking at hours with the construction, but at the quality."

The TG Alfa, an outboard-powered boat built by Freja Marine, has a contemporary look, which comes as no surprise when viewed in relation to some of designer Frese Gustafson's exotic racing powerboats. The sheer swoops amidships and rises at the bow and stern, and the transom area and pilothouse hardtop offer similar curvy shapes.

"This is a quite typical boat for the Finnish market and the Scandinavian market," says Jan Gustafson, managing director of Freja Marine, noting that the TG Alfa is mostly used for commuting to summer cottages. "It's made to be very comfortable and to walk around, with huge doors and plenty of storage. You walk in, shut the doors, turn on the heating and you go."

Even in a small boat - the TG Alfa measures less than 24 feet - the Finns find room for a deep, wide walkaround. Also, the cabin is spacious, bulging slightly in the middle to provide additional shoulder room. Nowhere on the boat do you feel cramped. "It's made without compromises," Gustafson says. Port and starboard sliding cabin doors hang from the top of the pilothouse and glide on ball bearings.

One builder whose products rose directly from the need to transport people is Sailfish Boats. Its first model, the Sailfish 26, originated as a water taxi. The 10-year-old family-owned business - based in the Turku archipelago - has eight employees, builds about 10 boats a year and has introduced a second model. Given the roots of the company's designs, it's no surprise that the new Sailfish 30 is designed to be a safe, secure boat, with a deep-vee hull, a large pilothouse and an emphasis on interior comfort for long runs.

Not just fiberglass

Finland is home to a handful of aluminum boat manufacturers, too. In fact, the most popular boat brand in Finland and Sweden is Buster, a range of aluminum boats built by Fiskars Boats. Fiskars, founded in 1649, is not only Finland's oldest company, but also its largest boatbuilder, producing 11 aluminum models from 12 to 23 feet at a rate of 4,000 a year. "It's a basic tool in this archipelago for fishing and commuting," says Markku Uotinen, marketing manager for Fiskars Boats.

Fiskars introduced a new line called Drive Boats at the Floating Show. Drive's open design combines a slightly modified Buster hull with a fiberglass deck. The aluminum hull has a flange at the top, where it's bonded to the fiberglass deck with adhesive. The adhesive allows for elasticity, and because of its strength, parts of the aluminum hull are glued rather than welded, Uotinen says. The new boat is specifically designed for the pleasure market.

Minor Offshore 28: an "archipelago Jeep" with a pilothouse and single-diesel sterndrive propulsion.

"This line, Drive, is more or less for younger users, younger couples and younger families who go out when the sun is shining and don't need it for any other use," says Tapio Ekola, account manager with Fiskars Boats. Drive production started the same week as the show.

It will not be the only aluminum-fiberglass boat on the market, however. Silver has been building "AluFibre" boats, in addition to conventional aluminum boats, for 20 years. Silver is part of the

TerhiTec group of boat brands, which also includes SeaStar fiberglass boats and Terhi ABS plastic boats.

Summer vacation

By law, workers in Finland get 30 days of paid vacation each year, Finnboat's Huju says. "Very often this is taken during the summer months and especially in July," Huju says. "This means, in practical terms, that in July, Finland - as far as the industry is concerned - is actually 'closed.' "

For example, AMT, which builds mostly small, open outboard-powered fiberglass boats in Kontiolahti in Eastern Finland, shuts down for this annual July vacation. The new model year starts when the staff returns.

"It's really popular here to have a summer house or a vacation house," says Mikael Winqvist, a partner in AMT who spends four weeks each summer at his family's island home. "And you need a boat to do anything."

There are 510,000 summer cottages in Finland, Huju says. "This tradition dates back to the urbanization in the '50s and '60s when people started to move to the cities for work, and very often their family places were afterwards used as second homes," he says.

It's hard to blame the Finns for taking advantage of the long summer days provided by their proximity to the Arctic Circle. And just as they cram as much summer as they can into each July day, Finnish boatbuilders pack their designs with space-maximizing features.

Masmar 47: pricey but powerful, with a full suite of electronics at the helm station.

"Take a smaller footprint and get the most out of it possible," Skarne says. "People do a lot more with smaller boats, and it's something we might be able to start applying in the States, with the market the way it is."

This is evident on boats such as the Marino APB 27. It seems that everything on board serves at least two functions. There's a stove beneath the helm seat, for instance, and the helm chair cushion serves as a filler cushion for the cabin berth.

A notable feature of the SeaStar 720 - built by TerhiTec - is a drop-down transom board in front of the motor well to maximize room in the aft cockpit. In the harbor, the single outboard can be trimmed up fully, and a red warning light at the helm alerts the skipper if the board is still in the down position when you trim down and shove off.

Another characteristic of the 720's layout is its large, open bow accessed from the pilothouse through a large centerline glass door. It's common to have a large, open bow for storage and a smaller storage area aft, says SeaStar sales manager Kim Varjo. But that's gradually shifting, he notes, as Finnish boaters get used to the concept of relaxing in, and fishing from, the stern. All current SeaStar models have the midships pilothouse, but Varjo says that by 2011 the builder will introduce open models.

The Targa 27.1 has a table in the pilothouse with a leg that runs up to the overhead. The table can slip up and be stowed out of the way, firmly locked against the overhead. That leg doubles as a grab rail, according to Targa's Carpelan.

Other cabin boats make clever use of sliding ladders and hidden storage space, essential for boats that often are used for commuting.

No slow boats

Stefan Brandt, CEO of the boatbuilding group TerhiTec, owns two boats, one of them a Minor Offshore 37 Sport. "This is my boat and I have a SeaStar 26 for my wife because we live on islands," Brandt says. "A boat is used as a car. It's not for fun - it's for commuting."

Brandt says he and his wife put between 100 and 150 hours on each boat per year and they spend four weeks on vacation each summer without sitting in a car. The Minor, he says, has pleasure appeal in addition to utility. He proves his point as he pilots the 37-footer at speeds north of 40 mph between islands in the well-marked archipelago.

There appear to be few slow boats in Finland these days. "That time is gone," Marino's Fagerström says.

Surely the most extreme boat available for sea trial at the Finnboat Floating Show was the Masmar 47, which looks like a military RIB on steroids. Timo Järvinen, development manager of Masmar builder Astra Marine, says the owner of the black-hulled 47 uses it for a 35-mile daily commute from his island home to Helsinki.

With a custom interior, shock-absorbing seats, a centerline helm station with a full suite of electronics and twin 705-hp Caterpillar diesels with waterjet drives, it's quite a commuter - a 54-mph commuter.

All of the new boats on display, no matter how extreme or traditional and regardless of size, had planing hulls. The Yamarin 80 Day Cruiser, a runabout with a 350-hp Yamaha V-8 outboard that would look at home on any U.S. lake or coastal waterway, ran 58 mph in relatively rough conditions with responsive handling. The 26-footer, which has 21 degrees of deadrise at the transom, berths for four and a 38-mph cruise speed, is Yamarin's flagship. As the name suggests, Yamarin boats come prerigged for Yamahas and are sold through Yamaha dealers.

Although 4-stroke outboards have become popular, diesel engines are the overwhelming power of choice for sterndrive boats in Finland. Though gas and diesel prices in Finland are similar these days - the latter used to be a markedly cheaper option - most boaters now choose diesels because of their efficiency, says Kenth Lang, an account manager with Volvo Penta, based in neighboring Sweden.

"It's very seldom that people choose gas engines, especially on a boat this size," Lang says from the cockpit of a 33-foot Aquador express cruiser. "When you look at fuel consumption with these diesels, they're basically running on almost air."

Keeping fuel consumption to a minimum - without hyperbole - is the goal of the Nord Star 31 Patrol Hybrid by Linex-Boat. Performing at speed under diesel power, the fast pilothouse boat with twin sterndrives handles well, tracks firmly on lock-to-lock turns and takes big waves in stride.

Tucked up between the sterndrives is a straight shaft attached to a 5.5-kW electric motor. Under battery power - a solar panel provides a portion of the juice, too - the boat will run for 10 to 15 hours at 2.3 mph or reach a top speed of 4.6 mph, which it can sustain for about five hours, according to Linex-Boat quality manager Jussi Johansson.

Johansson says the Nord Star 31 Patrol Hybrid could appeal to anglers, the green-minded or government agencies interested in silent operation for patrol duty. Equipped with twin 300-hp Volvo Penta D4 diesels, however, the 31 reaches a top speed of more than 50 mph.

Possible fit for U.S. market

Finnish power-sports products distributor Konekesko has distributed Yamaha outboards in Finland since 1965 and it established the Yamarin boat brand in 1972. "At that time, the idea was to design boats for Yamaha engines here in Finland," says Anssi Westerlund, product group director for Konekesko's marine division.

Yamarin developed its own designs in the 1980s and started exporting boats in the 1990s. Exports now account for 70 percent of Yamarin's business. Although the boats share many of the characteristics of U.S. fiberglass coastal boats, they're not sold in the United States "at the moment," Westerlund says.

Such also is the case with Aquador, the line of upscale express cruisers, walkarounds and cuddies. Like Yamarin, the Aquador lineup could translate with little effort to the U.S. market, though perhaps the glut of American manufacturers in those types of boats would work against them. From a design standpoint, Aquadors have wide walkaround side decks and make use of on-board space to fit the most storage and amenities possible in a given footprint.

While Aquador is not currently in the U.S. market, it has a strong connection that could soon lead it to American shores: Lake Forest, Ill.-based boatbuilding giant Brunswick Corp., which owns 36 percent of Aquador's parent company, Bella Boats.

In addition to speed, there's another feature that all of the boats in the Floating Show possessed: copious electronics. Even the smallest open boats are equipped with a GPS/chart plotter. "Boating and navigation here - you have to be very active and very precise," Targa's Carpelan says.

Often, he says, buyers from England or France will take delivery from one of Targa's two production facilities on the Gulf of Bothnia in western Finland. He says he can sense their intimidation when they're shown the complicated route through the local islands. The archipelago, however, is extremely well marked and charted.

Creating a U.S. buzz

Today, 150 Finnish boatbuilders produce about 20,000 boats a year, Finnboat's Huju says. Of those, 75 percent were exported last year, mainly to Scandinavia, northern Europe and Russia, he says.

Although a handful of the boats at the Finnboat Floating Show are sold in North America (Finngulf, Minor, Nauticat and Nord Star), other manufacturers are still only expressing interest in the U.S. market. They're not here yet.

Johan Carpelan, who founded Targa manufacturer Botnia Marin with his wife in 1976, offers a simple explanation why his company's stout, seaworthy pilothouse boats aren't available in the United States. "We haven't gone in for the U.S. market because if we'd be successful, we cannot fulfill the demand," Carpelan says. Targa builds 130 boats a year, ranging from 23 feet to 44 feet, in two factories on Finland's west coast, and 90 percent are exported throughout Europe.

"The most special thing with this boat is we're not playing with light construction," Carpelan says. "Everything must be real - real woodwork, strong accessories - but what that also means is this is not a volume boat."

Of the TerhiTec boat brands, Brandt says he imagines that the Terhi - whose molded plastic hulls are built in just 12 minutes - are the most likely candidate for export to the United States. "They're small and they're exported worldwide anyway," Brandt says.

SeaStar's utilitarian pilothouse designs certainly could create a following in America, and Silver's double-hull aluminum boats and AluFibre products are worth a look, too.

Finnish boats are comparable in price to U.S. boats of the same size, although freight and other charges need to be taken into account to paint a full picture. For example, it takes about $15,000 to cover freight and duties on a boat like the Minor 28, Skarne estimates. U.S. list prices for Finnish boats are slightly higher, he adds, to account for fluctuations in the exchange rate. (The exchange rate against the euro stood at about $1.30 at press time.)

"We purchase the boats in euros and, as of today, the euro is coming down," says John Uljens, president of Nord Star USA. "Our research on the present forecast on the euro shows it is possible that it will come down some more and we may see at least a 10 percent reduction on the retail level."

The boats tested for this story range in price from around $28,000 for the 19-foot AluFibre Silver Shark DC 580 to $540,000 for a well-equipped Targa 37. On the outer edge of the pricing spectrum, base price for the Masmar 47 with a single 700-hp diesel is $765,000.

Finnboat hosted its own exhibit, called the Bay of Finland, at this year's Newport (R.I.) International Boat Show in September. Participating companies included Finngulf Yachts, Nauticat Yachts, Nautor's Swan USA East, Nord Star USA and Skarne Marine/Minor Offshore.

"At the moment there are not many manufacturers exporting to the U.S.," Huju says. "Back in the '80s, when the dollar exchange rate was more favorable to us Europeans, the exports to the U.S. were more than 35 percent of all exports of Finland. Those were mainly sailboats. Now we are starting the process again."

This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue.