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On Sailboats

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A half-century of Nordic Folkboats

It’s not the fastest boat on the water, but this uncomplicated beauty retains a dedicated following

A half-century of Nordic Folkboats

It’s not the fastest boat on the water, but this uncomplicated beauty retains a dedicated following

When the ebb is rushing out the Golden Gate and winds are whistling in from the Pacific, you’re in for a bumpy, wet ride. It is, in the words of Danish sailing legend and four-time Olympic gold medalist Paul Elvström, “a lovely day for a Folkboat.”

The folks who sail these vessels know something about rough weather but also about happiness at hull speed. They have left the maniac phase behind, perhaps deciding to forego it altogether. They are the sultans of slow. They appreciate the Zen of sailing an undercanvassed 25-footer that tips the scales at 4,250 pounds. They like a fresh breeze and a cold pint. And they spend a good deal of time with the two cousins they love to hate: a roll of sandpaper and a bucket of varnish.

In this frame of mind, there’s no need for such amenities as an enclosed head, full galley, standing headroom, pressure water, a self-bailing cockpit or huge asymmetrical chutes. Thank heavens there are still people who defy the mainstream, refusing to sail a boat that looks just like the one across the dock. That wasn’t always easy, but the resilient and proud enclave known as the San Francisco Bay Folkboat Association (www.sfbayfolkboats.org ) weathered the winds of change and in September toasted the 50th anniversary of its beloved fleet.

By the people for the people

For them it is about the boat, which can’t deny its Scandinavian lineage and distant relationship to Viking ships. Endowed with clinker planks (real or faux), wooden spars, reverse stern and a perky sheer, the Folkboat has sweet proportions and the stoutness to stand up to the fury of the elements.

In 1941, when much of Europe was getting steamrolled by the Blitzkrieg, the Scandinavian Sailing Association held a design contest for a raceable family cruiser that was cheap and uncomplicated to build. Nearly 60 suggestions poured in, and it fell to Tord Sunden, a Swedish yacht designer and successful 6 Meter sailor, to amalgamate the best ideas into a set of lines. Because it was designed by Scandinavian people for Scandinavian people, this creation became the Nordic Folkboat. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

The first was launched in April 1942, as soon as the ice broke in Gothenburg harbor. Even during the war the boat caught on in Sweden (a neutral country), and later in Denmark, Finland and Germany. Soon the uncomplicated, affordable and seaworthy vessel became the Volkswagen of the water, ushering in an era of sailing as a family sport.

In the 1970s the class bowed to the fiberglass revolution. At first this evolutionary step split the constituency, but in the long run it ensured the survival of a boat that had inspired countless derivatives, like the slightly bigger IF boat, which has a smooth hull and more accommodations.

Around the buoys and the world

Nordic Folkboats spread to Holland, the United Kingdom, Australia and North America, where mostly German or Danish immigrants sailed them. Detroit and Toronto were among the early beachheads in the 1950s, but nowhere outside Europe did the class thrive and survive as well as on windy San FranciscoBay. Someone once called Folkboaters “fine sportsmen with a distinctive lack of antagonism,” which doesn’t imply that the races are coffee cruises. They are tactical battles with no leeway for operator error. Even moonlighting rock stars like Star Class world champion and America’s Cup campaigner Tom Blackaller learned that lesson the hard way.

Racing, of course, isn’t the only trick in the book. Every year, hundreds of Northern European single-handers, couples and families with kids take their Folkboats on extended summer cruises on the Baltic Sea. In order to do that, they divorce themselves from the fantasy of cruising in plush comfort.

Then there is the lure of the horizon.

In 1960 Blondie Hasler, a British WWII hero and single-hander with a junk-rigged Folkboat named Jester, bet Francis Chichester and Gipsy Moth III a half-crown for the fastest time across the Atlantic, which was the impulse for the famous Observer Single-handed Trans-Atlantic Race, now called The Transat. In the 1970s Anne Gash, an eccentric Australian grandmother, sailed her plywood Folkboat from Sydney to Britain and back, circling the globe. The stories are endless.

Some secrets of survival

But none of this explains why an anachronism like the Folkboat continues to thrive on San FranciscoBay, where it shares the race course with other such classics as the Norwegian-designed Knarr, the International One Design and the local Thunderbird.

“It’s a rough venue, ideal for the Folkboat’s legendary seakeeping qualities,” says Chris Herrmann, the current SFBFA president. “Plus the fact that fiberglass boats race woodies without handicap has been a saving grace for the fleet.”

Another reason is the inclusive nature of the association, which reaches out to newcomers by helping them find used boats and easing them into the culture. “When I joined 17 years ago, the fleet needed an infusion of fresh blood,” says Bill Madison, a past president and owner of a restored 1961 wooden Folkboat. “But that has changed significantly, and now we have a mix of veterans and young sailors with impressive skills who prefer a Folkboat to more glamorous classes.”

The association organizes a variety of events that cater to all tastes. In addition to 20 weekend races for the annual season championship, there’s the popular Wednesday night series at the St. Francis Yacht Club, which started in 1961. In even years kids, friends and families join the cruise-in Easter picnic on AngelIsland. Female Folkboaters look forward to the annual Lipstick Regatta and, in odd years, sailors from a half-dozen European countries challenge the locals in the International Cup aboard boats that are furnished by their hosts.

“It is nothing in particular, but a good combination of ingredients that makes this class special,” Madison says. “Folkboats, when cared for, hold their value and remain competitive for a long time. Then it is up to the people. It’s a team effort across the board, and we have always been lucky in that respect.”

While many other classes struggle with participation or have ceased to exist, the Nordic Folkboat remains a favorite among sailors who love a good time while practicing the Zen of sailing on a heavy, spinnakerless long-keeler. By honoring the past they have salvaged the future, and for the first time in decades, new and used boats from Europe are being imported to San Francisco again. So this anniversary was, to paraphrase Paul Elvström, a good time for the SFBFA. Here’s to the next 50 years.

Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings. You can order a signed copy of his book, “The Folkboat Story” ($35, plus shipping) by sending ane-mail to scribe@thefluidpen.com (put “Folkboat Story” in the subject line).