The 2018 Golden Globe Race finisher Tapio Lehtinen tells Katy Stickland why his next adventure will be the pinnacle of his decades-long sailing career
Tapio Lehtinen is a passionate man: passionate about his boats, passionate about preserving the legacy of Finland’s maritime heritage and passionate about nurturing young sailing talent.
The Finnish skipper’s voice cracks slightly as he describes the flotilla of Optimist dinghy sailors who greeted him on his arrival in Helsinki after finishing fifth the 2018-19 Golden Globe Race.
For him, it is a more cherished memory than finishing his 322-day solo circumnavigation of the world and ranks equal to hoisting the Finnish flag as he rounded Cape Horn; the first time it has been raised there on a racing boat in three decades.
‘It was a very touching moment,’ reflected the 62-year-old, who is modest about his role in youth sailing.
As Commodore of Helsingfors Segelsällskap (HSS) Yacht Club he focused on developing young sailors, and when the Optimist class started declining in Finland a decade ago, Lehtinen helped arrange sponsorship to cover the cost of 300 new dinghies for clubs throughout the country, reversing the class’s decline.
It is no surprise that the Optimist is close to his heart; it was his first boat at the age of seven before he moved on to racing Lasers and 470s.
He had dreams of an Olympic career but unable to find a sponsor turned instead to ocean racing, competing in the traditional Round Gotland Race, now AF Offshore Race, before being picked as watchleader on Skopbank of Finland in the 1981-82 Whitbread Round the World Race. He was 23.
‘Good dinghy sailors always make good helmsmen so I had the opportunity to helm and crew some of the best offshore boats and learn from the best people in Finland at that time. The Whitbread for me was a stepping stone and after the race I thought there would be a possibility to start projects of my own,’ he explained.
In 1985, with fellow Finn Kai Granholm, he competed in the Round Britain Race and the 1986 Two-Handed Transatlantic Race (TWOSTAR) aboard Granholm’s S&S 40ft fractional rigged sloop, Mobira, built by Avance Yachts in Finland.
By this time, Lehtinen was a husband to Pia and father to one-year-old Silja.
‘After the TWOSTAR I was negotiating with a sponsor as I wanted to do the 1988 OSTAR Race and I thought it would be the start of my serious ocean racing career, but then came the bad news that Pia had cancer while she was expecting our son, Lauri, so I cancelled all the plans.’
After the birth of Lauri, the couple decided to compete in the 1987 Azores and Back Race (AZAB), racing Mobira, which had been loaned to them by Granholm.
‘It was never said out aloud but it was a farewell thing to do because the diagnosis of the cancer was so bad,’ said Lehtinen.
Aged 30 he was widower and, with the sole responsibility of bringing up two young children, decided to abandon ocean and offshore racing.
Instead he focused on racing his 6mR May Be IV for the next 35 years.
Originally owned by the progressive Olympic Swedish sailor Sven Salén, Pia and Lehtinen had bought the 1936 classic before their wedding and had cruised her on honeymoon.
The bond between skipper and boat is evident when Lehtinen talks about May Be IV, which he gives a flower to every Christmas.
‘A wooden, pedigree classic boat is almost a living organism you have to take care of and you need to take responsibility. We don’t own wooden boats, they are given to us to be taken care of, especially as they live longer than the sailors do,’ he explained.
Investing in the next generation
But his love affair with May Be IV is about to end. She is up for sale so he can focus on an even bigger passion: nurturing young Finnish sailors.
Lehtinen has just brought the Olin Stephens-designed Swan 55, Galiana, which he intends to race in the 2023 Ocean Globe Race (OGR).
The brainchild of Australian yachtsman and 1990 BOC Challenge veteran Don McIntyre, who is behind the rebooted Golden Globe Race, this will be a retro Whitbread race to mark the 50 years since the first 1973 regatta.
Although Lehtinen could offer paid berths, which ‘would mostly be filled by 40-70 year old sailors’, he is instead seeking sponsorship to allow the yacht to be crewed by 20-35 year olds.
By giving young sailors a chance to experience a round the world yacht race, he hopes there will be a new generation of ocean racing Finns who will preserve the ‘proud sailing legacy’ of the Finnish windjammer crews who circumnavigated the globe annually, delivering cargo during the 1800s and early 1900s.
‘By recruiting a group of young sailors and by racing together with them around Cape Horn, we will be able to keep the legacy alive. I will die a happy man if I know there will be a next generation starting new Finnish sailing projects,’ stated the conservative skipper, who still considers it ‘a matter of honour to sail your vessel safely into harbour’, part of his admiration and appreciation of his windjammer heroes.
He had already been thinking about buying Galiana before he had crossed the finish line of the 2018 GGR, having been told about the race and the Swan 55’s availability by McIntyre.
‘I realised the OGR was the next opportunity, a chance of a lifetime to do the Whitbread again. When I came ashore after finishing the GGR there was all this big fiesta but actually I was too focused on Galiana and was busy going around the corner to Google Galiana and look at her.’
In the end, buying the yacht was not a hard decision.
A self-confessed romantic, he believes ‘the Swan 55 is the last Sparkman and Stephens yawl which was designed for racing’ and ‘the most beautiful and classic Swan which Nautor has ever built.’
Refitted in 2002, Galiana has been actively raced since and Lehtinen is hoping that following several shakedown sails, work to prepare her for the OGR will be minimal.
The old man and the sea
He dismisses suggestions that his previous Whitbread experience may put him at an advantage in the OGR.
‘I am an old man and I don’t remember that much. I will need to re-read my own personal log book to remember,’ he quipped, although it is clear that his desire for ocean racing and to relive the thrill of the Whitbread has never gone away.
‘Participating again in a Whitbread race, being on the start line with crew ready for the adventure to begin is a dream I have remembered so many times after waking up in the morning, ’ he admitted.
His fervour will certainly be tested. Lehtinen will have to juggle preparing for two round the world yacht races, having also signed up for the 2022 GGR.
It will mean he will spend around two years sailing the ocean: plenty of time for this philosopher and stalwart sailor to reflect on the great ocean-going traditions he cares so passionately about.
His contribution to sailing in Finland means he is bound to become part of that legacy.