One night last August when the thermometer was still reading 85 at 11 p.m. I stopped in Andy Pimental’s dinghy repair shop down the road in Portsmouth to bring a beer to Gus Miller, the legendary 78-year-old Finn sailor. He was drilling carbon plates that serve as his signature GoPro camera brackets for the Finn that are now ubiquitous on the international scene and used for technique training. Gus started filming body movements on a Finn in the 1980s when the equipment was significantly more chunky.
August Miller, Portsmouth, RI August 2013
The strange part about that evening was that he was finishing about six full brackets and had to catch an early flight out of Boston the next morning. He was about to deliver the brackets to the Finn Gold Cup where he would also race, fulfilling a promise he made to an old Estonian friend around 35 years ago.
This summer I was busy wrapping up several assignments after I fractured a rib racing in the Atlantic Cup in Class 40s last May. That injury put me out of commission and forced me to clear my sailing schedule and sell work for the winter and spring. My calendar was open and that opened the door for one of the best chance meetings in recent memory: being reacquainted with legendary Olympic coach Gus, who happened to be in the middle of a full-on world championship campaign.
I have an article due on this 78-year-old sailor who hasn’t stopped racing this grueling singlehanded class since he first jumped aboard one in 1966 while he was a professor in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I run into, and seek out great yachtsman as a career. And I have known of Gus since childhood, reading his name in the magazines after he was a close second at the 1976 Olympic Finn trials, later as a fitness guru for the US Sailing Team and then as an international Olympic Coach for the Finn Class.
Gus’ turning point in his sailing career was when he turned down an opportunity to launch into the world of top ocean racing as a crew member aboard Flyer in the 1977-’78 Whitbread. The friends he made and the drive to improve every aspect of mind, body and boat in the Finn was too strong a pull for his academic mind.
Gus and I met when I was PR director for US Sailing in 1996 and even back then he was considered this crazy old “Finnatic.”
Finn Gold Cup, the class’ world championship, that was last August in Tallinn, Estonia. Only the fittest of athletes sail top Finn regattas and at his age, I thought he was crazy. But here’s the story.
Almost 20 years later, Gus was looking for a place on a beach to keep his Finn to practice this season. Andy put us together and a few weeks later Gus’ Vanguard-built Finn was on our beach along the Sakonnet River. He proceeded to explain to me that he was training for the
Gus was at the pre-olympic regatta in Tallinn back in the late 70s. He had friends from the Eastern Block, some KGB agents/sailors. One asked him how much longer he’d be sailing the Finn and his reply was, “I will stop when the Finn Gold Cup is sailed in Tallinn Bay.” He told me this summer, “I thought it would be in five years or so, and here we are.”
August Miller, 2013 Finn Gold Cup, Tallinn Bay
It has been around 35 years since that conversation and Gus’ efforts to compete in this year’s Gold Cup in Tallinn are nothing short of miraculous and inspiring. This spring, he spent a week at the heralded Dinghy Academy in Valencia, Spain, training in powerful seasonal winds against the top, fully professional, Finn guys. Then it was back home to continue a daily workout that involved weights, swimming, Yoga and meditation. May brought the strenuous Finn Masters Worlds for Gus in La Rochelle, two weeks of breeze and nearly 300 competitors.
Upon his return, Gus rebuilt a friend’s boat and began training behind our house. You had to see it to believe it. What he did before a small but famous Finn regatta in Upstate New York in July was a powerful statement of ambition and perserverance. Sunfish World Champion Stephen Smeulders came to Rhode Island and the two spent one day sailing their Finns around Aquidneck Island in a building seabreeze and the next day sailing around all the other islands in Narragansett Bay (Prudence, Patience, Hope and Despair). Almost 80 nautical miles of sailing in two days, in one of the hardest dinghies to sail in the world.
Dawn Patrol, 37-mile training sail.
Gus made it to Europe at the beginning of August, enjoyed meeting old friends from the class, some he has been close to for more than 40 years, and sailed every race of the 2013 Gold Cup as the oldest competitor. He even had a crispy new sail hand built for him by David “Sid” Howlett, a dear friend of his and the ridiculously talented coach of five-time Olympic medal winner Ben Ainslie.
I can’t wait to see Gus when he gets back this month and hear a new batch of sailing stories, about the beautiful and sharp Estonian women, how some basic truths still exist in modern racing and how robust a sailing experience it is, and always has been, to sail in a class with so much history. Whether he believes it or not, Gus is a part of history, and is still making his own. I sailed against him in a Finn this summer. My takeaway? My body will break long before I am able to sail a Finn at 78!