The biggest rowing regatta of all
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It has taken only three decades for the rowing regatta in the village of Sulkava, not far from the famous opera festival city of Savonlinna, to grow from modest beginnings into the world's biggest annual event of its kind. Yet another record was set in summer 1997, when more than 8,000 rowers made the trip round the island of Partalansaari in Lake Saimaa.

All the water a boat needs

Archaeological finds reveal that boats have plied the lakes, rivers and coastal seas of Finland for thousands of years. In the national epic, the Kalevala, many myths and legends relate to boat building and a good few of the main adventures take place on boat trips. There certainly is plenty of water: 4,600 kilometres of sea coast, 55,000 lakes above a certain size, as well as smaller ones and ponds in numbers that few have even attempted to calculate. Dozens of rivers wend their way through the mainly flat topography.

As recently as the early decades of this century, rowing boats were widely used for work and for getting to shops and schools. On Sundays, groups of parishioners would gather at outlying points and row to the church in the central village in large boats. There are boat designs that have evolved to suit the sea, lakes and rivers, and every region has developed its own distinctive model. The traditional skills needed to build boats and row them have a long history in Finland.

As a sport and leisure pursuit, rowing is much younger. The first competition boats were built in the late 19th century, but it was only in the present century that the sport gained widespread popularity. Competitive rowing is a discipline that makes great physical demands. It is no coincidence that the man who in the view of many is the world's greatest competitive oarsman of all time, three times Olympic victory and twice world champion Pertti Karppinen, is a Finn.

Yet all of this only partly explains why the Sulkava regatta has developed into the world's biggest rowing event. There were exactly 8,101 participants in 1997, the thirtieth anniversary of the first regatta. That was a new record, but not one that is expected to stand for long; the 10,000 mark is expected to be reached before the year 2000.

Sulkava, a municipality of fewer than 4,000 souls, seems to live solely for rowing in summer. Everyone is involved in one way or another. The spectacle of hundreds of boats and thousands of rowers on the blue expanse of Saimaa is an experience never to be forgotten.

One man's dream

As is often the case, it all began from one man's dream. That man was Kauko Miettinen, in whose mind the idea of a rowing race around Saimaa's largest island, Partalansaari, was conceived and grew over the years. An old tale in Sulkava told of a suitor who had done the trip - over 60 kilometres -and also that an old crone had done the same in a fit of anger, and that having eaten too much bean soup she burst on a rock in the lake! Tall tales indeed, but the idea fascinated Kauko Miettinen. A master boatbuilder by trade, he offered to put up a vessel made by his own hands as the prize if a race around the island were arranged.

Some people in the area recognised the worth of the idea. A committee was set up, plans were made and the second weekend in July 1968 saw the first 38 rowers set off. Naturally there were doubters, some even prepared to bet that no one could complete such a long trip in a rowing boat. In fact 36 did. Now, three decades later, the event has become a tradition. Its patron in the jubilee year 1997 was President Martti Ahtisaari.

Any event that is the biggest of its kind in the world calls for an organisation to match. In Sulkava, voluntary effort has played a key role from the very beginning. Hundreds of men and women give their time to arrange catering, direct traffic, run the office, maintain the boats, time the rowers and perform countless other tasks. Growth in the number of participants has created a need for new services. In 1986 the Sulkava Society bought a 1.5-hectare site and built saunas, kitchens and service buildings on it. A magnificent rowing stadium was added the following year.

All visitors to Sulkava can take part in the rowing regatta whichever way they want. There are nearly twenty categories spanning the range from single schulls to long church boats. Although the thrill of taking part is the only prize that most of the rowers want, there is always a strong competitive spirit in the air. Not least because the Finnish championships in several classes from small craft to long-distance church boats are decided here each year.

The popularity of the Sulkava regatta has helped stimulate a revival of the craft of building traditional wooden boats. Only a few decades ago, it seemed that these boats, which are more expensive and require more maintenance than glassfibre or aluminium ones, would soon disappear from the scene. Yet in 1997 almost all of the more than eight thousand rowers opted for wooden boats. With new wooden boatyards being established all the time, this age-old traditional skill is undergoing a real renaissance.