Suursaari Race, the most legendary of all Finnish off-shore sailing races! It has been called the “Fastnet of the Gulf of Finland” and the comparison is certainly correct in that both race routes round an island. But the Suursaari island is not just a small rock, it is one of the biggest islands in the Gulf of Finland. The 11 km long island rises some 175 meters above sea level and can be seen from over 30NM away in good weather. No surprise then that the Finnish name of the island means “Big island” and the Swedish name, Hogland, means “High island”.
But what exactly makes the Suursaari Race such an event? In order to understand the true meaning of the race for Finns, we must first take a short look back at the history of the island that gave the race it’s name: Suursaari.
Suursaari, the lost island
First records of inhabitants on the island date back to the 15th century. During the Swedish regime (before 1809), the island developed from a small fishing outpost to a small community. After the 1807-09 war, Finland became a Grand Duchy under Russia. During this time, Suursaari started to grow and in 1838 the island became an independent municipality under the Grand Duchy. When Finland got its independence in 1918, Suursaari became a part of Finland under the precondition that it would be demilitarized. During the Finnish period the island reached its population peak with more than 700 people living on the island just prior to WW2.
What perhaps won Suursaari a special place in the minds of Finns was the role of Suursaari as a coveted tourist destination. The island had started to attract visitors on a small scale already in the early 19th century. After the independence tourism started to grow and a regular steamer connection to the island was established in the early 1920’s. With its sandy beaches, high mountains to climb and an active social life with for instance a casino, Suursaari became one of the most popular holiday destinations in Finland. At the height of its popularity the island attracted some 10000 visitors per year, a very large number for a small and rather poor country with about 3.5M inhabitants.
All would however change with WW2. After the war, the island had to be ceded to Russia and became a military no-go zone due to its strategically important position guarding the maritime entrance to St Petersburg. The fact that the island was lost and no longer accessible added an aura of mystery to the former holiday destination. Ever since, Suursaari has tickled the curiosity of Finns.
Suursaari, the race
During the Glasnost period in Russia, the secrecy surrounding Suursaari was diminished but it was still not possible for Finns to visit the island. In 1991, the first Suursaari Race got the permission to round the island during the race. One can assume that the race not only provided an interesting offshore sailing challenge but also satisfied the curiosity of many participants, who got a unique chance to see the “lost” island from up close.
Since 1991, the Suursaari Race has been *the* Finnish offshore race. Only once (in 2009) have the Russian officials refused to allow the race to round Suursaari.
The Race is held in early June and draws some 100 participating boats annually. It is a must-participate event for all serious off-shore racers in Finland. The weather in early June is typically quite mild, so it is more common that the boats encounter too light winds rather than heavy storms. The length of the race course depends on the class and varies between 155NM and 190NM. The start of the race is on Friday evening and the race ends on Sunday.
If you would like to participate in the race and take a closer look at the “lost island”, you can do so on the yachts listed below. Anyone can join s/y Another Brick and s/y Eira, both take beginners as well as experienced sailors. Participation is not restricted to Finnish nationals and you do not need a visa to Russia (but you do need to carry your passport).