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Only for the crazy people

In 1992, Estonians were very close to sending a yacht that was built in Pirita, Tallinn to the biggest yachting competition of the world – America’s Cup.

“Everything is over, everything is over!”

Someone was shouting in English into the answering machine. It was well past midnight.

At first, it seemed to the sleeping Irina Petrova that she was dreaming. But then she recognized the voice of Tom Griffin, the American representative of the sailing team. The man said something about the fact that it was not possible to make a transfer for the plane.

Now Petrova was wide awake, she jumped up from the couch and grabbed the phone. But Griffin had already hung up on the other side of the line, in Maryland, USA.

On January 17, 1992, the interpreter Petrova was alone in Tallinn Olympic Sailing Center, Pirita on duty minding the phone. She spent the night on the blue couch in the yacht builder’s office, as she was customed during the last few busy weeks. She could manage only a few hours of sleep anyway, driving home would have been a pointless waste of time.

Petrova listened to the recorded message again. From what Griffin was saying, it became clear that the Estonian team could really fly to the competition venue.

Petrova sighed heavily and started dialing numbers in Tartu. There, on the slippery and thick snow-covered landing strip of the Raadi military airfield, the world’s largest military transport aircraft, Antonov An-124 Ruslan, was standing. The hull of a 20.5 m long yacht was packed into the plane. Meals for 30 men for three days, which were found with difficulty during the Talong period – a time of shortage, when most products were rationed with stamps. Smoked chicken legs. Three kinds of salad. A hand-cut foil ring between each portion – one could only dream of disposable paper plates back then.

Men from every part of the former Soviet Union were waiting for takeoff. For two years, their life had revolved around this flight to the United States.

One man’s big dream

Petrova was looking for one member of the team that night. Without his big dream, there would have been neither the boat, its crew nor the plane to take them to America.

That man was Valentin Stepanov. A Russian born in Estonia, a certified metalwork artist.

In 1988, Valentin, or Valka, as his friends called him, had a crazy idea to take part in America’s Cup competition. The oldest and largest sailing competition in the world, where a single team usually spent more than 30 million dollars to participate. It was about 485 million Estonian kroons. This was an astronomical number for the small country – in the first quarter of 1992, the average gross monthly salary in Estonia was 256.7 kroons.

“You have to be crazy to come up with such an idea,” said one of Valka’s friends.

Valka and four of his best friends belonged to a club operating in Tallinn at that time. The name Crazy Offshore Racing Club speaks for itself. Doctor of physics Viktor Hendrikson, timber technologist Tõnu Urbanik, physical education teacher Ave Org, head of a computing center Mati Korp and Valeri Stepanov were united by one passion – sailing.

Only the best was good enough

For Valka, only the best was good enough. Everything that was needed to assemble the team was impossible to find in Estonia. The missing components were found in Russia.

A joint syndicate of Estonians and Russians was born (the teams participating in America’s Cup are called so) Red Star America’s Cup ’92 Challenger. Because clubs, not countries, take part in this competition, the syndicate included the then-Leningrad yacht club and “lunatics” from Tallinn. The president of the syndicate and the author of the yacht’s design was Oleg Larionov, a young and talented constructor of the St. Petersburg Institute of Marine Research. He was also a fanatic sailor in his spare time.

Ave Org remembers Larionov as a quiet, somewhat shy man. When Red Star representatives went to St. Tropez for the gathering of all the participants, Larionov missed the first flight. Out of anxiety, he had a fit of diarrhea. “Between two security guards, we took him to the plane,” Org recalls how Larionov still flew to France on the second attempt.

The model of the yacht was built in Kalinin near Moscow. In the factory city, which normally produced Soviet spaceships. Also, materials such as carbon fiber, from which the yacht itself was later built in Pirita, used to be known around here mainly by people connected to the aerospace industry.

Building a racing yacht like this is not much different from making a plaster statue. First, the model was crafted. A mold was taken from it and finally, the hull of the yacht was glued into the mold in layers.

Two cranes had to be used in order to turn out the hull of the boat which resembled a snout cut in half. Onlookers did not dare to breathe out of anxiety when the hull of the yacht finally slipped out of the mold that was held up by the cranes standing face to face.

The yacht named White Nights was to be put to sea by captain Sergei Borodinov. This short man (170 cm) was from Moscow, the winner of the World Cup in the Flying Dutchman class (in 1982). Meticulous and demanding, loved risk. The team members tell how Borodinov once performed such maneuvers with the boat in the narrow pool in front of the sailing sports center, which no one could have even dreamed of.

The rest of the team was of the same class as the captain.

Guards kept the photo of an assassin in their pockets

The biggest supporter of the project was Balti Ühispank (Union Baltic Bak, UBB), which provided 17 million rubles and half a million dollars. Another main sponsor was the Russian fertilizer producer Agrohim.

In the States, Tom Griffin, owner of the small sportswear company Starbus, helped to organize things. Halfway through, he replaced the original representative Doug Smith. Griffin was a marketing genius who became famous in the early 90s for promoting floral board shorts from Hawaii.

Griffin was almost as fanatical as Valka. He thought that sportswear bearing the emblems of the Russian sailing team would make him rich. Since the first team from the Soviet Union was exciting for foreigners, Stolichnaya Vodka, Estée Lauder, Eastman Kodak, and Pepsi agreed to support the Red Star Syndicate.

But several times the enterprise was on the verge of disaster.

In the summer of 1991, Valka discovered that the team’s coach, Ernst Grakovski, was playing a double game. A rival syndicate, Vek Rossii, operated in Moscow, to whom Grakovski tried to slip the blueprints of the yacht. Grakovski also lured the team members over there. The men in Moscow were backed by then-Russian Vice President Alexander Rutskoy, with money allegedly coming from the oil business.

To the Home Guard men guarding the building of the yacht, Ave Org handed out strips of paper onto which there were copied photos of five men. These were traitors who were not to be allowed into the territory under any circumstances. One of the photos depicted a man who was suspected of attempting to murder Valka. Whenever the leaders of the syndicate had to leave Tallinn, they were accompanied by a security team sitting in a taxi ordered from the company ESRA.

In anger, Valka shaved his head

The venture was insane, not only financially, but also politically.

In order for a yacht built in Estonia to sail under both the Estonian and Russian flags, permission had to be sought from the Russian government.

The permission was received.

It turned out that American laws did not allow a ship carrying the Russian flag even to the competition venue. Namely, San Diego was a military port. Now, permission had to be asked from the American Congress.

A friendly congressman was found to speak on behalf of the crazy sailors.

It was then discovered with horror that the newly completed yacht was unusable. The resin used for gluing the carbon remained soft like plasticine in the mold, it did not harden.

It was December 7, 1991, the first races of the competition were to take place on January 25. Angry, Valka had his head shaved bald.

Competitors from Moscow arrived in San Diego on December 23. They offered Valka a million rubles for a merger – the right to participate from you, the boat from us.

Valka refused.

A new yacht was ready at Pirita in a couple of weeks. The men worked in two shifts. While some were building, others went to sleep at the Pirita Hotel. The change of shift took place at night.

Crazy faith was not enough

By January 17, the men had been waiting at the Raadi airfield for two days. That night Tom Griffin announced: the competitors have done everything to prevent the yacht from reaching America. When Petrova finally got in touch with Tartu, Valka refused to believe her. For two more days, he carried on negotiating: with Americans, Russians, and English.

Years later, the members of the Red Star learned that a Russian air force general blocked the departure of Estonians at the request of competitors. There was no way they would have gotten beyond Iceland, where Ruslan was supposed to have a stopover. Competitors’ ties to the Russian government were simply better. Ruslan left Estonia without cargo.

“There is only one place – the first,” Valka declared when everything was still ahead.

At first, it seemed that his optimism was grounded. Experts say that the yacht invented by St. Petersburg scientists was indeed beautiful and graceful. In Finland, the speed of the yacht was simulated, using the design of the hull, and the results were reportedly very good.

However, this boat had two major shortcomings – sails and rigging. In addition, the keel was too light. It would have been difficult for the yacht to stand upright.

Although the crew was the best that was available in the former Soviet Union, none of them had sailed such a yacht. The yacht-to-yacht style of competition, where speed, experience and strategy count, most of the crew members had not tried.

The Estonian venture was destined to fail. The American Dennis Connor won the 1992 America’s Cup. For the second time, the tiny country of Estonia will not take on a challenge as crazy as this. The bite is just too big.

What happened next

  • Tõnu Urbanik, who managed the construction of the yacht in Pirita, later became a boat builder. A businessman from Detroit ordered two 22-meter yachts from him and from Boris Jakovlev, who also participated in the project, immediately after the end of Red Star. They sailed successfully in American races. For example, the vessel of the world champion of two-liter motorboats (1998) came from the shop of Urbanik and Jakovlev.
  • The hull of White Nights stood on the quay of Pirita harbor for many years. She never went in the water. In the late 1999s, the hull disappeared from Pirita. Rumor has it that it was bought by the Russians who wanted to take part in the 2000 America’s Cup. But the rules of the competition did not allow a boat built in another country and in an earlier year to the starting line.
  • The American Warwick Collins wrote two thrillers about the participation of Estonians and Russians in America’s Cup. Challenge was published in 1990 and talked about how the teams of the Soviet Union and the USA are fighting a cold war under sails. Many of the things Collins predicted in this book turned out to be true later in the Red Star project. The Death of an Angel (1993) was published after Collins once visited Estonia to see the construction of the yacht. Here, tiny Estonia fights for freedom and sends its yacht to the America’s Cup.
  • The current Defender of the America’s Cup is Emirates Team New Zealand. The 37th America’s Cup that will take place between August and October 2024 in Barcelona, Spain. 

The article about the crazy sailing challenge that my father, Tõnu Urbanik, and his friends set upon in the middle of the turmoil of the collapse of Soviet Union, was originally published in Eesti Ekspress in the March 9, 2000 issue. You can read the pdf of the original here. I translated the article after 30 years have passed from their 1992 Red Star Syndicate project.

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