Blog post

The Blue Ribbon Regatta on Lake Balaton

History of an annual sailing race on the largest lake in Central Europe

vintage colour postcard with a sailing boat and rowing boat on a lake in front of a number of buildings and trees
by
Zita Aknai (opens in new window) (Forum Hungaricum)
István Boross (opens in new window) (National Archives of Hungary)
Zoltán Szatucsek (opens in new window) (National Archives of Hungary)

The early years of sailing

Think sailing and you would be forgiven for thinking of luxury yachts and the upper classes.

In Hungary - home to Lake Balaton, the largest lake in Central Europe - it was certainly something of an aristocratic affair. The first large sailing boat on Lake Balaton was the salt carrier Kristóf. It was built by Count Pál Festetics in 1753. At the end of the 1700s, his son, György Festetics introduced the fashion for non-commercial sailing to Hungary when he invited royal guests to sail aboard Phoenix - the first large sailing boat on Lake Balaton. Launched in 1797, the ship became a symbol of Hungarian progress and development.

In 1866, thanks to the tabloid news that Elisabeth of Austria would spend the summer in Balatonfüred, sailing became a more popular pursuit. Magnates brought sailboats to Lake Balaton and renewed the infrastructure around the lake to provide the queen with entertainment.

black and white photograph of people walking on a pier by a large boat

The first Hungarian sailing club, the Balaton-Füred Yacht Association, was formed in 1867 with members from noble families such as the Károlyi, Széchenyi, Batthyányi and Festetics families.

As Sissy's visit due to the Prussian-Austrian war was cancelled - much to the disappointment of the Hungarian magnates - the desire to sail waned. In the 1880s, due to the high maintenance cost of the vessels, there were only about 70 yachts on the lake.

black and white photograph of a group of standing people watching an event take place (off-camera)
colour postcard of a yacht on a lake in front of buildings on the shore

In 1884 the Balaton Sailing Club was founded, Crown Princess Stéphanie of Belgium, wife of Crown Prince Rudolf von Habsburg, became the patroness of the club, so the following year the name was changed to Stefania Yacht Club. The club organised annual regattas on a 40 km course.

Launching the Blue Ribbon Regatta

The Hungária Yacht Club was founded in 1933 and launched a non-stop, speed sailing competition - the Blue Ribbon Regatta. Tradition had it that a blue ribbon was worn on the mast of the fastest sailing ship in the seas, and so competitive sailing on Lake Balaton was established in this tradition. The first Blue Ribbon Regatta was held in 1934.

black and white photograph of two sailing boats on a lake
black and white photograph, a large number of yachts on a lake

The Balaton Blue Ribbon is one of the four longest and oldest round-the-lake races in Europe. The race distance is 160 km, which the competitors initially had to complete without a time limit but now have to complete in 48 hours. The route goes from Balatonfüred to Balatonkenese, Siófok and Keszthely and back to Balatonfüred. The fastest to sail the route in a clockwise direction is the winner.

black and white photograph of yachts on a lake in a race
colour photograph, five boats sailing on Lake Balaton

The timing of the race is always dependent on the moon, being held on a July weekend closest to a full moon. There is a practical reason for this. The race starts at 9am but many boats finish late in the evening or at night, so the full moon helps them navigate.

colour photograph of a large white yacht with sails down

Record-breakers

The most successful sailing boat was the wooden Tramontana, winning the race seven times between 1940 and 1989. The first female helmsman to win was Evelyn Gordon, who also won the race with Tramontana in 1940.

On the tenth Blue Ribbon in 1955, István Németh and his crew set a new record time with the 75-foot cruiser Nemere. Their time of 10 hours 40 minutes would not be broken for 57 years.

The most successful skipper in the history of the Blue Ribbon is Farkas Litkey, who has won the Blue Ribbon 13 times so far.

colour photograph of yachts with multi-coloured sails on a lake
colour photograph, several sailboats with white and red sails on a lake

Since 2014, both monohull and multi-hull (catamaran, trimaran) ships have been allowed to compete. Thanks to the development of modern technology and new materials, carbon fibre 'flying' Foiler yachts also compete and break speed records regularly. And, in 2001, the record for the number of participants was broken as more than 660 boats entered the sporting event.

colour photograph, several sailboats with different coloured sails on Lake Balaton
colour photograph, a number of sailboats in a harbour

Gaining popularity

Of course, the Blue Ribbon Regatta is not the only sailing activity on Lake Balaton. Sailing began to become more and more popular among young Hungarians in the 1980s, including those from deprived social backgrounds who could apply to state associations for the opportunity to learn how to sail a boat without needing to own one.

Several films, which have now become iconic, were made starring the famous Hungarian actor and sailor István Bujtor (1942-2009), who promoted sailing on Lake Balaton. For almost three decades, he was the helmsman of the famous cruiser Rabonbán, modeled on an earlier vessel of the same name which won the first Balaton Blue Ribbon Regatta in 1934.

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colour photograph, sailing boat on Lake Balaton
colour postcard showing a church and other buildings by a lake

See for yourself!

In 2021, the race will start from Balatonfüred on 22 July. This is the first year that the National Archives of Hungary will host a Europeana collection day as part of the Europeana Sport project.

Hidden photos, diaries and memoirs documenting nearly eight decades of the race will be collected from former participants, sailors and family members. If you can, come and see it from Fonyód or Tihany, as it is a stunning sight of hundreds of white sails stretching against the wind on the sparkling blue water.


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