The Tyniste Twins of Estonia Jibe as Sailing's Double Threat

updated 04/06/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/06/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When blond, blue-eyed, 19-year-old Toomas and Tynu Tyniste cross the starting line in their sleek 470 Class sailboat at the Kiel World Championships in West Germany this June, the Soviet Union is betting they'll carry an edge that's more genetic than athletic—their identical twinship. Believing that twins can communicate almost telepathically, the Soviets actively recruit kids like Toomas and Tynu for their sailing program. "There are two people who sail the boat, but in sailing the most important quality is that they should be as one," says their coach of seven years, Rein Ottoson, 33. "There's no need to explain why twins make the very best teams." Observes Peter Saraikin, another member of the Soviet 470 sailing program, "It's not that they do everything so much better, but they are very consistent and make fewer mistakes. They concentrate so well together it's scary, like one person."

Their record is impressive. The Tynistes finished third overall in the Soviet Union's open competition last year. They have won the Soviet 470 junior class title three times, the Polish junior title, and finished fourth in the Goodwill Games last summer. They now hold a top spot on the Soviet team, and a new boat was custom-built to the Tynistes' specifications last winter at an estimated cost of 5,000 rubles (almost $8,000). "Yes, they do get special treatment," says a teammate, Liis Uustalu, 18. "But sometimes the best ones need special treatment so they will win."

In a country that sees sport as a political statement—a way to "prove" socialism is better than capitalism—the boys are among the elite. Essentially that means they are professional athletes, supported and equipped by the state. For example, though the Tynistes are now fulfilling their mandatory two-year military obligation by serving in the coast guard, in reality they spend most of their time training and competing. They often sail from the modern boating facility built as the yachting venue for the 1980 Olympics at Pirita, just outside the boys' hometown of Tallinn, the capital of the Republic of Estonia. The marina looks like any boat-filled harbor in the West, the difference being that the boats are not privately owned; factories buy them for their workers' recreation.

Tallinn, a city of cobblestones and church spires, opens to the gray, brooding Baltic and has a long seafaring tradition. Once a member of the medieval Hanseatic League, Tallinn still seems more Scandinavian than Russian, though the enormous nation to the east has dominated Estonia since the 18th century. The Soviets forcibly annexed the country in 1940, ending a 22-year period of Estonian independence. A proud, nationalistic people, Estonians chafe under Soviet authority, a factor that occasionally creeps into the sailing program. Lest anyone forget who's in charge, a government sentry ship sits anchored offshore. No boat can sail beyond it. The Tynistes and their teammates also must report their sail numbers to a military watchtower each time they set out to train. After all, Helsinki—and the West—is only 52 miles from Tallinn across open water.

The Tyniste boys, sons of factory manager Heino and his wife, Luule, a retired economist, had never set foot on a boat when they were recruited at their school sports club at the age of 9. "We decided to see what sailing was all about," says Tynu. "It was autumn though, and the boats weren't in the water. You can imagine how long theory and exercises hold a 9-year-old's attention. We quit." But the recruiter made them promise to come back in the spring. "We went back and we loved it." The boys began in dinghies called Optimists, then graduated to Cadets before taking the helm of a 470, a lightweight and finely tuned sailboat in which synchronized teamwork is critical. Explaining how they decided the roles of skipper and crew, Toomas explains, "From the start Tynu was the better skipper." Adds Tynu, "Toomas has a sixth sense about the wind. He's incredibly attentive to the sails, which is what you need in a crew."

What sailing teaches above all are the values of precision and patience. "I want the boys to study English when they enroll in college after the military," says coach Ottoson. "There is much they can learn from English-speaking sailors." That heartens Westerners like Dave Ullman, a world-class American competitor in 470 boats. "In the past the Soviets haven't talked to anyone from the free world at international regattas. And communication is good for all of us." After the Tynistes compete in West Germany this summer, they will begin preparing for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. "The top teams in the world, the French and the West Germans, average about 30 years of age," says Toomas. "We have a long way to go." Ottoson agrees. "Yes, the best for the boys will be the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona." Laughing, he adds, "But we will try very hard until then."

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