Sailing on Lake Balaton is a more than two-hundred-year-old tradition, and today, in the 21st century, this noble sport is living its heyday again.
Blue sky above, turquoise lake below, and between them, on the horizon, plenty of white sails gleaming in the distance. This is the image of Lake Balaton that millions of Hungarians have seen for generations, and which always draws them back to the shores of the ‘Hungarian Sea’, as the Hungarians call their own freshwater lake, the largest lake in Central Europe.
We recently wrote a praise of the northern shore of Lake Balaton, the Balaton Uplands. However, it is also worth looking out over the lake itself and consider one of the best things you can do on it: sailing.
First, let’s turn the wheel of time back to about 200–300 years ago. Of course, Lake Balaton already existed then, but its area was significantly larger than today—towards the western end of the lake, several bays extended long between the northern and southern coastal hills. At that time, the lake’s water level was several metres higher than it is today. It was only because of the lakeside railway construction in the 1860s that engineers and politicians decided to what height the water level of this otherwise very shallow lake should be regulated (the average depth of the nearly 80-kilometre-long and 5–10-kilometre-wide lake is barely 4 metres).
Early Hungarians did not waste much time at Balaton, just as the Western European peoples of earlier times could not really appreciate the beauty of nature, since their primary goal was daily survival against the forces of nature. It was only during the Romantic era that wealthy travellers and sensitive poets discovered the beauty of wild nature.
For centuries, Lake Balaton served only to ensure the livelihood of coastal fishermen and was also used for livestock watering by the villages nearby. In Hungary, too,
it was only in the era of Romanticism that locals began to see the beauty—and the opportunities—in the hitherto neglected Lake Balaton.
During the Turkish occupation, the border between the empires of the Habsburgs and Sultans was most of the time right in the middle of the lake, and according to some records, the Turks and Hungarians even fought ship battles on it in the 1500s and 1600s. There was no talk of sailing as a hobby back then, of course.
Yachting as entertainment first appeared at Lake Balaton at the end of the 18th century. It was one of Hungary’s most wealthy and powerful aristocratic families, the Festeticses, whose beautiful castle can still be seen in Keszthely on the western side of Balaton, who first ordered and used a sailboat on the lake.
Their boat called Phoenix was 31 metres long—6 metres longer than the Santa Maria, with which Columbus discovered America—and was launched in 1797.
Magyar Híradó (Hungarian Newsreel), a Hungarian newspaper of the time, said the following about the sailboat: ‘We can already see the sails of the merchant ship pointing to a happy future floating in our Hungarian Sea, whose blessing and naming to Phoenix took place with a distinguished ceremony on the afternoon of the 16th of this current month in the presence of many gentlemen, whom the Lord Count had copiously entertained already before the ceremony.’
The sailer was mostly used for cargo transport, but there were also occasions when guests of the Festetics family were transported on it. Finally, it may have been destroyed around 1830. As the Hungarians say, ‘one swallow does not make a summer’: the Festeticses’ Phoenix did not bring a sailing boom to Lake Balaton—for that, another generation had to pass.
In 1866, Empress Sisi, wife of Emperor of the Habsburg Empire Francis Joseph, who was very popular in Hungary, travelled to Balatonfüred, an already well-developed resort town at the time. Upon hearing of this, many gentlemen brought ships to Lake Balaton in order to raise the profile of the event and, of course, their own status. And if that were so,
the Balatonfüred Yacht Club was soon founded, too, which continues to bring together the Hungarian elite of all ages to this day.
The sailing gentlemen of Balaton undertook and eagerly learned all the tricks of the sport of sailing and the various skills required for it, especially from the English. Then the customs of the German sailing world, which has its own traditions, were soon brought over to Hungary as well.
Count Ödön Batthyány was the first Hungarian nobleman to compete against the English in international sailing competitions and was even able to defeat many, as early as the 1860s. However, the story of sailing on Balaton cannot be told without mentioning a true-born Englishman, Richard Young. He was the one who started the sailing industry in the area, while more and more people devoted themselves to the sport and more and more clubs were founded around the lake.
Beside the aristocracy, the wealthy upper middle class also slowly discovered sailing for themselves, and by the first half of the 20th century, it was already them who were pursuing this elite sport for the most part.
The decades before and after the First World War were considered a real golden age for sailing on Balaton,
while modern times also invaded the shores of the lake, as automobiles and seaplanes regularly departed from Budapest to Balaton. It was around that time that the large-scale competition that is still one of the most beautiful and interesting traditions of Lake Balaton started: the Kékszalag, or the Blue Ribbon Round the Lake Balaton Race, an international sports regatta.
The competition was first organized in 1934, and the goal was to sail around the nearly 80-kilometre lake, touching all four shores, in the summer during a full moon. The sailboats departing from Balatonfüred first touch Kenese on the east coast, then Siófok on the south coast, then sailing close to the Tihany Peninsula, they go all the way to Keszthely on the west coast, and from there, often already in the dark of night, they sail back to the starting point, Balatonfüred.
The Blue Ribbon was already very popular in the 1930s, and since the fall of communism,
it is still one of Hungary’s important summer social events and the regular annual parade of domestic sailing life.
Speaking of communism: the Hungarian Communists, based on an imagined worker-peasant ethos, in addition to the methodical destruction of bourgeois and aristocratic society also took care of doing away with the sailing life. During the harsher decades of communism, it was a sport that was tolerated at most, then later, in the softening regime, during the time of János Kádár, sailing once again became a pastime for the small townspeople living by the lake, as well as for the elite (lawyers, doctors, politicians) coming for their holidays from Budapest on the other.
In the 2000s, with the full freedom of capitalism, in the once again prosperous Hungary, sailing life is reviving again, although it is true that the society of sailors is somewhat changing. Sailing has always and everywhere been an expensive sport, but today it has become overpriced, with a new elite bringing sailboats to the lake that are bigger than ever before. Meanwhile, hobby sailors with less money are slowly being pushed out of Lake Balaton.
But whether we are regular or occasional sailors, or just watch the sailboats leaving the lake from the shore, the perfect, almost kitschy and banal Balaton view with the ever-changing colours of the lake and the multitude of sailboats makes everyone forget all everyday annoyances. Lake Balaton belongs to everyone—and may it stay that way.
* This is the title of a novel by Soviet writer and playwright Valentin Katayev about the invigorating spirit that was infused into the life of Russia by its first Revolution.