Paul Elvstrom still lives in the house in which he was born, 20 yards from the edge of the Oresund. There the second eldest of the Elvstrom children drowned as a toddler some 40 years ago. Despite the loss, Elvstrom's mother held to the tradition that if a Dane knows how to swim, he should be allowed to take his chances with the sea. So at the age of 5, Paul, her youngest, was permitted to row his skiff on the Oresund, provided he always kept it tied with a line to the dock. At the time this family boating rule was laid down, little Paul noted that there had been no mention of just how long the safety line should be. He scrounged line everywhere, picking rotten strands of it from the flotsam on the shore, lengthening the distance of his boat from the dock by bits and pieces. Like the sailor he was to become, young Paul abided by the rule, mind you, but he stretched the hell out of it.
A year later, when Paul was 6, his mother let him cast off. He fashioned a sail out of a discarded swatch of canvas, imitating as best he could the taut, handsome shapes on the racing hulls that forever paraded on his horizon. He learned the basics of sailing by observation and fumbling trial and error. He became aware of the importance of a keel, for example, on a fair day when he tried to sail up the coast, dead into the wind. On that extended cruise, when he came under the shore on a starboard tack, he noticed to his distress that he had often actually lost ground. It took him eight hours to beat two miles up the coast and 20 minutes to run back. After learning that lesson the hard way, he hammered a board—a keel of sorts—on the bottom of his boat, and he has been going happily into the wind ever since.
If Paul Elvstrom's background has had any bearing on his success, it is not so much because he was the son of a mariner, born with one foot in the sea, but more simply because he is a Dane. Situated as it is between the Baltic and the North Sea, Denmark gets its share of miserable, Godforsaken weather but enjoys a very healthy social climate. True to the derivation of its name, Elvstrom's Denmark is still a "march" and to go there from almost any other land is like taking a shower. Even the well-scrubbed Copenhagen hippies have seized upon the revolutionary idea that a man does not necessarily have to smell bad to launch a protest on society.
From Copenhagen north to Helsing�r (where a tawny Dane can almost lean across the narrows of the Oresund and kiss a Swedish blonde) there were, at last count, 2,593 helmsmen proudly claiming that they took part in the first race that young Paul Elvstrom, the sailing prodigy of Hellerup, ever won. In a sense many of these claims are justifiable. Whenever the Elvstrom kid showed up for the informal, pickup races held on the long summer evenings on the Oresund coast, the adults welcomed him and were delighted when he beat them. In other countries, among veterans who take their racing very seriously, to be beaten by a boy using comparatively shoddy gear is embarrassing, if not irritating. It is the sporting nature of Danes, by contrast, to welcome all comers, be they Saharan or Tibetan, and to cheer on the upstart boy who tomorrow will be a man. If 50,000 Danes insist they were privileged to be beaten by 10-year-old Paul Elvstrom his first time out, it is only fair to believe them. In spirit it is the truth.
According to the records, Elvstrom won his first organized sailing race at the age of 12. Sailing an Oslo dinghy, with his 23-year-old brother as crew, he beat a field of 20 adults. Although the race was a short one, lasting little more than two hours, Elvstrom won by 28 minutes. Such a whopping margin might be explained by fluky conditions, notably a sharp drop in the wind. But on the day of Elvstrom's first victory the wind was steady. That illustrates a good deal of his genius.
Elvstrom has an unequaled ability—God-given or patiently acquired—for detecting the slightest changes in the wind. He reacts almost infallibly, it seems, even to the vagrant puffs in a cat's-paw. When stronger wind is playing on the water at a great distance, he seems somehow able to sense precisely the effect it will have in relation to the other forces working on the boat. Paul MikMeyer, the Dane who now crews for him in the Star class, says simply, "Elvstrom can smell the wind."
That first victory was won by Elvstrom on a three-legged course consisting of a run up the coast, a beat angling out into the sea and a reach back to the start. Because the tide ran stronger at sea, it was logical on the second leg to hug the shore, then come about and cross the strong tide by the shortest possible route. The whole fleet proceeded on just such a course for a while. Then suddenly, long before he could possibly lay the mark—as the rest of the fleet watched bug-eyed—young Elvstrom came about and went his separate way straight out into the tide. As Elvstrom describes it now in halting but beautiful English, "I saw that the real wind lay in the sea where the tide ran hard, and I went to it."
Any smart sailor wallowing in the ruck of a fleet will sometimes take such a chance against the tide in hopes of finding better wind away from the pack. It happens that at the time Elvstrom left the fleet to go it alone, he was already comfortably in first place and footing better than all the rest. He needed only to continue on the same course as the others, come about in time to lay the mark, then reach home a sure winner. But in that race, as ever since, he was not satisfied to win unless he also sailed the course as well as he knew it could be sailed.
Elvstrom was just starting high school when the Germans occupied Denmark in World War II. After 1943, when the war got really rough and all sailing on the sea was verboten, he bicycled inland to race on a lake. By the time the world had settled down enough to hold an Olympics in England in 1948, Elvstrom was working as a mason and studying on the side to be a contractor. At that time the smallest Olympic sailing class was the Firefly, a dinghy that, back then, was raced singlehanded. There was not a Firefly in all Denmark, so the Danes held trials in a somewhat similar hull called a National 12. Elvstrom had never raced such a boat before, but he won the trials. Since he had never even seen—much less sailed—a real Firefly, the Danish selection committee had grave doubts about sending him to England. But since the English were furnishing the hulls, the spars and the sails, the Danish committee flipped a coin. Legend has it that the coin stood on edge, so off went Paul Elvstrom.
In the first of the seven races for the Olympic medal in England, Elvstrom lived up to the Danish committee's unexpectations. The first race was won by the able Frenchman Jean-Jacques Herbulot. To find out what happened to Elvstrom, you must read down through the results until, below 20th place, you come to an asterisk followed by the dismal notation " Denmark withdrew." On the first leg of that first race, Denmark's entry had been going along unimpressively in the middle of the fleet, when suddenly the Finnish competitor came angling toward him, well under his stern, shouting "Starboard! Protest!" Neither craft had to alter course, and the Finn passed more than three boat lengths behind the Dane. Although patently there had been no violation of the sacred starboard rule, Elvstrom, a mere spear carrier from a small country playing his first part on an international stage, timidly withdrew from the race, uttering not a word. "I did not spoke English much at that time," he recalls, "and I was so shy."