SI Vault
Coles Phinizy
August 19, 1968
International competition in each of six classes, four Olympic gold medals and eight world championships in 20 years of racing make Paul Elvstrom of Denmark (right) the world's greatest helmsman
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August 19, 1968

The Sailor Who Owns The Wind

International competition in each of six classes, four Olympic gold medals and eight world championships in 20 years of racing make Paul Elvstrom of Denmark (right) the world's greatest helmsman

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In the next four races Elvstrom got a sixth, a third, a 12th and a fifth. Under the scoring system used then (which was more complicated than the 33rd algebraic derivation of Planck's constant), there was a premium on first place. Since there had been a different winner on each preceding day, when Elvstrom won the sixth race he was back in contention. If he took the final race and if the leader, Ralph Evans of the U.S., got no better than fourth, Elvstrom would win. Elvstrom finished first; Evans of the U.S. got fifth, and thus, in a squeaker, the Dane took his first gold medal.

Four years later, when the Finn class replaced the Firefly in the Olympics in Helsinki, Elvstrom was so far ahead after six races that he did not have to compete on the final day. However it is not considered sportif for an Olympic winner to lounge around on the yacht club veranda with a gold medal in his pocket while the rest of the world fights it out for second place. So Elvstrom went in the seventh race and won that one, too.

At the 1960 Olympics in Italy, Elvstrom once again put away the gold medal in the first six races. This time he did not compete in the seventh race. It was not a sudden lack of the sporting spirit that kept him out, but something that had been haunting him for several years. On the eve of the race that he needed to clinch first place in 1960, Paul Elvstrom had risen from his bed in the night, feeling poorly, and was heading for the bathroom when he collapsed, unconscious. A doctor was summoned by his wife Anne, and, fortified by bananas and tea, Elvstrom managed to get through the following day and win the race he needed. A number of athletes had queasy stomachs at the 1960 Games, and the Elvstrom illness was generally written off as another case of too much tension suddenly mixed with too much exotic food. But Elvstrom had been aware for quite a while that in some uncontrollable way he was coming apart emotionally.

Since his teens Elvstrom has been bothered by headaches. He gave up association football reluctantly at 16 because an injury incurred two years earlier provoked sharp pain whenever he headed the ball. Although his eyes seem good enough there is some kind of crossover in his visual system, beyond the ken of ophthalmologists and brain specialists, that brings on headaches if he reads steadily for more than half an hour. In the late '50s he began getting headaches on the days preceding crucial races. Beyond the actual pain, which was usually short-lived, the associated tension was almost unbearable. As Elvstrom recalls it now, "When I signed the entry form before a competition, I had an awfully time because then I start to be nervous. I will tell you that I was afraid something would happen that I did not know—the wind would die or change or the boat would not be rigged for the conditions. Even when I am going well and I am clearly ahead in a championship, I would worry. I would ask myself. 'Why are you faster than the others? Why? Do you know? Are you lucky? Or what is it?' But no matter how I worried, once we were in the water and the gun started, then I knew where my competitors were and I had no nerves at all. I even enjoyed the race."

Eleven months before his collapse in the 1960 Gaines, Elvstrom had passed out in a similar fashion while competing in the Snipe world championship at P�rto Alegre, Brazil, falling luckily across his hotel bed. Even more distressing to him than the collapse was the fact that he had fouled a rival without any awareness of the incident. At the end of the third race at P�rto Alegre, by which time Elvstrom was typically in the lead, the Spanish helmsman, the Duke of Ari�n, said, "I am sorry, Paul, but I will have to protest what you did today."

"I did not know what I did," Elvstrom relates. "I was feeling so ill that day. I asked my crew, Erik Johansen, to go to the protest meeting, and he said, 'What will you want me to say, because you were surely wrong. You were port and he was starboard.' So I went to the meeting myself and apologized. I said to them, "I am sorry for what I do today. The protest must be right, because my crew says the same.' "

Even though he racked up the only disqualification of his career, Elvstrom won the Snipe title in a shortened, five-race series. On his return home he told the Danish Sports Federation and the press that he was going to give up international competition. He relented to the extent of representing Denmark in the 1960 Games. Following his collapse there, medical specialists could find nothing concretely wrong and counseled him that recuperation would largely be a matter of his will power. Elvstrom stuck to his word. He abstained from world competition for six years, fudging only once in 1962 when he served as crewman in the Flying Dutchman world championship at St. Petersburg, Fla. In that contest the hand of Hans Fogh, his young prot�g�, was on the tiller while Elvstrom enjoyed himself thoroughly as a middle-aged man on a flying trapeze. (Of course, they won.)

His resurrection as a human being, Elvstrom feels, is due in large measure to the diversified interest he has had in sailing since 1960 and to the incongruous part he played in the 1964 Olympics in Japan. Elvstrom, master of them all, went to Japan with the Danish team as a substitute who never got in the game. But, he relates, "There I got the feeling for sailing again. I saw all the competitors in Japan—how nervous they were I walked around in the harbor without any worry or any chance to compete. It was such a strange feeling, but I got to know what it was not to compete. I would have been just happy if I could join and play with the others. So now, for the Olympics this year, I will compete again in the Star class. I prepare to play and have a nice time. I have been winning four gold medals for Denmark and that must be enough. They cannot ask for more."

Back in his first years of glory, when he prospered as a building contractor, Elvstrom also cut racing sails, more for love than money. The building trade bored him no end. "A man will ask me do I remember the beautiful room of a house that I built for him," Elvstrom says, "but I do not remember, except that he paid me well. The sails I remember." Elvstrom eventually sold his contracting business and is now up to his armpits in all kinds of sailing gear. His racing sails are not seen as much in the U.S. as are those of Lowell North, say, or Ted Hood, but Elvstrom's crown trademark is well known elsewhere in the world. His current plant in the pastoral town of Rungsted is a novel one. On the roof there are sample hulls of popular international classes on which sails can be bent as soon as they are finished—it is without a doubt the only building removed from the sea that resembles Larchmont race week. In most busy sail lofts there is considerable clutter and disarray, an aura almost of illicitness. Elvstrom's plant is, in comparison, a hospital ward. His sails may not be flawless, but they are probably germ free.

Elvstrom's vested interest in sailing has taken other forms as well. There is an Elvstrom life jacket to keep you from drowning; there is an Elvstrom book (written in collaboration with an English friend, Richard Creagh-Osborne) to teach you how to race. And if you ever need to settle an argument about who was right when that guy fouled you at the windward mark, there is a booklet by Elvstrom explaining the racing rules in terms so simple that even Wernher von Braun can almost understand them. The leatherette jacket of the book contains little plastic boat hulls so you can reenact the incident on a table top and argue ad nauseam.

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