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After half a dozen years of abstinence and mounting desire, in 1966 Elvstrom returned to international competition in an explosion of success. He was first lured back by one of his good crewmen, Pierre Poullain of France, who suggested casually one day that they should give the forthcoming world championship in the 5-0-5 class a fling, seeing that it was being held just around the corner in Adelaide, Australia. Alors, why not? Without really caring, Elvstrom agreed, largely because he wanted to try out a fancy idea that had come to him while reading the fine print of the rules for that class. In their previous outings together Elvstrom had needled Poullain for being a mere 150-pound mosquito who really did not have enough weight to throw around when hanging on a trapeze—that precarious rig that allows a heavy racing crewman to hang from the masthead well outside of his boat and thus keep it upright. Elvstrom noted that the rules for the 5-0-5 class forbade the use of more than one trapeze, but it did not specify who aboard the craft should use the trapeze.
When Elvstrom and Poullain gathered with a number of European rivals to take a London flight out to Australia, the others saw Elvstrom carrying a tiller extension to which was connected something that looked like another tiller extension. "What is it?" they asked.
"It is a tiller extension to the tiller extension," Elvstrom said, and everyone laughed. Ha-ha—Elvstrom the Invincible returns to the wars as a jokester.
But, lo and behold, in practice before the races started, there was Elvstrom throwing his 185 pounds of weight around as crewman in the trapeze, and at the same time, by means of a double-length, double-jointed extension to the tiller, serving also as helmsman. "When we race," Elvstrom instructed his crewman Poullain, "your most important concern will be not to fall out of the boat." Because his father died, the Frenchman had to return home before the championship began and Elvstrom picked an able-bodied Australian seaman, Pip Pearson, off the beach to take his place. Although they capsized once and floundered around in 12th place in another race, they took second. (By beating Elvstrom in that championship, Wine Salesman Jim Hardy of South Australia joined Andre Nelis of Belgium, Mario Capio of Italy and Jacques Lebrun of France in yachting's most exclusive club. They are the only four helmsmen who have ever won a world competition in which Elvstrom of Denmark also took part.)
That same year, his first time at the helm in international competition in the 5.5-meter class, Elvstrom won the world title. One month later he won the Star title, defeating Lowell North of San Diego, one of the few three-time winners in the long history of that class. North remembers: "Although Elvstrom was leading in points, the night before the fourth race he spent hours working on his boat. He moved the mast around and changed the rigging. I would never rerig a boat that was going well in the middle of a series like that. Three times out of four it will slow down the boat."
Last year Elvstrom successfully defended his Star title, beating North again, in a contest that went right down to the final gun. North's crewman, Peter Barrett—himself a world-class helmsman—recalls: "Friday night they had a banquet and Paul received his trophy. On Saturday morning all Star sailors pulled out their boats to have them shipped. It was cold and windy and rainy, a miserable morning. As we were towing our boat to the dock at about 9:30, we saw one sail going out. It was Elvstrom trying something different, a new sail or something. It's unthinkable that a winner would be out sailing. I would have sat in front of a fireplace feeling great."
Such dedication the morning after a triumph suggests that Elvstrom is backsliding, once again applying the unrelenting zeal that was almost his undoing eight years ago. Actually he had gone out in the Star the morning after the championship because today he plays around so much in a variety of craft. He wanted to try out three new sails on his Star while the feel of its tiller was still fresh in his fingers. If he had waited for a week and meanwhile had sailed other boats, his sensitivity to the Star tiller would have been diminished.
Elvstrom today makes a conscious effort not to become his old, worry-warting self. Back when he was without question the best helmsman in a Finn dinghy, a class where both brains and brawn count for a lot, Elvstrom used to run three miles a day and do an hour of calisthenics. He still recommends such a regimen for helmsmen who have aspirations in the small-dinghy classes, but he himself forgoes such dedication, fearing that it might bring on the old nervousness.
When Elvstrom bowed out of world competition, his supremacy in the Finn class fell to a young German, Willi Kuhweide, who won three world titles and the gold medal at the Tokyo Games. When Mexico held a "little" Olympics—a preview of sorts—last October, Elvstrom bypassed the Star class (because its entries were not the best) and took a fling in the Finns, which were loaded with sharp competitors, including Kuhweide, the current ruler. Elvstrom, the aged, 39-year-old Dane, won. Last March he traveled 6,000 miles to sail a Finn in the South African championships, where he beat all the local talent and, once again, Kuhweide. "I am not the strong man, so good for a Finn, that I once was," Elvstrom says, shedding large crocodile tears and totally ignoring the fact that, to judge by recent events, he still seems to be the best ever.
In large nations such as the U.S. and Russia, there is often talk of stimulating interest in the Olympic sailing classes—building up the fleet, as it were—as a means of making a better showing next time. This is a wholesome and logical attitude, but one which little Denmark could never afford. Although geographically it is a well-marinated slice of the world and, commercially speaking, a sea power, Denmark's sporting fleet is small. Its total strength in the Finn class—the cheapest sailed in the Olympics—is 40 hulls (in England—to cite a larger nation of comparable climate—there are more than 300 Finns). In the second-cheapest class, the Flying Dutchman, Denmark's strength is two. Count 'em. One, two. ( England has more than 180.) To round out its Olympic fleet, Denmark has 18 Dragons, one 5.5-meter boat, and 3� Star class boats (the "one-half" Star hull is a keelless one on the roof of Elvstrom's plant in Rungsted). Operating on such a shoestring basis, the Danes have worked wonders. On the wall of the small sailing club in Elvstrom's home town of Hellerup, there are enlarged replicas of 10 Olympic medals won by its members since 1948. There is no collection of Olympic sailing loot to equal it anywhere in the world—not at sacred Cowes, or in the New York Yacht Club, or anywhere else in Scandinavia, nor anywhere along the windy edges of Australia, where sailing is epidemic. Explaining away his country's success, Elvstrom says simply, "Because Denmark is small, does not mean that it cannot have talent."