Any day now, considering the wicked ways of the world, the Lord may once again start looking for another Noah. If, as seems more than likely, he settles on Paul Elvstrom of Denmark, the passengers aboard Ark II are in for a wild ride.
Elvstrom, a gentle, salt-soaked sailor who lives a few miles north of Copenhagen on a windy arm of the Baltic called the Oresund, just can't help trying to make a boat move faster even if it's not going anywhere. Before the second day of rain, the giraffes aboard his Ark would be put to work in a hurry, stepping bendy masts in just the right spot to give their craft a likely lift. Chimpanzees would be scrambling aloft to adjust the rigging, and both elephants would find themselves hiking out to windward on the beats or spreading their ears to the breeze for an added spinnaker thrust on the downhill legs. Some of the other animals, forced to remain quiet as ballast in the bilges, might be feeling a bit queasy, but you can bet your oilskins, with Elvstrom at the helm, their Ark would be going like a bomb.
There are many able helmsmen who know how to contend with the elements, but Elvstrom is the only one who seems to use the wind and the water as if he owns them. Admittedly he has had failures, but in the process of trying he has left all his rivals behind. Since 1948, in one class of boat or another, more than 400 helmsmen from 35 countries have raced against Elvstrom in world-championship sailing events. Only seven of them have ever finished ahead of him.
A man who really concentrates on a single racing class—a man who spends, say, 25 hours a day at it—can count himself lucky if, after 10 years, he has competed in one Olympics and finished among the top six in a world championship. Only a handful of skippers have ever collected more than three world titles. In the past 20 years Elvstrom has competed internationally in six different classes—the Firefly, the Finn, the 5-0-5, the Snipe, the 5.5 meter, and the Star—and has won at least one world or Olympic title in each. His total score in world competition is 12 first places, three seconds and one fifth. He has represented Denmark in four consecutive Olympics, winning a gold medal each time.
Elvstrom did not compete in the Tokyo Games four years ago, but he will be back racing a Star in Mexico this October. If the Mexican Olympic Committee has any imagination or heart at all, it will strike a special first-place medal for Star class sailing in platinum, for a medal of plain gold is no longer enough in an event that includes Elvstrom the Invincible.
When a man dominates a sport as Elvstrom has—to the point where losing seems almost impossible—the legends naturally grow. Danes are not normally expansive raconteurs, but when discussing Elvstrom, the saltiest ones have trouble containing their awe within the normally drab limits of fact. Several months ago, coming upon a foreign sailor who was conceivably interested, an ancient Dane from Elvstrom's home town of Hellerup tried to explain.
"You want to learn how good Elvstrom is?" he bawled enthusiastically. "Let me tell you of the world championship in the Finn class at Le Havre in the year—I think—1957. In the last race of the series Paul Elvstrom needs the place of fifth in order to win the championship. The wind, it is 50 knots, and so Elvstrom capsizes just before the start. He pulls his boat up on a seawall three meters in height. He spills the water from his boat. He rigs his boat again and lowers it from the seawall. Then he jumps into his boat and he sails through the fleet to take the fifth place. He wins the championship."
There are more elaborate versions of this story, in which Elvstrom, while toiling with his boat, takes a moment off to slay a minor dragon and rescue a drowning maiden from the angry sea, but before the account gets further out of hand, it is worth getting the facts straight just for the record. In the first place, the incident did not occur in a world championship at Le Havre but in an annual regatta held in the early spring at Zeebrugge, Belgium. The wind was not blowing at 50 knots; it was blowing a mere 45. Finally, although Elvstrom has enough strength to throw a Finn class dinghy over a seawall if he has a mind to, he would never do such a thing since the rules clearly state that a boat cannot be beached after the preparatory signal for racing.
Although a stickler for fair play, Elvstrom strongly believes that, in the interest of keener racing, it is the duty of every helmsman to stretch the rules to the limit. So, mindful of the rules, he did not bring his swamped boat near a seawall at Zeebrugge. Instead, swimming through a two-foot chop in 46� water, he towed it over the water until he reached a spot shallow enough to let him stand while the boat was still floating free. After bailing out some water with his hands, he sailed back off in pursuit of the fleet. He did not place fifth. He finished eighth. Since 52 boats in the fleet of 60 either capsized or were dismasted, it was riot so much a display of Elvstrom's skill as of his doggedness.
Elvstrom's father, Hugo, was a sea captain and shipowner who got his start on sailing ships that often plied to Greenland and occasionally around the Horn. From this it is reasonable to presume that some of Elvstrom's skill derives from a father's desire. There are many old salts who believe no child is too young to learn the ways and miseries of the sea, but it happens the elder Elvstrom was not at all that type. Hugo never put standing rigging on his infant son's playpen or gave him a jib hank to teethe on or pushed him vigorously around in a pram while bellowing, "Ease the main!" "Hard a-lee!" or any such nauticisms. In fact, he had little influence on any of his four children since he was away at sea most of the time. The age spread of 11 years between Paul, the youngest, and Hugo Jr., the eldest child, gives some indication of how often father Elvstrom put into home port.