Skip to main content
Original Issue


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

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.

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 Helsingör (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."

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 Arión, 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 protégé, 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.

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 3½ 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."