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Paul Elvström, Sailing's Greatest

by David Henshall on 13 Dec 2016 13 December 2016
Paul Elvstrom - 25 February 1928 - 7 December 2016 © Archive

With a couple of weeks still to go, 2016 has not been a good year for anyone who is normally referred to along with the adjective 'Great'. The world of music seemed to be disproportionally hit, with Bowie, Glen Frey, Prince and Cohen being just some of the iconic performers who will sing no more. The big screen lost Rickman, the small screen Wogan and sport said goodbye to the man who was known simply as 'The Greatest' when Muhammad Ali died back in June.

In a direct contrast to the wall to wall coverage these sad events received, the death in the first week of December of the greatest small boat sailor that the world has ever seen passed by with scarcely a mention in the mainstream media and even in the yachting press, the response was somewhat muted. In a way this is understandable, as the legend that was Paul Elvström was forged more than two generations ago now and though the sailors of today would recognise the name, the details of just how he fought his way to the top of the sport, then camped there for nearly 40 years have been lost in the noise of the modern media circus.

This narrative has not been helped by the nature of the man himself, for though he would happily indulge in talk about boats, rigs, fittings and racing for hours if need be, there was little in the way of self-promotion. Instead, Paul was content to let his results on the race course define who he was, though in time he would prove that there was so much more to his spread of achievement as he added sailmaking, boatbuilding, design and innovation to his record. Of course, in a lifetime spent competing at events, there are many who will have met Paul in person, though the number that can claim to 'know' him is much smaller, due in part to that private nature of the man. I'm lucky to be able to claim to have met him, though I come firmly in that first category!

The occasion was the 1981 Half Ton Cup, held at Poole on the south coast of the UK. Paul was sailing the immaculately prepared Berret designed King One, and having warmed up for the event by winning La Rochelle Week, was one of the favourites to take the much coveted title. I was sailing for one of the other Nordic countries, in a crew made up mainly of 505 sailing hired guns. My task was to call the start and having decided that the pin end was the place to be, we went for it! Elvström had also decided on a pin end start, but was taken by surprise by the belligerent aggression of our own starting technique and not only did we win the start, but we pushed King One over the line.

Despite having to re-round in order to start, by the end of the race it was Elvström who took the win whilst we were rather mid-fleet. Back in the marina, the two of us came face to face on the finger pontoon; First he noted that I wasn't Swedish (the rest of or crew were) then he gently chided me for the unwarranted venom shown at the start. At the time, I regret to say I was rather arrogant about the whole episode and it was only later that one of Paul's favourite sayings "if in the process of winning, you have lost the respect of your competitors, you have won nothing" came to mind. As with so many of his sayings, he had that ability to put his finger on the root cause of what was happening!

It was hardly a surprise that Paul Bert Elvström would take to the water, for he was born in February 1928 into a seafaring household that lived in a waterside house just North of Copenhagen. School days were difficult for Paul as it is likely that he suffered from dyslexia at a time when learning difficulties such as this were little understood in children. However, as is so often the case, he enjoyed other strengths and for the young Paul it was a steely competitiveness. Luckily for the sport of sailing Paul also enjoyed nothing more than to be afloat and it would be this synergy of the love of sailing allied to the will to win that would mark him out from his earliest years as something special.

Although many of Paul's formative years were spent with Denmark under foreign occupation, he was able to continue sailing, constantly honing the skills of helmsmanship and boat handling. With the return to normality in 1945, this process would accelerate to the point that he felt ready to enter the competition that would determine the Danish representatives for the 1948 Olympic Regatta, scheduled for Torquay. This was not an easy task for Paul as he was by no means a first choice for the Selectors. In the end he won the slot, but their parting shot to the young Elvström, "try not to come last", was hardly a ringing endorsement of confidence in their helm.

The next chapter in the Elvström story, when he burst onto the international scene, might never have been written, for having made it to Torquay, he needlessly retired from the first race. But the single handed class at the Regatta, sailed in Fairey Firefly dinghies, was far more open than it might otherwise have been, as the Selectors for the host nation, riven by class and petty jealousies, had chosen not to send either of their top two helms, who were both sure fire medal prospects. From race two onwards the young Paul Elvström would set about doing something he would do for the rest of his life as he patiently built a winning score. It all came down to the final race, sailed in a big breeze and though Paul was far from being one of the heavier helms, he fought his way to the front and the Gold Medal.

In winning at Torquay, Paul had identified that meticulous preparation of the boat and his own personal mental and physical fitness were the keystones of success and he set about developing a regime that would set him above the other competitors. From his use of a hiking bench ashore, to year-round practice afloat, often sailing in icy conditions in the years before wet suits, Paul's approach was single minded and determined. Where there were gaps in his skillsets, he worked to address them. In the early 1950s Paul was a frequent visitor to the Solent, sailing either the Finn, the 'new' single hander, or the 505.

David Court-Hampton, who knew Paul well from the 505 fleet recalls watching Paul sailing the Finn out in a strong breeze in the Solent, gybing time after time to ensure that he had it 'right'. However, with so much of Paul's sailing taking place on the tideless waters of the Baltic, the swirling tides of the Solent would provide a stiff test for Elvström. David Court-Hampton would use his knowledge of the currents to record an enjoyable win over the Dane, but he knew that Paul was a quick learner! One by-product of all this heavy weather training was that Paul hated races to be 'pulled' because of the weather!

Come the 1952 Olympic Regatta at Helsinki Paul won four of the races and was able to discard a lowly fifth place to comfortably beat Britain's Charles Currey to take his second Gold Medal. There were then a number of changes in Paul's life, with a break in his sailing for the then mandatory National Service and then marriage to his life partner Anne. Despite his background in house building, it was around this time that the first moves were being taken that would see the creation of what would become the Elvström sail making business, with its iconic red crown as the symbol of success. Paul really was by now the very stuff of legendary abilities, such as at the very windy event at Zeebrugge in Belgium. Paul suffered a rare capsize and in these days of minimal built in buoyancy, his Finn was swamped. Undeterred, Paul swam for the shore, towing his boat behind him. Once into the shallows, he bailed his boat out before re-joining the race and getting a finish rather than a retired score.

Paul was by now sailing pretty much full time and in 1956 he was raced his Finn in the Gold Cup in the UK, the 505 World Championships in France, before heading off to Australia for the Olympics at Melbourne. The time spent afloat and all the preparation came good as Paul sailed easily to his third Gold Medal. Being a triple medallist was just part of the Elvström story at this time, as he went on to show the diverse range of his talents by winning the first of his 505 World Championships, racing in the talent laden Star class, whilst still finding time to design the rig for the OK dinghy.

The next Olympic Games were always just over the horizon and Paul's preparation for the 1960 Games at Naples would take some beating. In just 1958 and 1959 he would win his second 505 World title, win the Finn Worlds twice and add in success at the World Championships in the Snipe. At the Olympic Regatta Paul again showed his mastery of the class, winning three of the races and counting nothing lower than a fifth. The writing was on the wall though, as the unrelenting pressure was by now crushing one even as indomitable as Paul Elvström. With his fourth Gold Medal won, rather than sail in the final race, he sat it out.

Once the Olympics were finished, Paul took an extended break from competition, appearing just once on a podium when in 1962, as crew for Hans Fogh, he added a Flying Dutchman World Championships to his CV. Although not actively competing, Paul was still spending long periods of time afloat in his speedboat and it is clear that his active mind was thinking what the future shape of the sport might be. The opportunity to develop these thoughts into a reality came with the 1965 IYRU Performance Single Handed Dinghy Trials at Weymouth. Given the state of single handed sailing at the time, which - with the exception of the International Canoe - was represented by the Finn, OK and Solo, the criteria set for the Trials allowed for the designing of some exciting boats. Just about all of the top dinghy designers of the day submitted entries and there were some innovative ways of extending the crew weight outboard of the gunwhale. However, the rules were quite specific, sliding seats and other innovative ideas were acceptable, but not trapezes; it had been decided at the highest level that it would be unseamanlike to attempt racing a dinghy single handed from the trapeze!

One of the entries at Weymouth and something of a local's favourite was David Thomas with his Jack Chippendale built Unit dinghy. David had been somewhat dismayed to find that most of the main south coast sailmakers were already in cahoots with other entries, so he turned to the Elvström sail loft for the rig for his Unit. Positioning his boat on the sand of the Town Beach at Weymouth David was surprised to see the famous red crown of the Elvström loft on the boat alongside his. And what a boat it was! The Elvström designed and built Trapez dinghy was light years ahead of its time in so many ways. From the lightweight, flat, outright planing hull, to the one piece moulded foils, then the sophisticated, fully adjustable rig, the Trapez challenged just about every preconception as to what made for a good dinghy. But it was the fact that the Elvström boat was rigged with a trapeze that made for the biggest talking point.

No-one wanted to tell Paul that he was not allowed to sail in the event, so he competed and in doing so, demonstrated that single handed trapezing was not only possible, but was an exciting future direction for the sport. In hindsight, the complexity of the Trapez would work against it gaining popular acceptance, as although it finished out front, it failed to represent a step function in performance. Paul would return to Denmark with his boat and would not re-appear at the subsequent follow up Trials, but it is to their credit that the IYRU recognised the value of what the boat represented. At the next two sets of Trials the trapeze would be allowed and it would be the simpler, more accessible Contender from the drawing board of Bob Miller that would gain International status.

Undaunted, Paul returned to the Championship circuit, taking titles in the 5.5 Metre, Star and Soling. In was in the latter boat that Barry Dunning would come to the attention of Paul at the Soling Worlds. Barry, along with Spud Rowsell, was crewing for Alan Warren but the new boat was something of a cultural leg up for the three! In a very windy first race they made it to the top mark in the first three (was this the result of Spud's weight on the side deck?) with Elvström out front. As they set out down the first reach, in true Alan Warren fashion, he called for the spinnaker, but here Barry, as forward hand, got things a bit wrong. The Soling carried two spinnakers, the smaller, flatter reacher and the big, full cut one for the runs. Hoisting the wrong kite saw the British boat overpowered, but screaming away down the reach under the lay line of the leading boats. A freeing shift saw them make it to the gybe, from then on the tenacious Warren covered Elvström all the way to the finish. Once back ashore Paul sought out the crazy English who'd pulled such a stunt, only to meet with Spud, who he recognised as the brother of Brian, a well know Finn sailor of the day. This also highlights another part of the Elvström storyline, for it mattered not how high he was flying, or how pressured the event, he would always find the time to share a joke with fellow competitors or make helpful suggestions that would help other sailors improve their skills and sailing.

Elvström's analytical ability was almost like a 'gift' recalls Pip Pearson, who crewed for Paul and would enjoy a lifelong friendship with him. It was uncanny how he could step straight into a boat and make it go and if he did make changes to the rig or a fitting, would know immediately if it was an improvement or not.

Although a successful Finn sailor, Paul loved the athleticism of the trapeze and suggested that the Olympics would best be served by the five classes being one person, two person, three, four and five person boats, with all the crew, in all the boats, being out on the wire. He backed his beliefs by competing in the 505 World Championships at Adelaide, helming from the wire whilst his crew Pip Pearson hiked out and worked the spinnaker. Larry Marks, who like Paul would win the 505 World Championship twice, recalled the event and the way Paul handled the boat from out on the wire. "He was like a tiger," said Larry, who went on to tell of a event that was notable for the strong winds and huge seas, yet Paul's boat was driven as hard as any of the other entrants.

Paul was already well into his fifties and was still as competitive as ever, as was witnessed when he dominated the afore mentioned Half Ton Cup, before moving on to the high performance Tornado catamaran which he raced with his daughter Trine as crew. At the 1984 Olympic Regatta at Los Angeles the father and daughter pairing came within a whisker of a medal, finishing fourth before going on to the World Championships the following year where they did make the podium finishing third. By the time of the Pusan Regatta in 1988, Paul, now 60, sailed at the Games for the final time, again with Trine but by now the demands created by the 'modern' competition were at odds with his age and it wasn't a successful regatta.

Returning home to his house by the water at Hellerup, he continued to maintain an active interest in the events out on the water in front of his windows. In 1996, he was awarded the accolade of Danish Sportsman of the Century, then in 2007 he was one of the very first people inducted into the ISAF Sailing Hall of Fame.

With such a long and impressive record it is easy to attribute a number of developments to him which were actually the work of others. What cannot be denied however is the way he took these ideas and then developed them into race winning concepts that we are familiar with today. Today, despite his greatest achievements being more than 50 years ago, his legacy remains with us and will do so into the future. Be it in the acceptance that performance sailing is an athletic sport and must be treated as such and that success demands single minded determination (though not 'win at all cost'), to his development of single handed sailing from the trapeze, the world of small boat sailing owes a huge debt of gratitude to Paul Bert Elvström.

Maybe... just maybe, his single greatest gift to us comes in the form of one of the many soundbites for which he is so famous. On being asked about how to improve performance afloat his answer was simple: "Keep the hull under the rig", a dictum that if more of us followed, we would become better sailors.

We therefore say goodbye, but also thank you, to Paul Elvström, a champion sailor so many times over: sailmaker, innovator, boatbuilder and, as his friend Pip Pearson would say, a "gentleman afloat and ashore". Little wonder then that in terms of sailing, he really does deserve that title of 'The Greatest'.

Paul Bert Elvström 25th February 1928 – 7th December 2016

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