Paul Elvstrøm had an immeasurable impact on almost every corner of the sailing world, redefining how to race a sailboat and getting involved at almost every aspect of design, construction and marketing, but it was through his time in the Finn that he became a household name and a sailing superstar in Denmark.
Over the course of 10 years from 1951 to 1960 he won three Olympic Gold Medals (to add to his Firefly Gold Medal in 1948), two Finn Gold Cups, one European Championship and countless national and international regattas.
He developed his own training methods, made his own sails, went on to build Finns and developed much of the gear that sailors take for granted today. He was an innovator, an engineer, sail designer, sailboat designer and author of many essential tomes on yacht racing: a pioneer of his day.
He was a sportsman and the first real sailing athlete. He trained harder and longer than anyone else so that when the day of the race came he was better prepared than anyone else. He was famous for his physical strength and fitness, able to out-hike anyone on the race course. He would win races at Gold Cups by up to four minutes. During a period of time when sailing, and especially dinghy sailing at the Olympics, was an amateur sport, competing against sailors who also had real jobs, these extra hours in the boat gave him the advantage he was looking for. He was also one of the first sailors to realise the benefits of psychological preparation, even though he suffered throughout his career from mental stress caused by the pressure of continually winning.
But perhaps more importantly than any of this, Elvstrøm epitomised good sportsmanship and the camaraderie that he believed should be a big part of sailing. His humility and honesty won him friends around the world, and he would often encourage his fellow competitors and or approach complete strangers to give them advice to improve technique or tuning. His maxim about winning and the respect of your opponents is an adage for life as well as sailing.
Elvstrøm developed a method of hiking that was far beyond that of his competitors, fitting toestraps and hiking with his knees on the gunwale. He trained intensely on a hiking bench after the 1948 Olympics to improve his physical conditioning to be ready for 1952, when the Finn was first used.
He took delivery of his first Finn – D 6 – in 1951. ‘Bes’ was built by Børresen’s Boatyard in Denmark, which also built all the 40 Finns for the 1952 Olympics.
After being beaten by the Finn’s designer, Rickard Sarby of Sweden, at his first major Finn event, the 1951 Nordic Championship Elvstrøm realised how to tune the stiff mast by planning the mast so it would bend more, and making a fuller sail. He also lengthened the traveller to be able to flatten the sail upwind. The following year he won the Nordics with five race wins, just before the Olympics in Helsinki, which he went into expecting to win.
He got permission to install the longer traveller in the boat he drew by lot for the Olympics – it was in the days when all equipment was supplied in the class – but removed it after five races after another competitor complained. However it didn’t affect his performance and he still won by the biggest points margin of any Olympics.
The Finn was reselected for 1956 in Melbourne and he again won the gold medal there, from perhaps his biggest rival of the time, André Nelis from Belgium. Earlier in the year Nelis had beaten him at the first ever Finn Gold Cup in Burnham on Crouch.
Two year later the 1958 Finn Gold Cup was held in Zeebrugge, Belgium in very strong tides and a mixture of wind conditions. Nelis was leading up until the final race, but after a shaky start, Elvstrøm won the last three races and with Nelis failing to finish the final race in very light winds and a strong tide, Elvstrøm had won his first Finn world title.
The following year he took the Finn Gold Cup to his home waters, and organised the world championship in the waters off his house in Hellerup. 119 Finns turned up and Elvstrøm dominated, winning the practice race and four of the six races, and comfortably retaining the Cup. He was said to be angry he had not won all the races. He famously kicked in his rear tank to get to the rudder fittings. The boat was no more than a tool, but he also said he used to talk to it during races when he became nervous, as much to encourage himself as anything else.
Early in 1960 his beloved Finn was lost on a German autobahn after a car crash that nearly cost the life of his wife, Anne. For a week he wanted to give up sailing, but Anne slowly recovered and after a week he was back to normal again. The remains of Bes were taken home and burnt.
After his win in Melbourne in mainly strong winds, he knew it wouldn’t be so easy in Naples, which was expected to be light, so he wouldn’t be able to use his strength and fitness to win. So he lost weight and skipped the Finn Gold Cup to focus on his preparations.
He did go to the 1960 Finn European Championship, the only Finn Europeans he ever competed in, and won that. Later that year he won his third Olympic Gold medal in the Finn in Naples. He had already won the gold medal after the sixth race, but his nerves had become so bad by this point, from the constant pressure of winning, that he didn’t even start the final race.
In winning his fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal, he set a record in sailing that stood for another 52 years. His goal of winning six gold medals never happened. He watched the 1964 Olympics from a motorboat, and then returned to sail in other classes in four more Olympics, narrowly missing medal in two of them. He won 11 more world championships in seven other classes over the coming years, but it was the Finn that had defined the sailor he had become.
He came back to the class twice more. In 1969 the Finn Gold Cup was held in Bermuda and Elvstrøm was so attracted by the idea, he entered at the age of 41, finishing 12th against a field of 132 sailors.
Then at the age of 70, he unexpectedly bought two new Finns from Devoti Sailing so he and his 1950's training partner, Børge Schwartz, could once again sail together on the waters off Hellerup. It was a short lived fling, but rumours were soon rife that he was in training for the 2000 Finn World Masters in Weymouth. Now that would have been something, but it was only a rumour, and a year later he had to sell the boat because of knee problems.
Paul Elvstrøm is probably listed in more halls of fame and more honours lists than any other sailor. He was in the Finn class Hall of Fame since its inception. His death on Wednesday 7, December 2016, at his home overlooking the Øresund in Hellerup, closes a huge chapter in sailing.
But it is not the end. His legacy is huge. Sails bearing his name will long be made and used worldwide. Almost all dinghy sailors use the self-bailer he designed, the toe strap, the life vest. His books remain essential reading. Through direct contact or by his influence, he has encouraged thousands and thousands of people to take up sailing, and to try and sail better.
He was a true pioneer of his time and redefined the sport of sailing. His training methods became the model that everyone followed; his ideas and innovations will have an influence on sailors for many years to come. Paul Elvstrøm’s impact on sailing cannot be measured; it can just be appreciated and valued.
RIP Paul Bert Elvstrøm – February 25, 1928 to December 7, 2016