A Toast to Paul Elvstrom: 1928-2016

Very sadly, albeit inevitably, we’ve lost perhaps the greatest racing sailor of all time – the “Great Dane,’ Paul Elvstrøm.

Paul Elvstrøm 1960b.jpg
‘The Great Dane,’ Paul Elvstrøm, in the 1960 Olympics in Rome. He’s in a Finn dinghy – the world’s hardest boat to sail. Period.  I think this photo represents him so well – a casual, relaxed focus on perfection.

(Ed. note: Some of this post was copied from an earlier one on this site, but Elvstrom’s stats bear repeating.)

Paul Bert Elvstrøm was arguably the most successful sailor in racing history, with an impact and legacy that, in this author’s humble opinion, is under-appreciated today.  He passed away in his sleep at the age of 88 in his homeland of Denmark.

A very young Elvstrøm, who was rarely without a genuine smile on his face by most accounts.
  • Sailed in 8 Olympiads
  • Won Gold Medals in 4 consecutive Olympiads, a feat duplicated by only 3 other athletes, including Ben Ainslie and Carl Lewis;
  • Medaled (1st, 2nd or 3rd) in 11 World Championships;
  • Did all this in 9 different classes of boat, running the full gamut: singlehanded dinghies, double handed dinghies, 2-man keelboats, 3-man keelboats, and catamarans.  Only thing he didn’t do was sailboards which became popular too late in his career.

Here is a list of racing classes he did all this in:

  • Firefly (singlehanded dinghy)
  • Finn (singlehanded dinshy)
  • Snipe (doublehanded dinghy)
  • 505 (doublehanded dinghy)
  • Flying Dutchman (doublehanded beast of a dinghy/boardboat)
  • Star (doublehanded keelboat)
  • 5.5 Metre (3-man keelboat)
  • Soling* (3-man keelboat)
  • Tornado (doublehanded catamaran)

*The Soling was commonly used in adult sailing school programs for a long time, including our family’s first school.

Elvstrøm and his teenaged daughter, Trine, on the technical and athletic Tornado Catamaran. They just missed the Bronze Medal sailing the Tornado in the 1984 Olympics, finishing fourth. Argh; so close…

On top of all that, he just missed an Olympic bronze medal by one place in the Tornado class catamaran in his 50’s with his teen daughter, Trine, crewing for him.  He also victored in numerous Pan-European Championships, including in the Dragon class keelboat which was very competitive back in the day.

“P-6: Proper Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance.” – Elvstrøm. (That’s supposed to be P to the 6th power, but can’t find a superscript function so sue me.)

On and off the race course, Elvstrøm was developmental in many ways., ranging from sail and spar design and manufacturing to improvements in components (such as self bailing mechanisms), training techniques (his ground breaking hiking bench), and race organization (such as using gates, or two marks to pass between, for large fleets).  He wrote a few books too including Expert Dingy and Keelboat Racing.

Elvstrøm Sails, which he founded in the 50’s and sold in ’76, is one of the oldest sailmaking lofts in the world.  Elvstrøm sails are competitive on the race course, of course, but they also manufacture for cruising.  They’re often found on charter boats in the Caribbean and Mediterranean.  We love it when we board a boat, hoist the main, and BAM… there’s the Elvstrom king’s crown logo.ELVSTROM_LOGO

“And what’s all this with people screaming, ‘Starboard?’  The man on port is not stupid.  He knows you are there.” – slight paraphrase of an Elvstrøm rant in one of his excellent books, but a clear example of his philosophy on respectful competition.

This author is grateful for the incredible talent and expertise of the indomitable Great Dane, Paul Elvstrøm, and how he tried to share it with the rest of the sailing world.  May you rest as happily and peacefully as you lived.


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