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OLD HAND : To Elvstrom, Sailing Is Worth Gold, Not 12-Meter Glitz

August 26, 1988|RICH ROBERTS | Times Staff Writer

Paul Elvstrom and Dennis Conner both will be sailing catamarans next month, but that's about all they have in common.

The world's two best-known sailors remain an ocean apart, in philosophy as well as geography.

While Conner is defending the America's Cup against New Zealand, Elvstrom will be at Pusan, South Korea, preparing to compete in his eighth--and last, he says--Olympics.

Elvstrom, of Denmark, finds the America's Cup boring, considers a race between a catamaran and a monohull a joke and has no taste for the politics or the glitz that go with America's Cup sailing.

Even his enthusiasm for Olympic competition has ebbed. One of Denmark's national treasures, he has won four gold medals. But now, at 60, his competitive fires burn low.

"I would like to race well because it will be my last Olympics," he said from Copenhagen. "That's for sure. But I'm not so optimistic. I'm working hard, but I have not proved to be fast this year. I would like to have the answer."

Then, with a sigh, he added that he thinks he knows the answer.

"I really feel I'm 60 years old," Elvstrom said. "And it's the toughest, fastest class I'm in, where you need power and fast reactions. And there I feel I'm too old."

After sitting out the 1976 and '80 Games, Elvstrom started sailing a catamaran for fun and got excited about competing again. He returned at Long Beach in '84 to sail a Tornado with his youngest daughter, 26-year-old Trine.

If they had placed fourth instead of fifth in the final race, they would have won the bronze medal. But he claims that near miss never bothered him.

"No, never," he said. "We had a good time."

Now, he has no desire even to switch to a class less physically demanding.

"I've done all the other classes, and it doesn't interest me," he said. "I cannot do what I did 20 or 30 years ago."

How about 40?

Elvstrom won the first of his four straight golds in the Finn class at the London Olympics in '48, taking the last two races to beat out Ralph Evans of the United States.

At Tokyo in '64 he semi-retired to be the Danes' coach and alternate. "I didn't want to compete, but I felt it was worse to watch."

So he returned in a two-man Star at Acapulco in '68, placing fourth, and brought a three-man Soling to Kiel in '72, only to succumb to the pressures of his foundering boat and sail-making businesses at home and the aggressive hounding of his rivals on the water.

"I had a nervous breakdown," he said.

He also packed up his boat and went home.

Then followed his one, bitter America's Cup experience with the French ballpoint pen tycoon, Baron Bich, who blamed Elvstrom when the 12-meter, France, sank in a North Sea gale. Bich also had not approved of Elvstrom's hiring an all-Scandinavian crew to sail a French boat.

Elvstrom maintained that mixing in French crewmen "wouldn't be a good team because of the language problem."

But Bich also kept getting reports that Elvstrom would suffer Capt. Queeg-type breakdowns under pressure. He turned the boat over to French skipper Jean-Marie le Guillou, who had been Elvstrom's foremost antagonist at Kiel.

It may say something about Elvstrom that his greatest success has been achieved in small boats, with few or none in his crew--in recent years, only his daughter--to deal with.

"I'm not fond of 12-meters," he said. "It's an old design. I hope the America's Cup will go to catamarans. I really hope that, because I found the 12-meters so old and slow and heavy, and too many people on board.

"I would also like to see the America's Cup change to a three-boat, all-team racing--two teams, three boats on each team. A match race for two boats is, for me, boring, very boring."

The nearest the paths of Elvstrom and Conner have come to crossing in recent years was at Fremantle, Australia, during the '86-'87 America's Cup regatta. Elvstrom was there to compete in the Australian national Tornado championships.

"I said to Trine, 'Let's go out and watch the 12-meters.' We were in the middle of the two races. I know where to stay without disturbing anyone, and when I came out, a power boat was sailing after me and I could see it was the police boat. So I beared off to a close reach, so he couldn't catch me. Then I saw in the newspaper the next day that I could have a fine of $50,000."

Elvstrom was not fined, nor did he indicate any further interest in the event.

"It doesn't interest me," he said. "The competition is not hard enough. The hard competition is in the Olympic classes. The 12-meter, that's a big show, just a big show. You need a lot of money. Who can afford and organize all this?

"It's just different companies fighting against each other, and they do it not in the sporting way. They try to keep top secret what they are doing, and that's not the way real yachtsmen are sailing. We like to be open and have good competition in one-design classes (in which) the chap who is best on the water will be the winner, not (who is best) on a designing board."

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