The bay of Naples is a long, lazy arc of blue water, bluer sky and white clouds, punctuated by the romantic silhouettes of Vesuvius, Capri and Ischia. Each day southwesterly breezes are likely to waft in from the open Mediterranean, forming one of the best—as well as most theatrically beautiful—sailing areas in the world. A fortnight ago, on the battlements of ancient Castel dell'Ovo above the harbor, the Olympic flame burned as 138 yachts representing 35 nations crowded the bay to compete for the five gold sailing medals.
The earliest impression I had from watching the races was amazement at the progress Russia had made in yachting within the past decade. At Helsinki in 1952 they had been hopelessly outclassed—"so everybody laughed at us when we got home," in the words of the Soviet team manager. Four years later, in Australia, they were only somewhat improved. But at Naples, a Moscow draftsman named Timir Pinegin, sailing Tornado in the Star class, led off the very first day by running away from the fleet. His victory was startling not only because the class is the oldest, and one of the largest, most keenly contested afloat, but also because the Olympic field included three former world champions. Pinegin, however, was un-awed by the competition. On the ensuing days he proceeded to add two firsts and a second to his score. Meanwhile teammates were doing well in Flying Dutchmen and Finn dinghies.
The United States was on top only in the 5.5-meter class. Minotaur, sailed by former North American champion George O'Day, finished one, two, three, four in the first series of races. Designed by Ray Hunt, Minotaur was clearly the fastest yacht in her field, displacing the design supremacy in this class of Einer Ohlson of Sweden. On first seeing Minotaur out of water, Ohlson is reported to have commented, "One of us must be crazy,"—famous last words reminiscent of the controversy on design that crackled around Columbia and Sceptre before the America's Cup.
After the first four Olympic races there was a weekend lull in the sailing schedule, but not in sailing conversation. The talk centered around performances in the early races, and also the different Olympic yachting programs—or lack of them—among the various nations represented at Naples. It was pointed out that Russia had bought 800 Finn dinghies from builders in Holland, Denmark and other nations within two years. In addition, they had engaged in extensive domestic construction. Large fleets of Stars, Dragons and Flying Dutchmen—all Olympic classes—were rumored to have come into being. In the 5.5-meters, the sail numbers, indicative of the total boats which a country has active in any class, told a clear story. The yacht representing Sweden was No. 29, Great Britain No. 10, Germany No. 7, the United States No. 26. The Soviet craft was No. 89.
September 25, 1960
There were other stories of sail training centers and squadrons concentrating on Olympic classes all over Russia. Nor was time lacking to practice. Pinegin was reputed by one source "to sail nine months a year on the water and three on the ice." Further, the Russians were willing to swallow national pride in pursuit of Olympic performance, as demonstrated by Tornado, the Soviet Star boat, which was built in the United States by Skip Etchells of Old Greenwich, Conn, and used sails cut by Lowell North of California.
On the other hand, American yachtsmen pointed out that in the U.S., not only was there no national program to encourage Olympic classes, but there were weaknesses in the system of selection as well. Trials held in June did not allow crews to prepare further, because of shipping schedules; and there is no sponsorship or financial backing for international competition once the selections have been made.
One means of improving the U.S. program was suggested by Bob Bavier, the only American member of the international Olympic jury at Naples. He thought that trials for selection should be held a year before the Games. This would leave the remainder of the summer and fall to perfect crew, boat and sails in further home competition, and there would still be plenty of time for international warmups the following spring before the big event. Ray Hunt, thinking also of continuous practice, proposed that boats be transported by air, eliminating the loss of time involved on shipping by sea.
When the fleet reconvened after the weekend for the final three days of racing, Pinegin of Russia ran out the Star series to win comfortably, with Bill Parks of Chicago getting the bronze. George O'Day and Minotaur continued to improve, taking the last race—and the gold medal—by a good margin. As the Olympic regatta neared its close, however, it became obvious that sailing is still a sport for individuals. For the bulk of the medals went to smaller nations, without enormous fleets or means to transport and support athletes. From Norway had come 18-year-old Peder Lunde Jr., paying his own expenses, to enter in the Flying Dutchman class. Scion of a yachting family—his grandfather had won a gold medal at Le Havre in 1924 and his father a silver at Helsinki in 1952—young Peder had begun sailing a Flying Dutchman only a year ago. The entire Norwegian fleet consists of exactly two boats. Nevertheless, after intensive practice and some first-class international competition this summer at Marstrand, Sweden and other European regattas, he was good enough to beat the best at Naples.
In Dragons, His Royal Highness Crown Prince Constantine of Greece worked steadily toward a gold medal in a battle with Argentina and Italy, bitter rivals who finished behind him in that order. During the series the Prince, a personable young man of 20, displayed excellent helmsmanship and tactical judgment, even though there is nothing in Greece resembling a program. After clinching his victory he was tossed into Santa Lucia harbor by his gleeful crew, while papa and mama, the King and Queen, beamed proudly from the quay.
But the outstanding sailor and personality of the 1960 Olympic regatta was 32-year-old Paul Elvstrom of Denmark, who performed the incredible feat of winning a fourth consecutive gold medal in the dinghy class. First at Torquay in 1948, at Helsinki in 1952 and at Melbourne in 1956, he began the Olympic series by winning his first race against a fleet of 35 boats. After that he was never headed. In fact, his score was so great after six races that it was not even necessary for him to appear for the seventh, a fortunate circumstance since he had been sick before and during his last victory, not sleeping the night before, and sailing the course on "a cup of tea and three bananas."
Elvstrom, a crew-cut blond bear of a man with a flashing white grin, has always-had his own individualistic way of doing things, both in yachting and in his business career. While still a boy he apprenticed as a stone mason. At 19 he formed a contracting firm to build houses, and the firm has grown and prospered. Recently he has expanded into sailmaking, with lofts at Copenhagen and Cannes.
A sailor since childhood, Elvstrom decided early in his competitive career that physical fitness was the key to success in a one-man boat. And indeed it is. Keeping an unballasted dinghy on her bottom in all conditions, preventing her from overturning to windward or to leeward in a seaway is more than sailing—it is an acrobatic maneuver requiring lightning reactions and iron stamina.
"I made myself strong by training and practice," he told me after the last race, propped on pillows in his hotel room. Above the sheet were shoulders and arms like a pole vaulter's and enormous hands. From beneath the covers he thrust a tremendously muscled leg. "For four years after Torquay I worked for strength and stamina. Then I didn't have to think of balance—how you say?—reflexes? Only of tactics and keeping the boat always moving her fastest. I built in my cellar a wooden machine like a dinghy with toe straps. All winter I stay there many hours after work, sitting out to strengthen my legs. All summer I sail whenever possible."
The Elvstrom method of rigidly holding the entire body outboard, hips and shoulders parallel to and almost touching the water, has been widely copied but never quite mastered by rivals. In heavy weather, he dons six sweaters and jumps overboard before the start, soaking up enough water to add 35 pounds to his torso weight.
The feat of winning the fourth gold medal was more impressive because Elvstrom was not sailing his own perfectly tuned boat. The Finn dinghies used at Naples were built by the Italian Olympic Committee and drawn by lot. Elvstrom's had a mast that seemed too limber. "I told the committee why you give me a spaghetti for a mast, and they tell me go use what I draw, so I did. It turns out not so bad."