Hans Fogh - Remembering Canada’s Great Sailor and Sailing’s Great Friend

By Andy Adams

Hans M. Fogh was born March 8, 1938 and on March 14, 2014, Canada lost a great sailor, while the world of competitive sailing lost a great friend.

Many people know that Hans Fogh was an Olympic medal winning sailor but he was far more than just that. We at Canadian Yachting have been deeply touched by his life as our leader, John Kerr, was Fogh’s long-time sailing partner and close friend. We are anxious to share with our readers, a review of the many and very significant accomplishments Fogh achieved during his lifetime. It is an impressive legacy indeed and one that may well have touched you, even if you didn’t know Hans Fogh personally.

You probably do know he was an Olympic Medal winning sailor for Canada, but you might not have known that Hans Fogh had also been an Olympic Medal winner for Denmark, his homeland.

Part of his success in life began with his association with the legendary Danish sailor and sail maker, Paul Elvstrom. He learned sailing and sail making from Elvstrom but it was Hans’ generosity and honesty that won so many friends throughout the years. You might say that he had a personality that seemed to embody the founding Olympic ideals. If you like a little competitive sailing yourself, there’s a good chance that you, or someone you know, knew Hans Fogh.

What you also might not know is how Hans Fogh came to Canada. That’s a good story and an amusing one.

To best organize the life of Hans Fogh, we should start in Denmark. Hans was born in Rødovre, Denmark, near Copenhagen. Hans grew up in a family of gardeners and was expected to take over the family business. We learned that Hans did not like school and left at the age of 14. As a young man, he had an uncle who had a place on the water with a rowboat and it seems Hans was taken with that. He would raise an oar with a bedsheet attached and pretend he was sailing.

He bean sailing in about the mid-1950s when he was perhaps 16 or 17, and won his first competition in a Pirat Dinghy. Hans was also spending time at the little Hellerup Yacht Club where Paul Elvstrom was a member. He took his old sails to Paul Elvstrom and Elvstrom made him new sails to take into competition.

Hans won the Danish Championship and with that, began his life-long sailing and racing career, Elvstrom coaching and teaching as he went.

We should interject here that when we interviewed former ISAF President Paul Henderson who is an engineer, Henderson said that Hans was gifted in spatial geometry; he could think and envision physical objects like a sail, in 3D, helping him to understand how that sail would perform. Henderson said Hans was brilliant at this.

Clearly, Elvstrom was coaching a naturally talented young sailor and sail maker. Just a short time later in 1960, Hans sailed in the Rome Olympics and won a Silver Medal for Denmark, while Elvstrom won Gold.

Kerr remarked when we interviewed him, that the Hellerup Yacht Club has more Olympic Medal winners on display than almost any yacht club!

During his racing career, Hellerup member Paul Elvstrom competed in eight Olympic Games from 1948 to 1988, and he became one of only four persons ever to win four consecutive individual Gold Medals; 1948, 1952, 1956 and in 1960. Elvstrom won the first time in a Firefly and then subsequently sailing in the Finn Class.

In addition to his Olympic wins, Elvstrom won world championships eleven times in eight different types of boat, including Snipe, Soling, Star, Flying Dutchman and Finn. You can imagine what the Hellerup trophy room looks like!

It is no small coincidence that the Hellerup Yacht Club was run by Kirsten Fogh’s parents, so now we know how Hans met his future bride!

We will expand more on Hans Fogh’s many sailing victories but first, we have to address the obvious question; why would an Olympic medal winning young sailor leave his homeland and his by-then successful career as a sail maker working with the legendary Paul Elvstrom, to come to Canada?
The story of why and how Hans Fogh came to Canada is best told by the man most responsible for bringing him to Canada, Paul Henderson. When we spoke to Henderson he told us that it was a challenge. Hans Fogh was already a hero in Denmark and working with Elvstrom was an amazing experience.

Some years ago, Hans Fogh told me in person, that he believed Paul Elvstrom was the greatest sailor ever and a man he had always greatly admired.

But Paul Henderson was a man on a mission. A successful competitive sailor himself and deeply involved in sailing generally, Henderson knew that Canada did not have a sail maker of Hans Fogh’s skill.

Leading a group that included Roger Green and Doug Keary they approached the young sailor that they had now gotten to know through international competitive sailing and who was both the skilled sail maker they needed in Canada and also a gentleman of great integrity - Hans Fogh.

From his book “The Pope On Sailing” we quote Paul Henderson...

...”While we were in Italy 1965, Roger Green and I had a long talk with the well-known Danish sailor Hans Fogh and his wife Kirsten, about immigrating to Canada. In 1960, Hans had won a silver medal at the Rome Olympics in Naples. He was an accomplished sail maker, the kind of craftsmen we sorely needed in Toronto. In those days, Canadians had to buy most of their racing sails from the USA. Many of us smuggled the sails into Canada because of oppressive import duties. Every so often, the RCMP would show up demanding payment.

Hans had learned his sailing and sail making skills from Paul “the great Dane” Elvstrom, who had won gold medals in 4 straight Olympics in the single-handed Finn Class.

Packing everything up and moving to Canada was not easy for Hans, as he was a sailing icon in Denmark, but he wanted to be his own man and Kirsten was pushing him to go. It took a couple of years to convince him, but we kept at it. Hans came to Toronto in January, 1969. Kirsten and their son Morten followed in March. When we went to see an immigration officer, the conversation went like this:

“Mr. Fogh, you want to come to Canada? What job will you do to support yourself?”

“I am a sailmaker,” Hans replied nervously.

“SALE MAKER,” spelled the officer thumbing through his large manual. “We have no category for that”.

“SAIL MAKER,” I immediately spelled out as Hans speaks no known language.

“SAIL MAKER,” spelled out the officer. “Canada has no need for that trade either”

Thinking quickly and realizing that the Canadian bureaucracy was at work here, I butted in, “Mr. Fogh apprenticed as a gardener”.

“GARDNER,” he again looked up. “Oh yes, Mr. Fogh, Canada has a need for gardeners.”

Over the ensuing years, Henderson joked that he still called Hans Fogh a gardener. But he is quick to add that after leaving Denmark to start his business here, Hans Fogh single-handedly reversed the trend of Canadians importing sails from the USA. He eventually grew his company to more than 60 employees.

We also have to pause on Henderson’s comment that, “... Hans speaks no known language.”

Close friends know that Hans combined some of his Danish words and expressions with English, delivered with a unique accent and also with both cutting common sense and an undertone of humour as well. Some say he spoke “Danelish” but whatever it was, his language was as unique and memorable as he was.

After a lifetime of competitive sailing at the highest International levels, and with the social side of the regattas that always followed, the stories, jokes and anecdotes around Hans Fogh’s life could and should fill a book. But, we should continue with Paul Henderson for a little longer.

Also from his book, Paul Henderson introduced the important point that Hans Fogh was generous about boats and sailing. Henderson wrote, “In 1969, Hans gave me one of his Flying Dutchman dinghies to sail in the North American championship. He did not like it himself because while it was fine on starboard tack, he found it to be very slow on port. I checked the whole boat out because I found the same thing. When I took out the aluminum centre board it was easy see the problem - one side was not properly curved. I installed the new centre board and sailed the boat to victory with Richard Zimmerman in Toledo, Ohio at the North American Flying Dutchman championship. Hans borrowed it back and won the Flying Dutchman World Championship in Rochester, New York the next year.”

Throughout his life, Hans was always a keen competitor, but was clearly motivated by the science and art of sailing as well. The stories abound about Hans talking to his competitors about the race, their performance and coaching them on how to do better. He was never one to keep secrets and he was almost never known to lodge a protest.

When Hans won, it was a clear and clean win.

Lending a boat, sharing his knowledge and supporting everyone who asked his help was the way Hans Fogh went through life. When I interviewed him for this article, Paul Henderson said, “Hans was the most honest sailor we ever raced against. He’d help you with your sail trim. He was a lot like Buddy Melges - the same kind of small town, hard working guy and the best in the world. Everyone trusted him.”

Paul Henderson shared an anecdote that on one occasion Hans made a sail for an 8-Meter. Henderson told me, “The performance was disappointing. One of the competitors told the boat owner, don’t buy a sail from a dinghy sailor. Well, Hans understood the problem, took the sail back and worked all night to get it fixed. That was the value of having a sail maker in Toronto.”

Kerr summed it up best when he told me, “Hans made us all better sailors and better competitors.”

No wonder Paul Henderson and his friends were so keen to have Hans in Canada; and Kirsten was the pressure point. She encouraged him to let his talents shine. So, this came together in January 1969 when Hans arrived in Canada. Henderson and friends had made it easy. There was a loft already set up in Toronto’s West end and they had arranged a place for Hans to stay. There was even a book of orders waiting!

Their reward was to have Hans Fogh making sails here. Henderson’s group of sponsors asked nothing more in return, but sailing and Canada both got a great boost.

When Hans Fogh first came to Canada, the loft was named Elvstrom Canada. Later that changed to Fogh Sails and after many years, Hans sold out to North Sails and the name changed to North Sails / Fogh and finally to North Sails.

Henderson told us, “This started a whole industry. Before Hans Fogh came to Canada, Tom Taylor was a good chandlery, but there was no one else who would take on the big US lofts. Having pioneered his own loft, other sail makers came; Hans proved you can now run a successful business here. He was the pioneer.”

The demographics were favourable for sailing at that time and so were the economic conditions. Canada, and especially the greater Toronto area became a very hot sailing market. George Cuthbertson and George Cassian founded C&C Yachts in nearby Niagara On The Lake. That company went on to be the biggest builder of 25’ to 50’ sailboats in the world for quite some time.

CS Yachts and Whitby were building boats. Many other builders began building at that time in the GTA and they all needed sails. Racing, especially friendly club racing was booming and everyone benefitted.

Then came the boat that changed everything - The Laser.

The Laser was first envisioned by Bruce Kirby as a cottage sailboat and Kirby designed the hull. He turned to Ian Bruce, a sailor and talented industrial designer who developed the fittings and hardware and Hans Fogh who developed the sail.

The Laser was a rocket - an affordable but exciting high performance dinghy that could challenge the talents of any sailor. In fact it was too much for most women and recreational sailors and so Hans developed the Laser Radial version with a less powerful sail plan.

The Laser became the most successful sailing dinghy in history, an Olympic class boat and hugely popular club racer with active classes racing all over the globe.

Things were really exciting at Elvstrom Sails and it is no surprise that other competitive sailors were attracted to the loft. John Kerr, in his Eulogy at Hans Fogh’s Funeral told the story of how they came to be team mates, partners and lifelong friends.

Kerr said, “In the 1960’s my father gave me a book ‘Paul Elvstrom speaks on Yacht Racing’ and I devoured it, and in that book was a continued reference to this guy named Hans Fogh, fresh off a silver medal in Rome sailing with Ole Gunner Peterson.

At that time in my life I studied anything sailing and followed the likes of Paul Henderson, Skip Lennox, Johnnie Eastwood, Ed Botterell, Lynn Waters and Bruce Kirby, Dave Miller, Paul Cote, and I knew them all, but the mystique of the Danes with their four time gold medal winner Elvstrom and his protégée Hans Fogh, got my attention. Wow I thought, it would be cool to meet those guys. You see they set the bar back then; they trained and trained and trained and sailed, and trained and raced and practiced hard.

My first encounter was a brief ‘hello’ in the first weeks the new Elvstrom Loft was open on Pelham after Paul Henderson had lured Fogh, his wife Kirsten and baby Morten to Canada. As a young sailing instructor on a day where we had not a breath of wind, I used the fact we needed some battens to trek to the new loft on the oft side chance I could meet Hans Fogh. He was gracious and nice and welcoming, even though I only spent a few bucks. 

The next year I found myself upwind at the Laser North Americans on Lake Geneva….Imagine…. me on starboard tack approaching a weather mark and Fogh not able to cross me on port … I wanted to keep my course as the boats on the left side always gained so I let him cross. He looked back nodded as thanks.”

Later on shore the two managed to connect, Kerr in his Toronto Maple Leaf sweater and Fogh in his Danish Olympic team blazer, standing beside the Great Buddy Melges, also in his US Olympic gear.  Fogh recognized Kerr as being the Canadian who had let him cross in front and commented on the fact.  Laughs were exchanged and a friendship was born.

A call from Dennis Toews brought Hans and Kerr together again one cold April day in Toronto. Hans and Dennis were recruiting a new foredeck guy for the Soling. Kerr arrived in his Toronto Maple Leafs hockey sweater and with very little foul weather gear. They sailed for hours.

Kerr said that was forty one years ago. They have been team mates and partners ever since. In 1984, Hans Fogh, sailing in Soling Class with Steve Calder and Kerr, won Bronze Medals at the Olympics in Los Angeles.

Along the way they connected with other keen sailors like Dennis Toews, Paul Davis, Pol Ricard Jensen, Stevie Calder, and Thomas Fogh and most recently Hans’ Godson the younger Johnnie Kerr.

Hans Fogh used to laugh about sailing with two Kerr’s in his boat, “It’s like stereo upwind he would say.”

John Kerr told us, “Johnnie and I sailed the last race Hans sailed. It was our best of the series and we were in the game throughout. It was vintage Fogh from a solid start, contact upwind, to brilliant downwind gybing, there was a good feeling and great rhythm. But so typical of Hans, I watched from the foredeck as the Etchells crossed the finish line, “Magoo” he said, patting my son on his shoulder “Nice job downwind - you did well.”  Always quietly coaching, guiding and teaching.”

As Kerr said about his own life-long relationship with him, “Hans Fogh took a young Canadian and taught him how to be an Olympian.”

Hans Fogh passed away from Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease on March 14, 2014 in Toronto. This extremely rare and deadly disease meant a swift end to his remarkable life.

Hans has had one of the most exemplary competitive sailing careers ever, winning numerous Worlds, European and National titles in several classes including the Soling, Finn, Flying Dutchman, Star and Etchells.

Hans enjoyed sharing his sailing with his family. He was able to coach his sons as they entered the sport, then shared the 1984 Olympics with his oldest son Morten and was able to compete in two Olympic trials with his youngest son Thomas. Hans was most joyful helping his five grandchildren learn to sail.

A six-time Olympian, he won his first Olympic Silver Medal with Ole Erik Gunnar Peterson in Rome in 1960 for his native Denmark. In 1984, 24 years later, he won a Bronze Medal in Los Angeles, representing Canada with crew John Kerr and Steve Calder.

Recognizing Hans Fogh’s contribution to the sport of sailing, he has been inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, Canadian Amateur Sports Hall of Fame,  Etobicoke Sports Hall of Fame and the National Marine Manufacturer’s Association Canada Hall of Fame, including a number of other awards he has received over the years. 

Both his sons Morten and Thomas also have worked in the marine industry. Morten continues to operate Fogh Marine in Etobicoke and he recently purchased “The Store – Mason’s Chandlery” in Port Credit.

Hans leaves Kirsten, his beloved wife and safe harbour for 49 years, his two sons, Morten (Debbie) and Thomas (Andrea) and his darling grandchildren, Sarah, Curtis, Marcus, Kaia and Lucas with whom he spent many joyful hours as “Farfar” attending their numerous special events. Hans is also survived by his family in Denmark, brother Jens Christian, sisters Gitte (Esben) and Annegrette (Christian). Hans leaves behind a niece in Canada, Pia (Danny) daughter of his late sister Inger (John Eastwood).

Hans Fogh was a world class sailor and human being. His contributions to the Canadian and International sailing community and to the personal and professional relationships he cultivated have most certainly left the world a better place and he will be extraordinarily missed.

Some of our readers may be moved to consider a donation to the Hans Fogh Endowment Fund, administered by Ontario Sailing (www.ontariosailing.ca).


Photo 1: 
Crossing the finish line to win the Bronze Medal - 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

Photo 2:
Hans Fogh, Steve Calder, John Kerr pre-Olympics in Los Angeles, 1983.

Photo 3:
Canadian 1984 Sailing  Medalists – Bronze Medal Soling Hans Fogh, John Kerr, Steve Calder: Silver Medal Flying Dutchman Terry McLaughlin, Evert Bastet,: Bronze Medal Finn Terry Neilson.

Photo 4:
Racing at the Port Credit Yacht Club - Summer 2013.

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