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A conversation with Olin Stephens

Two years from his 100th birthday, the legendary yacht designer talks about his long, illustrious career

It is safe to say that Olin Stephens has defined and influenced modern yacht design like no one else. His Sparkman & Stephens design firm was synonymous with successful, often elegant boats, and there are few trophies in the world of competitive sailing that haven’t been won by the dedicated, rich and famous owners of S&S-designed vessels.


Among the prominent events they have won are the America’s Cup, Admiral’s Cup, and Fastnet and Transatlantic races.

When he was still in his 20s Stephens brought a new level of science to yacht design with the tank-testing of scale models, but he didn’t stop there. He later took to computerized velocity prediction programs that were initiated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Pratt Project in the 1970s, and now are the Alpha and Omega of modern, competitive yacht design.

Although he retired soon after, he remained involved in the affairs of his craft, helping to define rules and making the sport more exciting while remaining a staunch advocate for safety. “To finish first, you first have to finish,” remained his motto, something that seems to have gotten lost in today’s frenzied drive for the record books. His success and knowledge have earned him universal respect and still keep him busy — at age 98 — with speaking engagements and honorary functions at international industry gatherings and prominent sailing events.


Today, Olin Stephens lives in a retirement community near Hanover, N.H., on the banks of the Connecticut River, in a comfortable and tastefully appointed three-bedroom apartment decorated with countless mementoes from his distinguished career. He still travels with regularity, but even when he’s home he doesn’t sit still. He likes taking the bus to town, where he shops for fresh seafood and veggies at an organic food cooperative in the company of college kids who wear flip-flops and backward baseball caps as a uniform.

Every other Wednesday he meets for lunch with Dartmouth College professor Hans Richter, who helps sailmakers and high-profile racing teams with computerized fluid dynamics. Once a semester, Richter invites Stephens, who ditched MIT so he could design boats, to talk about the history of yacht design to students who take Technology of Sailing at the Thayer School of Engineering. And in 1999 he published his autobiography “All This and Sailing Too” (Mystic Seaport Museum, ), a personal history of himself and his brother Rod.

Despite his success and fame, Olin Stephens has remained a humble, unpretentious and generous man with a great sense of humor and a sharp wit. He recently made time to talk with Soundings about his life and his boats. The conversation covered many topics and includes his thoughts on the state of modern yacht design, which he does not want to be understood as dogma. They carry the authority they do because they are based on personal experience and the observations of a man who knows more about this topic than anyone alive today.

You grew up in New York, but where did you learn to sail?

I started sailing when the family went on summer vacations to Sandy Neck on Cape Cod [Mass.], where we sailed our boat Corker, which was like a dinghy but heavier and just big enough so my father, my brother, Rod, and I could go out together. I always grabbed the helm, but it didn’t matter much. All three of us had no clue, so our method of learning was by trial and error. However, I will always remember the magic of our first trip, with the power of the sails that made the boat move forward, the small wake and the slight heel. Later, after Father had returned from service in World War I, we began to take our vacations in Edgartown [Mass.] on Martha’s Vineyard, where the sailing scene was more formal and organized. It was quite a contrast to the remoteness of our rented fishing cottage at Sandy Neck, which we all loved. But Rod and I were confident that the time in Edgartown would help us become better sailors.

Whom did you look up to?

There were a few important influences and supporters, but perhaps nobody more so than John Alden. He was a fantastic seaman, an offshore sailor, and the man I wanted to beat. I remember one day after he’d just won the Bermuda Race with his schooner Malabar IV, he dropped the hook in our harbor. I had a small sailing dinghy and sailed circles around his vessel, waving to him while telling him what a beautiful boat he had. I was hoping for an invitation on board that never came. A few years later I sailed with him to Bermuda on Malabar IX and some inshore races in Marblehead [Mass.] on his Q-Class.

But there were others, too, like Sherman Hoyt, who helped me get a small job at Henry Gielow’s office drawing accommodation plans of brokerage boats that were sent to prospective clients. Two others I like to mention are Clinton Crane, the Brit who designed marvelous 6 Meters at the time, and Briggs Cunningham, whom I raced with often and who later skippered Columbia, one of my boats, in the successful 1958 America’s Cup defense.

What was your first commission?

I was sending plans of my 6 Meters around, and Yachting magazine published them. But what got me going was my future business partner Drake Sparkman. He had sold my father a few smaller boats, and from that he knew that I was eager to try my hand as a designer. After my internships he was daring enough to give an untried hand like me a chance. We worked together informally for a year to see what I could do. If we did OK, we wanted to start a firm. It was early, and Drake had taken a big chance with me, but there was no commitment and no overhead. Of course, he knew a lot of people, especially yacht brokers. He arranged a deal with the Long Island Sound Junior Yacht Racing Association and asked me to come up with a simple, inexpensive but seaworthy boat. Fortunately it worked, and this Long Island Sound Junior Class, which today is still known as the Manhasset Bay One Design, still is quite active, which satisfies me to no end.

How did the early days of sailing on Long Island Sound shape your design philosophy?

Unlike the ULDB [ultralight displacement boat] designs of today that reach incredible speeds off the wind, the best boats of that time had to perform equally well to weather and in light air. This meant long ends, low prismatic coefficient in the voluminous midsection, a good amount of outside ballast, and a balanced hull volume above and below water. I believe my 30-foot daysailer Kalmia was a good example of this thinking.

Did you take these ideas to new extremes with Dorade?

Dorade was much longer, and she was designed to sail offshore races. She was radical in design and construction. I believed in a narrow boat, reduced wetted surface and less resistance when going through waves. Dorade’s length-to-beam ratio was quite similar to the successful 6 Meters, which I loved. I also wanted more righting moment, which necessitated a heavier keel. But to achieve that we had to save weight in the hull, which we did with the City Island construction method that employed light and strong steam-bent frames instead of the massive sawn frames Alden had used on his schooners. At the time, that was unusual because only smaller boats used steam-bent frames. We also used wider spacing of the deck frames, which saved more weight.

But don’t radical boats have issues?

I was young, relatively inexperienced and eager to try new ideas. I thought I had to break with some conventional wisdom to produce winning boats. Dorade was balanced and went through the waves very well, but she was heavier than we had calculated, which gave her more wetted surface but also a longer waterline. Through her narrow beam she was a bit tender and could be wet when she rolled in a seaway. But I was lucky, because her challenges could be fixed and did not ruin her potential.

How did you improve Dorade?

Well, it follows from logic that you can’t change the beam, so you have to reduce rig size, which is exactly what we did after the 1930 Bermuda Race. We didn’t win that one, but that was not Dorade’s fault but due to my erroneous navigation, which put us too far out to sea and forced us to sail a much longer beat to the finish. But she ate up the miles and had fun doing it. It was relatively light and there was some chop, exactly the conditions the boat excelled in. We sailed hard, tacked on the headers, passed several competitors, and finished among the top boats. And we were being noticed for that. So the good impression we made at the end more than made up for the disappointment of not winning.

Then, in 1931 you sailed in the Transatlantic Race to Plymouth and won. Was that the breakthrough for your career?

A lot has been written about that, but to me winning that summer’s Fastnet Race was more important, because Dorade competed against boats of similar or larger size on the same course. We sailed with the same crew, which included my father and Rod, but picked up Briggs Cunningham, who was an excellent buoy racer and helped us make the boat go fast despite being seasick a lot. And we took on a British fellow who was familiar with the fishing business in the Falmouth Channel, which helped our navigation. He knew the ocean but couldn’t believe how long we’d carry the kite, rolling with the breeze toward the Irish coast, doing 10 knots or more. I still smile when I think back.

You had a special relationship with your brother Rod, both privately and in business.

Rod was the man for the details, while I tried to focus on the big picture. He was the better athlete and sailor, and though he was 16 months younger, he was protective of me. He had a college education but still wanted to learn everything there was to learn about boats and the sea. He didn’t mind spending whole days aloft to inspect the rigging. He surveyed our projects with builders around the world. He communicated with our clients, who included Ted Heath, Tom Watson or the Aga Khan, and enjoyed a great deal of respect for his knowledge and abilities. He had the rare talent to get comfortable in any situation, no matter if it was racing an America’s Cupper or working with automotive engineers in Detroit to build a floating truck.

Prior to 1937 you became associated with the America’s Cup, which remained an important part of your career. How did it come about?

It had to do with the 1934 Cup when the J Class Rainbow beat Lipton’s Endeavour, which was considered the better boat at the time. Starling Burgess was in charge of Ranger’s lines, but my contribution was persuading him that tank-testing of small-scale models is valid and a valuable help to finding the best solution among the eight or nine different versions we had.

Ranger was the last and most dominant of the J Class yachts, but she was scrapped during World War II for her metal. Three years ago a replica was launched. How do you feel about that?

The replica turned out to be 40 tons heavier than the original, which made her 4 feet longer on the waterline. So it is really a different boat, and I’m not pleased with it. I’m not against replicas, but if a boat is re-created, it should be in its original spirit.

If the war took the original Ranger, it also brought new business and made S&S a defense contractor.

We participated in design contests for a torpedo boat and a sub chaser. Our torpedo boat design won, and the sub chaser got an honorable mention, but we ended up with the contract for that vessel. Now that’s what I call government logic. Then someone came and asked us to build a triphibian vehicle, and I said we won’t touch anything that has to fly, but we’ll take a shot at an amphibian truck, which could shuttle troops and supplies across the dangerous open stretches of sand in the military’s beach landings. We took a standard GMC 6x6 truck and built a barge body around it. Not only did it have to swim and drive, but there had to be a way to adjust the tire pressure on the fly to negotiate soft sand and hard surfaces.

Even though you had the right idea, it was a hard sell until fate intervened.

We staged a demonstration for government officials in Provincetown [Mass.] when one of the auxiliary submarine patrol boats returned from sea and washed up on one of the sandbars. Rod quickly grabbed a few men and photographer Stanley Rosenfeld and went on to take our swimming truck to rescue the crew. That’s how S&S got the contract for the amphibious DUKW, which became famous as the “Duck.” Thousands were built and proved their usefulness during the war in the Pacific and D-Day in France. Today, some are still used as tourist attractions in U.S. cities.

After the war the 12 Meters became the new America’s Cup class, and S&S contributed some memorable boats. Which one stands out in your recollection?

It started with Columbia in 1958, which was a new boat then but barely able to win the right to defend over Vim, an established 12 Meter that I had designed 20 years before for Harold Vanderbilt. I used to joke that it looked like I hadn’t learned anything in the intervening years. It was often said that Americans had a material advantage in the Cup competition, which I don’t believe to be true necessarily except for 1967, when the U.S. fielded Intrepid, the first 12 Meter that had rudder and keel separated. After that I was involved in Courageous, the first 12 Meter built from aluminum, and Freedom, the boat Dennis Conner used to successfully defend the Cup in 1980. Freedom also was my last design before retiring.

By using model tank tests, you pushed yacht design from the age of educated guesswork toward science. How did your non-racing customers benefit from that?

I’d never call myself a scientist, but working with Kenneth Davidson on model tank tests at the Stevens Institute in New Jersey early on in my career gave me direction and an understanding of what makes a good boat good. It also helped customers gain confidence in a young designer, because they saw that we kept developing our ideas, which made it highly likely that their next boat also would be a better boat.

Late in your career, velocity prediction programs became an important design tool. How did VPP change the game?

The Pratt Project in the 1970s laid the foundations for the computer to predict how changing certain parameters over a range of different wind angles and velocities influences a boat’s performance. VPP builds on the understanding that we have gained about the effects of resistance, heel and the driving forces on a ship’s hull. It has refined the design process and has found a place in rulemaking and rating. Fortunately, neither VPP nor computerized fluid dynamics — another important weapon in the designer’s arsenal — have reached complete perfection. So there is still some mystery left in yacht design.

When you started out, wood was the only building material available. What do you think about today’s construction techniques?

I always said that the revolutions in yacht design started with the new materials that became available: first aluminum, then fiberglass, then other composites. All of a sudden the design possibilities were much less limited. But wood still is wonderful and has advantages that go beyond the romance. A wooden plank bends smoothly between two attachment points, no bumps, no hollows. It smells much better than resin, and it does not transmit sound or temperature like composites do, so the interior of a wooden boat is quiet and cozy. And wood responds extremely well to regular and competent care, which translates into pride of ownership and creates a special bond between owners and boats.

Composite construction opened a new era in boat design and building. How did it affect your business?

We were lucky with a venture in Finland [in the 1960s], where a fellow by the name of Pekka Koskenkylä built one of our one-ton designs for himself. He liked it so much that he turned it into a production boat and founded a company that he named after the country’s national bird, Swan. Later another customer, Ake Lindquist, who worked as a Lloyd’s surveyor, asked Koskenkylä to build a 43-footer for him. That turned into the Swan 43. Lindquist’s attention to detail and his focus on building quality was fortunate for both Swan and S&S, because that established Swan’s reputation as the Rolls Royce of the Sea, which it retained even after the company had been bought out by Nautor.

How did production boats introduce the S&S brand to a broader market?

In the late 1960s there was a fellow in England who built one of our designs as a fiberglass production boat, the S&S 34. It was on display at the London Boat Show that year, and after my visit to the booth I was asked to come back later so I could meet Mr. Ted Heath. “Ted who?” I asked. Well, that afternoon I met Mr. Heath, who soon became Britain’s PM and also our client. He named all his boats Morning Cloud and ordered several different designs from us over the years. As a leader and mover, he always had good crews and eventually led the U.K. team to the Admiral’s Cup. The meetings with him were interesting and took place at Chequers and 10 Downing St.

One day in the early 1970s my wife, Susie, and I received an official dinner invite to the White House, where Heath was to meet President Nixon. She had trepidations to attend, but in the end we did. When it was our turn to shake hands with the two politicians, Heath introduced me to Nixon with the words: “That’s the man who counts.” It was made possible by my old friend Bus Mosbacher, who was the protocol officer at the time. He had procured the lines of the next Morning Cloud from the S&S office so a model could be presented to Mr. Heath as a gift.

How did the relationship between customer and designer change with the advent of new technologies?

Before the age of computers, a designer only knew marginally more about a boat’s performance potential than an educated customer, so the dialog was more direct. It is also important to remember that every boat was a one-off, which allowed more customer input than today’s production boats. Now, the knowledge gap between designer and client has widened because the designer uses scientific tools and methods to calculate and understand vessel performance that are not available to most buyers.

Three of your most notable early designs — Dorade, Stormy Weather and Edlu — are still sailing today.

If someone had told me back then that these boats still would be sailing and winning prizes 70 years later, I’d have told them they were nuts. We thought these boats might have a useful life of 20, maybe 25 years. But at S&S we always adhered to rigorous design and building standards, and chose builders who had a reputation for good craftsmanship. Federico Nardi, the Italian shipwright who restored several of my designs, once told me that he prefers American-built wooden boats of that era because we used a greater amount of wood and bronze instead of galvanized steel, so the deterioration was much less than in other boats that were built around the same time.

What’s the challenge of today’s mass-produced boats?

I think customers have gotten used to the utilitarian looks of boats and the fact that aesthetics and individuality often are sacrificed for interior space, comfort and purposes of efficient production. By contrast, they then fall in love with the classic looks of Herreshoff or Fife designs that were not subject to production constraints and rule conformity to the same degree. I think Stormy Weather, which was launched in 1934, is a good example of a stripped-down, fast and successful racing yacht that also has elegant and pleasing lines. And because that’s become a rare occurrence, “retro” looks enjoy a renaissance, especially when they combine traditional lines with modern technology like we are seeing in the new breed of daysailers. I think that’s positive.

Dieter Loibner is a West Coast sailor and frequent Soundings contributor.