Bob Fisher reflects on the life of Olin Stephens

Olin Stephens (Photo: Billy Black)

Olin J Stephens II, who has died aged 100, was the most influential yacht designer of his generation, not only by virtue of his creativity, but also because of his involvement with the administration of the sport through the creation and maintenance of handicap systems for offshore racing yachts.

Stephens' long list of successes includes victories for his designs in eight America's Cup matches between 1937 and 1980, a period when only one other designer produced a winner. Naturally, Stephens was highly sought-after by the top yacht-owning syndicates of the New York Yacht Club, a body of which he had been a member since 1921. He was inducted into the America's Cup Hall of Fame in 1993. In those years, too, his designs were foremost in offshore races all over the world. Transatlantic and Fastnet race victories were followed by others, but the impact of Dorade, the 52-foot yawl he designed for his father in 1931, cannot be overstated.

It set the standard by which Stephens would be judged, both for its success in winning both the Transatlantic and Fastnet races of that year, and for the attention to minute detail - the cabin ventilators that eliminated water from going down below were to a pattern devised by Stephens and subsequently known as 'Dorade' ventilators.

Stephens navigated as well as skippered Dorade both for the Transatlantic and for the Fastnet a few weeks later. A crew that also included his father and brother drove the boat hard, particularly on a spinnaker run out to the Fastnet Rock, and rounded in the company of larger, and potentially faster, yachts. Their efforts were rewarded with a corrected time victory. They arrived home in New York with the yacht in a cradle on the deck of the liner Homeric and were treated to a ticker-tape parade. The success was a driving force behind the growth of Sparkman & Stephens, the firm that Stephens had established with yacht broker Drake Sparkman.

During the 1930s, Stephens designed a wide range of day racing boats, particularly in the six-metre class, where his innate sense of the relative values of the scientific figures of drag and lift, combined with the restrictions of the rules, provided him with the style of problem he loved to solve. It resulted in a string of successes that were to provide his pathway to the America's Cup.

It was as a result of a sailing association with the amateur designer Clinton Crane that his America's Cup ambitions were first realised. Crane secured for him a place in the afterguard of his design Weetamoe, a J-class yacht that would compete in the selection trials for a defender of the cup in 1934. Stephens had already completed a study of this class and been photographed with the model of his design for the front cover of Scribner's magazine.

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