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Vale Olin J. Stephens II

by Ellsworth American/Sail-World on 19 Sep 2008
Olin Stephens (Photo: Billy Black) Sparkman & Stephens http://www.sparkmanstephens.com
Olin J. Stephens II, one of the 20th century’s most innovative yacht designers, and the 'Stephens' of Sparkman & Stephens' fame, died last weekend at his home in Hanover, New Hampshire, USA. He was 100 years old.

With yacht broker Drake Sparkman, Stephens founded Sparkman & Stephens in 1929. Before his official retirement from the firm in 1978 he designed more than 2,200 cruising and racing yachts and fundamentally changed the way sailing yachts were designed and built.

'He had a huge influence on yacht design. It can’t be overstated,' Robert Stephens chief designer at the Brooklin Boat Yard, said Tuesday. He is not related to Olin Stephens.

According to Robert Stephens, Olin Stephens 'was the first to bring the science of materials technology into an industry that was heavily tradition bound.'

Olin Stephens II burst onto the yachting world with the 52-foot ocean racing yawl Dorade, winner of the 1931 Trans-Atlantic Race. Designed when Stephens was just 21, the boat was a radical departure from the heavy displacement sailing yachts that dominated offshore racing in the first part of the last century. Dorade was 'a tremendous step forward for a fleet exclusively composed of fisherman-type schooners and other heavy-type vessels,' Robert Stephens said. The boat combined elegant looks with materials and construction techniques that that were extremely advanced for their time.

Among his many prominent projects, Stephens also designed the 1937 America’s Cup defender Ranger, a 135-foot J-Class sloop, with W. Starling Burgess. He also designed five other Cup defenders between 1958 and 1980, the 12-meter yachts Columbia, Constellation, Intrepid, Courageous and Freedom.

According to Robert Stephens, Olin Stephens’ greatest contribution was to apply 'the science that was available to a boat that could survive offshore and make its best speed.' Although designers such as Nathaniel Herreshoff had taken that approach at the beginning of the 20th century with boats that raced in coastal waters, he said, 'none dared to do it for offshore racing,' before Olin Stephens.

Although he retired from active participation in his firm some 30 years ago, Stephens remained active in the yachting world until shortly before his death. Through his 90s, Stephens worked on the refinement of the mathematically and performance-based rating rules used to handicap racing yachts. At the time of his death, Stephens was reportedly working on the design of a 36-coastal cruiser.

In 2007, he visited Brooklin Boat Yard to attend the launching of Anna, a 56-foot S&S designed sloop reflecting looks of one of Stephens’ most famous ocean racers, Stormy Weather. He also sailed in last summer’s Eggemoggin Reach Regatta.

'I had the privilege of giving him a yard tour at Anna’s launching,' Robert Stephens said. 'It was amazing to see a man at his stage still taking such a vigorous interest in the new things happening in the yard, and especially the materials.'

A dropout from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stephens designed his first boat, a 6-meter yacht, at 21. Through the years, he worked with his brother, Roderick Stephens Jr., who provided much of the hands-on input for S&S designs.

While Stephens designed many beautiful boats, that was not what set him apart, Robert Stephens said. What made Olin Stephens unique was his 'continuous drive to perfect the combination of materials technology and performance.' That influenced other designers to embrace changing technologies and materials.

'He was always analyzing how the next one could be better, faster, easier to sail,' Stephens said. 'You can see that as his legacy, spanning all sorts of changes in the rules, materials and manufacturing processes.'

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