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Original Issue


In an America's Cup year, U.S. yachtsmen turn first to Olin Stephens, whose racing fleet (deployed below) includes two successful cup defenders of the past

For American voters the year just begun will be one of presidential elections; for American athletes it will be one of Olympic competition; but for American yachtsmen it will be most of all a year during which they will be called upon again to defend the America's Cup.

In England one challenger, Anthony Boyden's big, blue Sovereign, already has tested her sails in competition, and another—Kurrewa V, financed by Australia's temporarily expatriate Livingston brothers—is nearing completion in a Clydeside boatyard. Any one of four veteran U.S. campaigners—Weatherly, the 1962 champion; Easterner, the perennial also-ran; Nefertiti, the dark horse of the last trials; and Columbia, the ousted champion of '58—may be called on to face whichever of the English boats proves best. A fifth craft, commissioned by Pierre du Pont from the drawing board of A. E. (Bill) Luders, will be trying hard for the honor. But the odds-on favorite to defend the cup at this point is the boat now being tank-tested by the man who knows his job better than any other—the man who designed every one of the famed racing yachts pictured on this page and many more besides.

It is not surprising that in searching for a designer capable of building a better cup defender Yachtsman Walter Gubelmann and his friends of the Constellation syndicate should have turned to a man who has built two of the best. He is, of course, Olin Stephens, the creative genius of the yacht-designing firm of Sparkman and Stephens, whose Ranger won in 1937 and whose Columbia won in 1958. He was little more than a boy when he worked with famed Starling Burgess on the blueprints for the last great J boat. Although Olin stoutly denies it to this day, Harold (Mike) Vanderbilt, who paid for the boat, claims that Burgess gave his young partner major credit for the design. This was not his first triumph. Stephens already had made his mark on racing with another boat—the 52-foot Dorade. This little boat struck sailors in the 1930s with much the same impact as the schooner America 60 years earlier. In a single season, Dorade lifted ocean racing out of the clumsy age of heavily timbered, mostly schooner-rigged clunkers that buffaloed across oceans instead of sailing over them. Such boats needed big crews to handle their unwieldy gear, and their bulbous hulls were seas away from the relatively efficient slivers that raced around inshore courses.

Dorade was different. In her Stephens combined the light, long-flanked efficiency of the inshore racers with enough ruggedness to survive almost any deep-water danger. Traditionalists were, as usual, skeptical. Some felt sure Dorade would never make it across Long Island Sound, let alone the Atlantic. Others questioned her racing efficiency. They were wrong about her toughness, of course, but at first it seemed they might be right about her racing prospects. In her first big trial—the 1930 Bermuda Race—because of a navigational error Dorade did no better than third place on corrected time.

The next year, however, Dorade began to win, and win big. With 23-year-old Olin in command and his younger (by a year) brother Rod as mate, the little boat headed north out of Newport on a race to Plymouth, England. Counting on the fact that more cautious skippers usually prefer to follow the safer, southern route, Olin chose to steer Dorade along the ice line. This gambit paid handsome dividends. Dorade sailed the 3,000 miles with such speed that she arrived at the finish line before the committee boat was there to welcome her. The other boats were nowhere to be seen, and the biggest one of all, Landfall, did not make port until two days later.

Before ocean racing pundits could regain their composure, Dorade sailed off on the Grand National of ocean racing: the race around Fastnet Rock. The Fastnet is noted for the menacing shores that line its course, the English Channel fogs that blind its skippers, the gales and the hardships it puts on boats and sailors. But Dorade took all the punishment the course had to offer and won that race and many others after it, leading the Times of London to call her "the most wonderful little ocean racing yacht that had ever been built."

Dorade established Stephens as a revolutionary designer of ocean racers; the 135-foot cup defender Ranger established him as a giant in naval architecture; but the little 19-foot class racer called Lightning brought Stephens' talents as a yacht designer closer to more individual racing sailors than either Dorade or Ranger ever did.

Inch for inch and pound for pound the best little class boat of her time, Lightning's fame crisscrossed the world. Nineteen feet long, with a semiflat V bottom and considerable beam, this centerboard sloop was many things to many people: a day sailer, an effective one-design racing boat and a family boat good for training kids. Its success was such that there are now more than 8,000 Lightnings under sail. But, to the businessmen in Olin Stephens' firm, Lightning was an economic tragedy. Never guessing what their new boat would become, Sparkman and Stephens sold the plans outright with no provisions for a royalty fee to the designer.

The ancient schoolmaster in James Hilton's novel Goodbye, Mr. Chips used to see long parades of his former pupils and hear their names as he sat dozing in old age. In similar circumstances, Olin Stephens might see a fleet of graceful sailing craft go by in almost endless procession, and hear names like Bolero and Baruna (the Joe Louis and Max Schmeling of ocean racing, dueling each other in pitiless rivalry whenever their tracks crossed, though each was too handicapped by measurement rules to win races outright); like Stormy Weather (a modification of Dorade with an equally spectacular racing record); like Finisterre (the pert little centerboard yawl that won the Bermuda race three times and set another new style in ocean racers); like Goose (a long-winded beauty that won every cup the 6-meter class had to offer, save one).

There would be others less famous in the parade: powerboats and motor sailers like the 94-foot Wayfarer and Mike Vanderbilt's 88-foot Versatile, and class boats like the New York Yacht Club "32s"—famous for their speed to windward and infamous for their wetness. There would be a long line of fiber glass one-designers tailored to the postwar technology: Dolphin, New Horizons, Knickerbocker, Rainbow, the Shields class, and the 35-foot Chris-Craft Sail Yacht. And there would be the famed Vim, still one of the finest 12-meters ever built. Least but not last, there would be Lightning's 13-foot baby sister, the Blue Jay, quite possibly the handiest little racing trainer in existence.

There are few yachtsmen who would not instantly recognize one or all of these boats, but not many would recognize the mild-looking man who designed them. Olin's brother Rod is the old salt of the Stephens family. Rod owns a boat named Mustang, sails her regularly and is a lusty, rigging-climbing, blue-water man who sings wild songs and accompanies himself on an accordion. Olin is as deep and quiet as one of his own 12-meters at anchor. For a man who has more offshore and inshore racing experience than most and whose contributions to sailing art and science rank with those of Da Vinci and Franklin in other fields, he is modest to a fault. He talks quietly, seldom swears, drinks nothing stronger than wine, never boasts and doesn't own a boat. It is easy when lunching with Olin Stephens to think of oneself as the expert and of him as the novice, and because sailboat racing is sometimes a blowhard's pastime, there are those who fall into the error of believing that Olin Stephens doesn't really know much about it.

They could scarcely be more mistaken. Olin is not only a great designer but a first-rate helmsman and a canny tactician, as his victories aboard Dorade and other craft testify. He was good enough to be stand-in for Skipper Mike Vanderbilt aboard Ranger; he was relief helmsman aboard Columbia in her America's Cup win under Briggs Cunningham in 1958; and he vigorously raced 6-meters before the war. But it was left to Cornelius (Corny) Shields, one of the mightiest names in U.S. sailing, to pay Olin the ultimate compliment. Shields was in command of one watch aboard Bolero for a Bermuda race, Olin was in charge of the other. Generally there is a good deal of rivalry, even jealousy, between watches. Says Corny: "Usually you go below and worry that the other fellow's watch is losing some of the gain you've made in your watch. But aboard Bolero, Olin was the one fellow I know of that always would do better than I would."

If Olin Stephens seldom races a boat nowadays, one reason is the press of business that his former successes have thrust on him. His current battles with wind and tide and displacement and racing rules are mostly fought in a dingy office midway between two rivers on New York's Manhattan Island.

Located on the 12th floor of a nondescript building on lower Madison Avenue, the offices of Sparkman and Stephens look more like a branch of the Internal Revenue Service than a place where millionaires write fat checks for fancy boats. The walls are colored dirty mustard. Pipes lace the ceilings, and linoleum lines the floors. Tucked in one corner of the main office is a smaller office furnished with a desk, plain chairs, a simple drafting table, a bookshelf filled with boat books and an old-fashioned steam radiator. Hanging on the walls is a covey of half models and photographs of boats framed in black. This is the room where Olin Stephens, a familiar if nameless figure each morning on the 7:55 from Scarsdale, does his work. "He's a detail man," says Palmer Sparkman, a nephew of the firm's president and founder, Drake Sparkman. "He makes sure that everything's right from the fitting on top of a mast to the bottom of a keel. Nothing is too small for him." When Columbia was washed out during the 1962 eliminations after having won in 1958, Olin Stephens took the loss personally. As one friend put it, "You can bet he plans to vindicate himself with the new boat."

Stephens' search for perfection often takes him across the Hudson to the Davidson test tank at Hoboken's Stevens Institute. He was one of the first naval architects to recognize the value of testing scale models, but he is also realistic about the tank's shortcomings. "You've got to know what questions to ask, then let the tank answer them," he says.

How the right questions always seem to pop into Olin Stephens' mind may be a mystery. But it is quite clear that they often germinate in soil as foreign to yacht racing as that of the Mojave Desert. When Olin Stephens, along with Manhattan's other hordes of Westchesterites, boards the 5:44 at Grand Central each night bound for the unostentatious colonial-style house he shares with his wife, Florence, he leaves yachting behind.

On the train he reads voraciously—often Kafka and Jacques Maritain. At home he listens to the music of Bartok and Bach. The walls of his house are covered with pictures, but none of them are of boats. "I like a little quiet semi-abstract impressionism," he says. His pictures are Helikers and Marsden Hartleys rather than Frederick Waughs.

In summer when there is no cup racing to attend to, Olin and his wife head for a farm in inland Massachusetts—as far from the water as a New Englander can get—and neither of the Stephenses' grown-up sons shows any inclination to mess about in boats, for fun or profit.

Stephens' own principal hobby is painting, and his style is "something uniquely his own," says a friend—but he never paints boats. He once tried to paint one, but the literal perfectionist in him made fierce war on the abstract artist. After painful hours before his easel, most of which were spent writhing in dissatisfaction and impatience, he gave up and never tried again. The trouble with Olin Stephens is: when he works on a boat, it's got to be right.