Olin Stephens: America's Cup yacht designer

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Olin J Stephens Jnr, the doyen of modern yacht design, who has died aged 100, developed the Sparkman & Stephens design house on 5th Avenue, New York, with his brother Rod, and dominated yacht racing for much of the 20th century.

Stephens produced more than 2,000 designs during a career that spanned five decades and his brilliance atthe drawing board led to eight America's Cup victories as well as a succession of ocean race-winners. He was inducted into the America's Cup Hall of Fame in 1993 and was presented with a lifetime achievement award by the International Sailing Federation last year. Among his designs were four Morning Clouds for Edward Heath. The first won the Sydney Hobart Race in 1969, only the second foreign owned yacht to do so.

The story of Olin Stephens' success began with the 1931 Transatlantic race when the 52ft American yawl Dorade he had designed for his father and which he co-skippered with Rod, won the race outright. The family tasted victory at Plymouth again that season by winning the heavy-weather Fastnet race. The following year Dorade also won the Transpac race, and took second place in the 1933 Bermuda Race.

Those successes set the two Stephens brothers on a meteoritic rise. S&S yachts dominated the racing scene for the next 50 years and underpinned every US defence of the America's Cup from 1937 to 1980.

Olin also did a tremendous amount of work to harmonise the yacht racing rules on both sides of the Atlantic by merging the American CCA rule with that of the Royal Ocean Racing Club to form the International Offshore Rule (IOR).

The sons of a successful New York coal merchant who had the foresight to sell out just before the Great Recession, Olin and Rod were brought upsailing dinghies at the Larchmont YC. Olin entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1926 but was forced to drop out during his freshman year due to illness, while Rod served an apprenticeship at a rigging company. After his recovery, Olin began work as a trainee draftsman under another noted American yacht designer, Phil Rhodes.

In 1929, Olin and Rod went into partnership with Drake Sparkman, asuccessful yacht broker, to form Sparkman & Stephens Inc (S&S). Sparkman, a born salesman, fronted the operation while Olin ran the design office andRod provided the structural and rigging expertise. Their first projectwas a 21ft junior keelboat whose design, now named the Manhasset Bay One Design, can still be seen on Long Island Sound.

During the Second World War, the two brothers developed the famous DUKW (nicknamed the DUCK). More than 21,000 units were built and served in large numbers during the D-Day landings. Fitted with a light steel body over a standard GMC six-wheel truck, these vehicles had a design life in combat of 24 hours, so it is remarkable that so many remain in use decades later.

Olin also made his mark designing maxi yachts, including Jim Kilroy's fabled American yacht Kialoa III, which broke the Sydney-to-Hobart Race record in 1975 and held that mark for 21 years, together with the first two Whitbread round the world race-winners, the Swan 65 Sayula II in 1973 and the Dutchman Conny van Rietschoten's first Flyer, which won the 1977-78 race. Rod Stephens, who died in 1995, was the practical side of the partnership and his knowledge of construction, engineering and rigs made him the perfect foil for his brother

Olin started out designing boats using a rule of thumb, but his constant quest to prove and quantify led him to develop a method for evaluating a design by towing models in test tanks. It was this work that brought Olin into the America's Cup game. In 1936 the American railroad pioneer Harold S "Mike" Vanderbilt brought Stephens together with W Starling Burgess as a design team to produce the J-Class Ranger, a yacht that so dominated the 1937 America's Cup season that she spelt an end to the J-Class era.

Olin continued to take a keen interest in Metre rule boats, designing the Gold Medal-winning six-metres Goose and her near sister Llanoria, at the 1948 and 1952 Olympics. From there it was a short step to produce 12-metre yachts when the Class was adopted for the 1952 America's Cup. That first year, the defence trials were dominated by the S&S designed Columbia, sailed by Briggs Cunningham. Another S&S yacht, Constellation, won in 1964, followed by Intrepid in 1967 and 1970.

In 1974, Olin produced another great boat in Courageous, which won the Cup that year and again in 1977 when skippered by the media mogul Ted Turner. Freedom, Olin's 1980 design, then beat them both in the hands of Dennis Conner and went on to retain the Cup against Alan Bond's Australia.

Looking back on what he viewedas a lucky and rewarding life, Olinwould often quote the final paragraph in his autobiography: "In all phases of my work I was conscious of the need for balance, and I did my best to find balance in both the long and the short view. Broadly I think I can say that Iapplied the principles of balance indesign, in business and in the pleasures I enjoyed."

Barry Pickthall

Olin James Stephens, yacht designer: born New York 13 April 1908; married (one son); died Hanover, New Hampshire 13 September 2008.