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Olin J. Stephens II

He is the most important person to sailing of the century. His influence can be felt in all forms of the sport, whether sailing a little day-boat, sailing around the world or sailing in the America's Cup. He is 91-year-old Olin Stephens, whose effect on the sport of sailing is so fundamental it is immeasurable.

From his work on rating rules and tank testing, to the design of sea boats that can sail comfortably to weather, to theory on basic pleasurable sailing (both cruising and racing), to the U.S. success in America's Cup racing, to sheer beautiful sailboats Olin Stephens has left his mark on sailing.

Olin Stephens entered yacht design when he was 20 years old and continues to be involved in aspects of design, though retired. He talks about his life and expresses his introspection on the state of sailing in the new book, All This and Sailing, Too An Autobiography Olin J. Stephens II (published by Mystic Seaport Publications, edited by John Rousmaniere and Joseph Gribbins, available December 1). Eloquently, Stephens tells how he started to design boats and how his life course developed from those early days of messing around on a small gaff-rigged centerboarder, Corker, off Sandy Neck, Cape Cod.

This is a gentle and beautifully told story as it reveals Stephens' character and personality, unveiling his deep aspirations and diligence, his honor, and, foremost, his immense talent. As presented from 1927 with the founding of Sparkman & Stephens to the current state of sailing and yacht design, Stephens also speaks about his disappointments with today's sailing and sailboats.

"Is sailing as much fun as it could be?" he asks. "No", he argues. "Is sailing as safe as it should be at this level of advancement in design?", he asks. "No", he says. Has the sailing industry used technological advancements and scientific learning to make our sailing world a happier world? "No, I fear we have lost, Stephens says.

Boats have changed for the faster, but as sea boats, are the poorer It is disappointing that so little of our greatly increased new knowledge has been applied to all-‘round improvement. Comfort at sea is a worthy objective beamy, shallow hull shapes are unkind to their crews at sea, he says.

Baruna was a maxi of 1938 was raced with a crew about half the size of today's maxis, faster, but at what cost? And light, but requiring a big crew, without proper accommodations and with motion to pound out your teeth. Why do we have less pleasure as we learn more and more?

Technology, with its upsides and downsides, has surged into yacht design since Stephens retired from S&S in the late 70s. He states, As both the hardware and the software will surely improve, and as more study makes routine the calculation of hull drag and sail drive, these calculations will be applied on every design to test its performance and will ultimately be a part of many VPPs. Yet all coins have two sides: becoming apparent is the fact that computer speed does not assure speedy design process. I think the computer so widens design options that the search for the best combination can extend to infinity."

The result, according to Stephens, is the proliferation of boats that are not seagoing and, foremost, uncomfortable. One might argue that most sailors don't sail offshore anyway. The problem is that fewer boats are sailing offshore because they are often uncomfortable offshore. Finding the right combination of comfort, seakindly design and upwind performance is difficult. Most sailors prefer sailing from port to port… and arguably miss out on the joys of sailing the offshore expanses.

What also troubles Stephens is the influence of sponsorship to racing. The effect is to win at all cost he says.

But Stephens' book has many beautiful reminiscences such as the famous one of winning the transatlantic race in Dorade: Stephens had opted to separate from the fleet to the south and go it alone on the northerly route. "We were approaching the far side of the ocean and the wind gradually lightened but held. On the evening of the fifteenth day our sight put us about 30 miles west of the Scillies. Rod had been wanting to go up the mast and finally I said okay. Nearing the masthead he looked forward and called ‘Land ho.' The wind that was left went gradually lighter and it was on the morning of the day 17 that the Lizard came abeam. With a flag signal reading ‘what are we?', it was an excited crew that read the response ‘you are first.' " Dorade finished two days ahead of the fleet.

The book is sprinkled with fascinating background from yachting history. Stephens sheds this light: the early dynanometer tank testing that was done in England in1900 in testing models during the design of the challenger Shamrock II; that the 1983 defender Liberty was racing in two configurations depending on the weather, with double certificates; the underbody of Ranger was mainly designed by Starling Burgess while Stephens handled the above-waterline configuration; realization that the tank-testing models for Valiant had been too small and gave the wrong reading, resulting in her failure in the challenge series.

Stephens' other notes include: his opinion that Liberty was slow and the wingkeeled Australia II would have been beaten by his Freedom from 1980, and that the CCA fostered an unhealthy type and non-capsize-proof design. He also admits to navigational and tactical errors that cost Dorade victory in her first Bermuda, and Mustang's conquest of the 1946 Bermuda.

In the end of this fine book, a real offshore journey, Stephens leaves us with this, "I think Yeats poem ‘The Choice' which starts: ‘The intellect of man is forced to choose/perfection of the life, or of the work' I always wished for more in the perfection of both work and life. It is not cynicism to say that this was impossible."

Micca Hutchins is offline  
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