Obituaries

Olin J. Stephens II; a Top Innovator In Yacht Design and Competition

The Dorade, a transatlantic race winner, helped launch Stephens's career.
The Dorade, a transatlantic race winner, helped launch Stephens's career. (Courtesy Of Sparkman And Stephens)
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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 19, 2008

Olin J. Stephens II, 100, the premier yacht designer of the 20th century who revolutionized the sport of yacht racing, died Sept. 13 in Hanover, N.H. No cause of death was reported.

Mr. Stephens said he thought beautiful boats sailed better, and his designs -- more than 2,000 of them -- were considered unparalleled in their grace and good looks. He achieved renown in the early 1930s as the young designer of several notable racing yachts. In 1937, the Stephens-designed Ranger won the America's Cup competition, marking the first of eight victories in the prestigious contest with boats of his creation.

He won a second America's Cup competition when the race resumed after World War II. Among his winning boats were Columbia (1958), Constellation (1964), Intrepid (1967), Courageous (1974) and Freedom (1980).

"He came along at a breakthrough time in technology," said John Rousmaniere, an author of books about sailing and the editor of Mr. Stephens's autobiography. "There was new technology, new sails, new hardware. He took old shapes and combined them with new high-tech forms of construction, wooden with a lot of metal."

The son of a prominent coal merchant, Olin James Stephens II was born in the Bronx, N.Y., on April 13, 1908, and grew up in nearby Scarsdale. He spent his summers sailing in Long Island Sound and off Cape Cod with his father and brother, Roderick E. Stephens, who would grow up to be an acclaimed boat builder.

"I was lucky: I had a goal. As far back as I can remember, I wanted to design fast boats," Olin Stephens wrote in his memoir, "All This and Sailing, Too" (1999).

Bowing to his parents' wishes, he attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1926 but dropped out after contracting jaundice. Working on his own at home, he studied drafting, trigonometry and boat design.

His real education came while working as an apprentice draftsman at the Henry Nevins boatyard on City Island in the Bronx, where he learned to design boats that were seaworthy, fast and comfortable for the crew.

In partnership with a successful yacht broker, Drake Sparkman, and with financial backing from his father, he founded a firm, Sparkman and Stephens, in 1928. His brother joined the company as a boat builder.

Sparkman and Stephens enjoyed almost immediate success by winning the 1931 Trans-Atlantic race aboard the Dorade, a Stephens-designed 52-foot yawl. The Dorade, with Mr. Stephens at the helm, beat its nearest rival by two days in the race to Plymouth, England. The boat then won the Fastnet, England's premier ocean race, and a string of other contests.

The Trans-Atlantic victory, capped by a welcome-home ticker tape parade, launched Mr. Stephens's long career. His boats continued to win races in England and the United States throughout the 1930s, and commissions from wealthy yachtsman unfazed by hard times kept the company afloat during the Depression.

Before the Dorade, ocean yachts were usually built along the lines of the lumbering fishing boats of the time. Mr. Stephens's boat was light, breathtakingly slender and, in the view of traditionalists, dangerous-looking. It became the racing-yacht prototype for the next several decades.


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