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Hugh Whall
January 06, 1964
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
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January 06, 1964

To Keep The Cup, Get A Man Who Knows How

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

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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.

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