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When Columbia swept across the finish line to win the final match for the America's Cup last August, Briggs Cunningham leaned far out and patted her sleek bottom in a spontaneous gesture of approbation. His next gesture might well have been to turn and pat the back of Olin Stephens, standing beside him, searching with binoculars for the challenger Sceptre, a badly beaten boat almost out of sight astern.
For the 17th defense of the America's Cup was as nearly a personal triumph for Olin James Stephens as any such cooperative venture could be. Not only had he designed Columbia, the defender, but Vim, runner-up in the Final Trials; and not only had his genius brought Columbia into being from a blank sheet of paper, but he also contributed to her ultimate success with his practical ability as a seaman. At once an artist and an engineer, a dreamer and a doer, Olin Stephens is unquestionably the leader in his field, yet a man many of whose interests lie elsewhere, something of a Renaissance man in corduroy slacks and sneakers—but equally at home in bow tie and dark suit.
His entire life led up to the moment of victory off Newport last summer. Since childhood he had sailed with his father and brother Rod, and had filled schoolboy notebooks with sketches of boats. In 1929, only 21 years old, after a brief and unsatisfactory experience at MIT ("I was impatient to get on with design") he evolved Dorade, a boat combining a lean light hull with an aerodynamically efficient rig, which revolutionized ocean racing. His genius has never since been questioned.
At 50, Olin Stephens appears to be the epitome of the shy, silent type, almost perfect for casting as the serious postgraduate student. Yet there is a cold glint in the eyes behind the horn-rimmed glasses, hinting at a calm inflexible quality in the man. In a very real sense, he is a postgraduate student, never ceasing to learn. His early deficiency in engineering was overcome by hard study as he began to practice naval architecture, and he worked closely with the late mathematical wizard Kenneth S. M. Davidson in the early tank tests at Stevens Institute in Hoboken. He is "a one night a week and Sunday painter," according to his own definition, working in "abstract impressionism rather than abstract expressionism." (The same mind also was instrumental in producing the amphibious DUKW, the wartime "Duck," equally at home afloat and ashore, which many engineers had termed impossible.) He enjoys serious music, but does not own a boat, summers at Sheffield, Mass., "where there is enough water to swim in but not enough to sail on." He fishes for trout ("I'm not expert, but it's fun") and drives a Mercedes-Benz 190SL ("a nice responsive car is like a nice responsive boat").
If asked to define Olin Stephens' outstanding personal characteristic, I would say it was uncompromising, objective honesty. In sailing, with the variables of wind and current, it is easy to find alibis. He never does. If the boat of another architect had been faster before the wind shift came which insured its defeat, he says so because "a designer has to know whether a boat is good or not so he won't go wrong next time."
This honesty and personal integrity extends to major as well as minor issues. In 1937, a young man just beginning a career, Stephens collaborated with W. Starling Burgess, the dean of American naval architects, in the design of Ranger, the super J boat. The two designers had agreed not to say whose lines were used, and for almost 20 years the secret was kept. Then Harold Vanderbilt in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED credited Ranger to Olin Stephens because of a characteristic in the rudder which he thought he recognized. Burgess was dead, and Stephens only had to let the statement go unchallenged to add the greatest racing sailboat ever fashioned to his record. Yet immediately he wrote a letter to Vanderbilt correcting his impression: although the two architects had worked together so closely something of each went into all the hulls, Ranger belonged to Burgess. And Olin Stephens unhesitatingly said so.
The summer of 1958 was not easy for such an intense individualist. It was the first year since 1937 he had devoted entirely to sailing. But with brother Rod, Briggs Cunningham, Harry Sears, Corny Shields, Colin E. Ratsey and the others, Olin Stephens and his creation achieved destiny. The oldest and most hallowed international trophy, the symbol of supremacy of the seas, remained firmly on its pedestal in the New York Yacht Club. And this time there could be no doubt that the principal architect of victory was Olin James Stephens.