This two-part feature story, written by Morton M. Hunt, appeared in The New Yorker (Sept. ‘57), beginning with Olin and Rod Stephens’ youthful days, learning how to sail with their father on Cape Cod and then Long Island Sound. In this excerpt, we pick up the story with the publication of Olin’s first design in Yachting magazine and the beginning of the partnership that became the pre-eminent yacht design firm of the mid-20th century, Sparkman & Stephens. A yacht named Dorade was soon to follow…
Olin made his profession’s equivalent of a Town Hall début when the authoritative magazine Yachting published a design of his for a six-metre sloop. The significance of this achievement was not lost on his father, who, however his interest in coal may have dwindled, had not lost any of his business shrewdness. One day in the summer of 1928, after allowing time for the achievement to sink in, he invited Drake Sparkman, a young acquaintance of his who was already a successful yacht broker, to lunch with him and Olin at the Larchmont Yacht Club. Sparkman, who had been in business for about a year, had decided to expand into naval architecture and was looking for a designer. As Mr. Stephens had hoped, Sparkman had seen Olin’s design in Yachting and had been suitably impressed; moreover, in various yacht clubs on both sides of the Sound he had heard reports of the youth’s rare abilities as a sailor. Now he was surprised, though by no means unfavorably, to find that this youthful salt was not a hearty extrovert but a rather reserved fellow with a decidedly studious look about him. Although no boat designed by Olin had yet been built, Sparkman, relying largely on intuition, offered him an informal partnership, with the understanding that if things went well it would become a formal one in a little over a year, when Olin came of age.
Sparkman installed his new designer at a drafting table in a corner of his own office, at 11 East Forty-fourth Street (he still conducts the firm’s brokerage business there, but Olin and his staff now occupy a floor and a half of the building at 79 Madison Avenue), and then set about scaring up something for him to design. Hearing that the Junior Yacht Racing Association of Long Island Sound was thinking of ordering a class boat for its teenage members, he approached one of its officials and said, “I understand you want a junior boat. Well, then, why not have it designed by a real junior? I’ve got a partner who’s still not old enough to vote.” The argument struck the official as a remarkably cogent one. Olin designed a twenty-one-foot sloop for the Association, and the Juniors ordered about twenty, some of which are still beating around Manhasset Bay. The persuasive Sparkman next talked a Stamford businessman named Arthur P. Hatch into a much bigger deal for Olin, a commission to design a small cruising sloop. Since this was to cost something like thirty-five hundred dollars and Olin was still little more than a novice, Sparkman would seem to have brought off a miracle of salesmanship, though the fact that Hatch was a close friend of his could have had something to do with it. In any event, the sloop, later christened Kalmia, took shape on Olin’s board during the winter of 1928-29, slid down the ways in the spring, and delighted Hatch in every particular not least by winning in her class in that season’s Gibson Island Race, from New London to Gibson Island, Maryland. Sparkman breathed a great sigh and drew up papers making the firm a corporation and Olin its vice-president.
Still, the Sparkman magic obviously couldn’t work every day, and Olin sometimes found things slow at his drafting table. To design Kalmia, which required more room than the Forty-fourth Street office could provide, he had rented space in the drafting room of the late Henry B. Nevins’ well-known City Island boatyard, and now he began doing some odd-job drafting for Nevins in his slack periods. Roderick, who had entered Cornell in the fall, spent the summer vacation of his freshman year hanging around Olin’s City Island retreat and rubbernecking in the boatyard. There he met Nevins, who liked him and offered to take him in and teach him the boatbuilding business from the keel up. After that, Cornell never had a chance. Roderick served an apprenticeship in every department of the yard, from the mold loft, where hulls were given their basic shapes, to the rigging department, where stays, halyards, and sail-handling gear were made up. Soon he was well on his way to becoming a highly qualified boatbuilder.
Both brothers might long have remained professionally landbound had it not been for their father, who again was taking a shrewd view of the future. Off and on for years, he and his sons had been comparing ideas for the perfect ocean-racing yacht, and the composite mental picture they had evolved was of a light, sleek, finelined yawl, a craft brashly different from the heavy, lumbering deepwater sailboats, justly known as “modified fishermen,” that were then in vogue. In the fall of 1929, in an inspired attempt to establish Olin almost overnight as a leader in his field, Mr. Stephens, with cavalier disregard for the crumbling stock market, proposed to underwrite the cost of such a boat from designs drawn up by his son. When all the bills resulting from this proposal were in, they added up to twenty-eight thousand dollars, a very substantial sum of money to risk in those pinched times, but one that, for several reasons, Mr. Stephens has never regretted spending.
The most attractive bid for the job of building the yawl was submitted by the Minneford Yacht Yard, on City Island, especially since the management allowed Roderick to act as general foreman. Taking a leave of absence from the Nevins yard, he personally supervised even the most minute details of the boat’s construction, watching as each plank, each keelbolt, each screw went into the hull. The vessel, named Dorade, slid down the ways in the spring of 1930, with all three Stephenses tensely looking on, and disconcertingly settled three inches deeper in the water than the waterline Olin had figured on. Today, such a miscalculation would deeply distress him, but he was not then the experienced perfectionist he is now, and he simply rectified his error by having a new waterline painted three inches higher on the hull.
Dorade was fifty-two feet long over all and thirty-nine at her self-designated waterline, but yachtsmen forgot about statistics when they caught a glimpse of her, for she was breathtakingly slender and obviously very light. By all the existing standards of ocean racing, she should have been dangerous to sail in rough weather. Olin thought otherwise, believing that the yacht’s slimness, which he had counterbalanced with a deep keel, would enable her to knife effortlessly through the waves, instead of pounding against them, as the heavy, broad-beamed ocean racers of the period did. And this, he was convinced, would make her at least as safe as her contemporaries and a lot faster.
Sailing Dorade here and there about the Sound, the three Stephenses were well satisfied with her performance; admittedly, she was a trifle “tender,” or quick to heel over, in a blow, but she was by far the most high-spirited and beautifully balanced boat they’d ever handled. In June, they took six friends aboard as crew and entered the Bermuda Race—their first attempt at deepwater competition. Setting out in the midst of a tightly packed fleet of forty-two starters, they sailed Dorade for all she was worth, and four days later, after struggling through some rough seas and suffering a setback when a navigational error, the result of a broken sextant, led them off course, they overtook seven rivals in the final hours of the race, to reach St. David’s Head in sixth place chronologically and in third place on corrected time. Veteran yachtsmen were astonished and respectful. A writer in the magazine Boats predicted that Dorade’s performance in the heavy weather and her showing at the finish would soon “alter the whole concept of the ocean racer and make a profound change in the face of the sailing world of her time.”
A year later, in the summer of 1931, the three Stephenses really came into their own, achieving international renown in sailing and non-sailing circles alike when this time assisted by four additional crew members, all of them in their twenties, they won a transatlantic race with Dorade. Arranged by the Cruising Club of America and the Royal Ocean Racing Club of England, the race got under way on the Fourth of July, with Newport as the starting point and Plymouth as the finish; ten boats were entered, and Dorade was the third-smallest and seemingly the least sturdy of the lot. Olin, as Dorade’s skipper, ignored the tactics of his rivals, who headed at once for the beneficial current of the Gulf Stream, and chose a shorter route to the north, notwithstanding the hazards of rough weather and ice. No ice appeared, but fog, high seas, and strong winds made the crossing a strenuous one. What with the grinding physical labor and the incessant day and night anxiety as the hard-driven boat strained and shuddered along plunging forward or rolling sidewise to bury her bow or boom end in a wave through dark waters that might at any minute crush them against an iceberg, the crew had a sufficiently rugged time of it during the seventeen days of the trip.
Early in the evening of the seventeenth day out of Newport, Dorade crossed the finish line off Plymouth Breakwater. No one was on hand to greet her, and the crew felt rather let down, but before long the official reception committee put out from shore and came aboard with the explanation for the tardy welcome: Dorade had completed the race so far ahead of the expected arrival of any of the contestants that nobody was prepared for the occasion. It was indeed a stunning victory. Dorade had a handicap of forty-six hours over the largest entry, Landfall, which was the second boat to arrive, reaching Plymouth Harbor two days later. On corrected time, Dorade beat Landfall by nearly four days, and she eventually proved to have soundly whipped all the other contestants, including boats with greater handicaps than her own. Newspaper editors in the United States, delighted to be able to vary the dreary diet of depression news they had been feeding their readers, played up the story of Dorade and her predominantly youthful crew. And no newspaper took greater pride in the accomplishment than the Bronx Home News, which, with pardonable chauvinism, declared in an editorial, “It shows that not only is Dorade as good a sailing ship as there is afloat, but that in the Stephens family the Bronx has three expert seamen.”
The crew of Dorade stayed on in England long enough to win the Fastnet Race, one of Britain’s most illustrious sailing events—six hundred miles from Plymouth to Fastnet Rock, off the southern coast of Ireland, and back and then, after crating the yawl for shipment home, boarded the White Star Line’s Homeric for New York. The liner arrived here on September 2nd and was met at Quarantine by a flotilla consisting of the city’s official greeting launch, Macom, with a reception committee from City Hall aboard; a Navy tug with the Department of Sanitation band blaring away on its deck; several police launches; a fireboat; and a hired tug flying large banners emblazoned with the message “Welcome Rod Stephens-N.Y. Coal Dealers.” The Dorade’s crew were transferred to the Macom and taken to the Battery, and then, in open touring cars pelted by ticker tape, up Broadway to City Hall, where they were welcomed by Acting Mayor Joseph V. McKee. Speaking for Mayor James J. Walker, who was away somewhere at the moment, McKee pointed out that the boat in which Co- lumbus crossed the Atlantic was twice as big as Dorade. Later on, the Bronx staged a reception for the crew that made the Manhattan ceremonies seem pallid.
The elder Stephens did not have to wait long for assurance that his investment in Olin’s career was a sound one. Even in 1932, when there was barely a ripple in the yacht market, the young designer was kept moderately busy. His biggest job that year was to design a ninety-thousand-dollar schooner, called Brilliant, for Walter Barnum, a project that at least paid the rent of the Sparkman & Stephens office. The following year, business began coming in with a rush. Olin was called on to design an eleven-foot classboat sailing dinghy for the junior members of the Larchmont Yacht Club; a yawl, Stormy Weather, along the lines of Dorade, for Philip Le Boutillier, the president of Best & Co.; and seven other sailboats, including a seventy-foot yawl, for various affluent individuals. With no trouble at all, Olin induced his brother to give up his job at the Nevins yard and join him as S&S’s field engineer an assignment that soon proved to be no sinecure, for by the early summer of 1934 no fewer than twenty boats designed by the firm were under construction, in half a dozen yards up and down the Atlantic seaboard. Meanwhile, the brothers’ sailing exploits were continuing to publicize the firm’s name effectively. (A fellow yachtsman once testily accused them of being mere “ocean-racing jockeys—professionals in the game for the money,” but he may have been merely expressing a loser’s viewpoint.) Together, they raced Dorade to Bermuda in 1932, and took first honors in her class; in 1933, Roderick sailed the boat to England, won another Fastnet trophy, and proceeded to bring her home in twenty-one days, an exceptional westward passage for so small a vessel; and two years later he skippered Stormy Weather in another transatlantic race, winning easily, then mopped up a third Fastnet Race, and sailed home, his fifth transatlantic crossing under canvas.