Were I a movie reviewer, it mightve been like sitting down to sup with Marlon Brando or breaking bread with Francis Ford Coppola. Had I been a literary critic, Id liken it to an evening shooting the breeze with Norman Mailer or Philip Roth. But fate has led me down a path writing about sailing and sailboats, and on assignment in New Zealand covering the Americas Cup last February, through sheer good fortune I found myself seated beside one of the legendary figures of 20th-century yacht design.
Lucky me: On one evening, with a handful of other yachting journalists, I was privileged to attend a terrific dinner and to gam with Olin Stephens. At 94, the co-founder of the prestigious Manhattan design concern Sparkman & Stephens was still as trim, purposeful, and lively as so many of the wonderful vessels he created during an unsurpassed career in naval architecture that spanned over 50 years. Whats more, he had plenty of considered opinions on the state of the current edition of the event in which hed played a signature role for such a long time.
The scene was a media party at a lovely seaside home in an Auckland suburb, our hosts the folks who ran the Louis Vuitton Cup challenger series and the Americas Cup media center. Olin was the unofficial guest of honor; earlier that day, hed held a press conference in conjunction with the launching of his latest book, Lines, an impressive volume that presents the details of 50 of his favorite designs.
Yup, Olin was just your average guy in his 10th decade on the planet, knocking out an ambitious new book and traveling halfway around the world from his New Hampshire home to help promote it.
When the buffet line opened, Olin was one of the first through. When he sat down beside an unoccupied seat in a group of my fellow scribes, it wasnt empty for long. I dont believe anyone was seriously injured in my musical-chair dash to nab it. Some red wine was poured (“Oh, yes, Ill have a bit of that,” said Olin). Soon after, the enlightenment was dispensed.
To put it mildly, Olin was less than impressed by the radical hull appendage, or “hula,” attached to the underbody of the Kiwi boat, NZL-82 (for more on the hula and the 31st Americas Cup, see “Loyalty & Cyanide” on page 54). “The way I see it, its an evasion of the rules,” he said. “I cant imagine itd present a tactical advantage.” Neither was he a fan of what he saw as the lax eligibility requirements regarding the nationality of crewmembers in contemporary Cup racing. “They should be much stricter,” said Olin. “It would solve a lot of the squabbles and the legal stuff that goes on.”
When it came to the design of the current International Americas Cup Class boats aboard which the event is now contested, however, Olin had no squabbles of his own. “As far as I can see, theres not much in the way of negatives about the new boat,” he said. “And anyway, I dont think you can go back. There are some things I dont like, but that has more to do with the materials they use.”
Titanium and carbon fiber were obviously not on the list of material specs when in 1937 Olin and fellow naval architect Starling Burgess created the J-class Ranger, thus beginning a long stretch when S&S; was the pre-eminent designer of Cup defenders. But when queried as to which was his favorite, he immediately invoked the name of the 1967 Cup defender, the dominant 12-Meter, Intrepid.
“She was more of a breakthrough than any of the others,” he said. “She was able to sail in a one-sided fashion. She only lost races when a real mistake was made.”
In what was no less than a condensed history of American yachting, the conversation moved on to other famous boats and sailors. But then, too soon, it was time for Olin to go. “Got an early engagement tomorrow,” he said, to no ones surprise. With that, he tacked off into the night, leaving a table of honored, spellbound sailors in his wake.