January 2001
- by Carol Standish

Book Cover All This and Sailing, Too (Mystic Seaport, 272pp, $45) written by Olin J. Stephens II, the co-founder of the seventy-odd year old yacht design firm, Sparkman & Stephens is called an "autobiography." In his late 80s and early 90s Stephens lucidly sorted out and compiled with great charm, a work which is, however, essentially an account of his business career and his firm.

From the very earliest days S & S sailboats have been champions. The third design project of Stephen's professionalRanger career, the innovative 52' yawl, Dorade, won the 1931 transAtlantic race two days ahead of all competition. The firm, directed by the inspired, largely self-taught designer for almost fifty years, produced winning Six-Metre and J-Boat designs as well as famous America's Cup defendersSix-Meter Nancy like Rainbow -1934, the Bath-built Ranger -1937, Columbia -1958. S & S also designed enduring smaller racing classes and cruisers like the Swans, Lightnings, Blue Jays and Tartans and countless blue water yachts for Prime Ministers, Aga Khans and the captains of industry. During World War II the firm designed the amphibious landing craft, DUKWs which continue their lives today as novel tourist transportation around harbor cities.

By the time Olin Stephens retired in 1978, over 2200 designs had crossed the design tables of Sparkman & Stephens. By any standard, the man and the firm enjoyed immense success. And yet, the word success is not part of Stephen's vocabulary. With an almost Zen combination of open-ness toOlin and Susie Stephens, 1974 circumstance, acceptance and humility, he attributes his achievements to "luck." The book opens, "I was lucky: I had a goal." He was lucky to have enjoyed early success, lucky in love, lucky to have had two sons who were "good to their mother," lucky that his firm was busy in the lean years (of the depression), "fortunate to be in circumstances which put me in touch with active and interesting people" (clients who became friends), lucky "in the abilities of Bob and Gill" (S & S's chief engineers during Stephens' tenure). Early on "…with Dorade [for instance] the design work was strictly comparative and intuitive."

Guided by extreme personal modesty and natural reticence Stephens does his level best to keep the personal element out of his autobiography.Olin Stephens on Intrepid, 1999 (He and his brother grew up around boats on lakes in the Adirondacks and then Cape Cod. He left MIT after a semester, married early, had two sons and retired to northern New England.) "Work over life" he confesses midway through the book. Because his work and life were inseparable, however, the man comes shining through. The narrative reveals an individual of considerable privilege and Victorian sensibilities, a great reader and appreciator of both art and music, gifted with both focus and vision-a charming and remarkable individual that our mothers would have called "a gentleman and a scholar."

Stephens unselfconsciously presents himself as a man so harmoniously engaged with his world that his work flowed from a personal depth. "One thing leads to another," he says in the second paragraph of the book. Looking back 250 pages later, he says again, "one thing leads to another and as paths cross something new happens. The effort is good for its own sake, let alone for the results." Olin Stephens trusted his intuition, and "it was luck to have intuition that worked."

Several chapters of the autobiography address the technical aspects of design which will fascinate those who understand them. Stephens also includes his personal observations on the effect of computers on design, the adverse affect of both Brilliant, 1999money ("the fox is in the hen house") and technology on sport and the "swampy" necessity of rule-making. Mystic Seaport has produced a handsome volume with over 70 illustrations, the majority, photos from the Rosenfeld Collection. The book is well worth its price for its graphics, its historic significance and even more, as an eloquent expression of an exemplary attitude toward life.

More Book Reviews