Olin Stephens, designer of America’s Cup winning yachts, dies in N.H.

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(AP Photo/International Sailing Federation)

(Host) Fifty years ago this week, racers set sail in the America’s Cup, the first time the classic yachting race was held after World War Two.

Olin Stephens designed and served on the crew of the Columbia, the yacht that went on to win that race.

Stephens retired to northern New England 30 years ago and died in Lyme, New Hampshire, over the weekend at the age of 100.

VPR’s Ross Sneyd has this remembrance.

(Sneyd) The Columbia set sail from Newport, Rhode Island, in 1958 in defense of the America’s Cup for the United States.

Naval architect Olin Stephens designed the boat, with his brother, Rod. It was the first time a 12-meter yacht competed in the race.

(Herreshoff) “We won four-to-nothing.”

(Sneyd) Naval officer Halsey Herreshoff was on the crew with the Stephens brothers.

(Herreshoff) “We trained all summer and had very close races with the other American contenders. But, we beat the English boat, Sceptre, really shamefully. We beat them about 10 minutes per race.”

(Sneyd) Part of the reason was the design of the Columbia. Olin Stephens was an innovator who was willing to experiment with the shape of his boat and the material it was made of. He was an early advocate of aluminum hulls after World War II and later of fiberglass.

His designs and his sailing skills earned him a spot in the first class of the America’s Cup Hall of Fame, where Herreshoff is president.

Author and sailor John Rousmaniere thinks he knows the key to Stephens’ success. Rousmaniere became friends with Stephens and wrote a biography of the architect’s life.

(Rousmaniere) “And Olin told me that he immediately wanted to steer. That’s all that he wanted to do. And he just had a feel. Anybody who’s a sailor knows this, you have a feel for a boat through the tiller or the wheel, if it’s performing properly. He started with that and he kept that feel, a fundamental feel for how boats work.”

(Sneyd) And he had a feel for how to make those boats go fast. Stephens designed eight of the nine America’s Cup winners between 1937 and 1980.

All told, he designed more than 22-hundred boats, many of them racing craft.

He also designed the recreational Lightning class of sailboats, found today on many inland waterways.

Rousmaniere says you never would have known it to meet Stephens.

(Rousmaniere) “He was the most humble and modest man I’ve ever been around. … He was not just the superstar of his sport and not just the great old man of the sport, but sort of the conscience of the sport and respected and loved really around the world.”

(Sneyd) Despite his close association with competitive sailing, Stephens also was drawn to the mountains of northern New England.

Rousmaniere spoke about it with Stephens.

(Rousmaniere) “Olin wanted to get away from boats. He always wanted to live a balanced life. In fact, the last words of his autobiography … are his desire to have boats that were balanced and a life that was balanced.”

(Sneyd) And so for the last 30 years of his life, when Stephens wasn’t on the water on one of his beloved boats, he was in Vermont and New Hampshire.

For VPR News, I’m Ross Sneyd.

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