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Stormy Weather

Part 1 : Named for a Song

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Much was written about Stormy Weather in 1935, the year she won both the Newport-Bergen Race and the Fastnet. The achievements were all the more remarkable as this yacht launched the previous year from Henry B. Nevins Yacht Yard on City Island, New York, had been designed by twenty-five-year-old Olin Stephens, skippered by his younger brother, Rod, and crewed by an equally young team. Despite the youth, however, the Stephens brothers had already proven themselves - with Dorade, their first ocean racer that had won the 1931 Transatlantic, the Fastnet in 1931 and 1933, and her class in the Bermuda Race of 1932. The emergence and success of these two yawls heralded the end of offshore racing in large schooners and the beginning of modern yachting. Stormy Weather's early history is told here by her present owner.

Writing of the 1935 Newport-to-Bergen Race in Ocean Racing: 1866-1935 Alfred F. Loomis said, "One hundred and sixty miles in one day was Stoertebeker's best run. As that figure was also Stormy Weather's average for the passage, the difference between the winning boat and the last is plainly seen... I feel as I write these concluding words of a history of ocean yacht racing that the sport itself is no more than launched on its second chapter. The first phase ended in 1928 when large yachts raced for the last time across the ocean. The second reached maturity when in that year small boats ran their first transatlantic race. With such small boats, improved by experience, and with the young and skilful men who are turning their faces seaward, the sport continually enlarges its scope."

Stormy Weather was the "small boat" that inspired those words, and the Stephens brothers, Olin and Rod, were the "young men" whose genius was already in evidence.

From the Bronx to the Vineyard

Olin Stephens II was born on 13 April 1908 in the Bronx, New York, and his brother, Roderick Jr., on 7 August 1909. Their father, a coal merchant like his father before him, moved the family home to Scarsdale, New York, in 1913 and there the two brothers attended high school. From 1920 their summers were spent either at Barnstable Bay, Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard or on Long Island Sound where they taught themselves to sail on Corker, a 14' Crosby design, and then on the 26' Token. In 1922 the family bought their first "live-aboard", Trad, a 26' centreboard yawl designed and built by Edward Merril of Riverton, New Jersey (whose son Owen, nicknamed "Jim", would later sail with the three Stephens on the winning Dorade in the 1931 Transatlantic). Trad was replaced the following year by Souwester , designed by William [n.b. Frank Kinney uses Bill – "You are first", p31] Atkin who was then technical editor of the magazine, Motorboat, and in 1925 she was replaced by Scrapper, a 25' one-design sloop from the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Club. She has been described by Olin Stephens as "Very much an interim boat, she was followed by Alicia, of the Sound Schooner class, 30' WL light displacement for the time. Rod and I cruised and raced her for two seasons. She was a lot of fun."

In 1925 Olin and Rod were invited to sail on a couple of new Six-Metres, and Olin's experiences on Lanai, a Clinton Crane design skippered by Sherman Hoyt, probably influenced his early predilection for the Metre-type hull form.

Olin graduated from Scarsdale High in 1926 - Rod was then the captain of the unbeaten football team - and spent a semester at Massachusetts Institute of Technology studying naval architecture, but seemed to prefer yachting over other types of shipping and left school the following April. Rod's academic career was also short-lived: he started studying engineering at Cornell University, but left to work at the Nevins Yacht Yard in City Island, New York, where Henry B. Nevins suggested that hands-on experience would be more useful to Rod than spending three years at University - an opinion later reiterated by Frank Kinney who was to say, "The great success of Sparkman and Stephens came from the fact that the Stephens brothers knew exactly what they wanted, they didn't waste three years at school but started their careers young."

Olin worked for some time for Henry J. Gielow, and then Philip Rhodes. But by 1928 his father had arranged a partnership with Drake Sparkman, a yacht broker. Sparkman & Stephens Design No. 1 created that autumn was for a 21' sailboat for the Junior Association of Long Island Sound, although most of the boats went to the Larchmont Yacht Club. The type is still in use today, and there is an active fleet at the Manhasset Yacht Club where they are known as MBO's or "Manhasset Bay One designs".

Meanwhile, the Stephens were winning on the water. In 1927, the two brothers were invited to sail on a new Ten-Metre [1] belonging to friends of the Roosevelt family, and perhaps this experience inspired Olin's thinking on the design that would eventually become Dorade. In 1929 they won their first offshore race, the New London-to-Gibson Island, on board Kalmia, designed by Olin and, at 30', the smallest vessel in the fleet.

Olin designed several Metre boats, including the Six-Metre Thalia [2] which prompted Clinton Crane to send several clients to Olin, and the design business built up sufficiently for Drake Sparkman to rent space at 205, City Island Avenue, hire a retired draughtsman (a Mr MacCormack) to produce the finished plans. On 11 November 1929, Sparkman & Stephens Inc was formally created with five partners: Drake Sparkman and his younger brother James, James Murray, and Olin and Rod Stephens.

A number of successful Six-Metres followed - Cherokee, Comet, Meteor, and Mist - but the Depression and the Wall Street crash intervened, and although Cherokee contributed to an easy win for the US in the Anglo-American Cup of 1930, it became obvious that Sparkman and Stephens' future could only be assured with a bigger boat.

And thus came possibly the biggest break of Olin's career: his father commissioned a 52' yawl, Dorade. Built by Minnefords for a contract price [3] of $20,000 and launched early in 1930, she was narrow - 10'3" on the beam - floated slightly low on her designed waterline, but was fast, efficient, and virtually unbeatable on handicap. It was also in 1930 that Olin married his childhood sweetheart, Susie Reynolds, and that Yachting wrote in December, "To have achieved a reputation as a clever helmsman and successful racing skipper, and at the same time to have earned a name as a naval architect with many fast yachts to one's credit, is something that does not often fall to the lot of anyone at the age of twenty two. Hence it is with satisfaction that we present this month the portrait of Olin J Stephens, II, of whom all the above can be said."

Testing Tanks and the Professor

The early thirties introduced Olin and Rod Stephens to Professor Ken Davidson, a remarkable engineer with whom the brothers would enjoy both a long friendship and a long professional collaboration, following his visit to City Island in the winter of 1931-32 after been inspired by the Stephens' home movies of the previous summer. Rod used to say of Ken, "How marvelous to have a sailing companion whose only faults were the ash on his eternal cigarette and his habit of not putting the lid back on the barber's chair. He could work out sights faster than the navigators, draw up weather and iceberg charts from radio messages, and he swore blind that he liked the fog and the cold when you could only see anything fifteen per cent of the time." He was also a musician and a poet.

| On to Part 2 | Index |

[1] "For historical accuracy I recall that the 10 metre delivered from Halifax was called Branta, whose owner (trusting memory) was George Milne of Rye, NY. I traveled to Halifax on a small ship with two Roosevelt brothers, Jack and Phil who kindly helped with my first efforts at celestial navigation. I think they were crewing on one of the boats, not Branta." - Olin Stephens, January 1999

Branta does appear in Lloyd's List of Yachts for Canada and the United States in 1928, 1930, 1933 - built in 1927 by Abeking and Rassmussen, Lemwerder, Germany, it was owned by George G. Milne and its POR (Port of Registry) was Milton Point, N.Y. By 1948 the owner had changed to Dr. Donald W. Barber, Bilboa, California and it's POR was Hingham, Mass. I could not find other traces in Halifax, so queried about deliveries.

"You have it right. Branta was one of a one design class of 10 metres, not skinned out for pure racing which were delivered to Halifax from Germany (A&R, built) and sailed into US to save duty. 10 metres in 1927, 12's and 8's in 1928. Don't remember how many, possibly twelve. Am impressed by your research, home or public library or internet? I sailed in an eight in '28, no radio and sailed into Marblehead to hear that Lindberg had landed in Paris." - Olin Stephens, January 1999. [Back]

[2] Journalists at that time were quoting "Thalia was a Failure"... Olin learned some lessons. [Back]

[3] Olin corrected me on the contract price – which he thinks was also the contract price for Stormy. However, he does not know the "final" price, which could well be the much quoted $27,000 including all sorts of additional equipment, sails etc. [Back]

© The Skipper, 1999-2024


Stormy Weather
Sparkman and Stephens design no. 27, 1933.


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31 March 2012