For decades Sparkman & Stephens were the most sought-after design office in the world. Their yachts were seaworthy and beautiful, winning everything from club trophies to the America's Cup. Many are still sailing today. The »Sparkman & Stephens Association« maintains the legacy of the legendary designer in a very practical way - through sailing and communication.
If you are sailing a 30-foot yacht and heading westwards in the English Channel in September, as you reach Land's End and you are faced with the choice of heading South or North, you must have a good reason for choosing North. It can't be the weather. Storms and persistent rainfall in England are often dismissed with the remark »it's like summer in Scotland here«. And it doesn’t get any better as the year progresses.
A good reason for an autumnal dash to Scotland might be an Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the Sparkman & Stephens Association. Last autumn this AGM was the destination of the German half-tonner Topas, whose owner had originally wanted to head for more southerly climes. But then there was this invitation... So he worked his way, partly single-handed, partly with a family crew, from Travemünde via the Kiel Canal to the south of England and Cornwall, taking various weather breaks and finally passing the Isle of Man, whose port of Peel was not good to enter because of breaking seas. Eventually he and his son arrived in Portavadie, via Northern Ireland, for the 2022 AGM. Normally the annual meetings are in the summer, but towards the end of the Corona pandemic the Association's officers were glad that the meeting could take place at all.
The Sparkman & Stephens Association was formed in Cowes in 1993, and even to the four founders this came as a surprise. After the Classic Week races, four S&S yachts lay in the pack, the owners drank beer and were enthusiastic about the qualities of their beautiful yachts. At the awards ceremony, they raised a toast to the great designers of Sparkman & Stephens and spontaneously decided to join the S&S Owners Association. Whereupon a journalist who was present informed them that no such association existed. More beer flowed and the next morning the Sparkman & Stephens Association was founded, not to be confused with the Sparkman & Stephens Design Office now based in Newport (RI) on the US coast near New York.
The Association is the Association of Owners of S&S yachts. Anyone who owns a boat designed by that American design company can join the association for 30 pounds, currently just under 34 euros. For that you get a lot: Up to three regional meetings a year, a general meeting, a yearbook and – from 2023 – an online archive that will soon contain over 1000 plans, plus photos and reports. So the expensive thing about membership is not the annual fee but the boat you own when you belong to this Association. In most cases it is a few decades old, seaworthy and is quite beautiful if you put enough work and money into it.
The 301 members of the Association include the owners of Dorade (design no. 7), with which the young Olin Stephens made his breakthrough as a designer, and Tenacious (design no. 2089), with which Ted Turner stormed to victory in the disastrous 1979 Fastnet Race, the German insurance entrepreneur Harald Baum (Pantaenius) with his Swan 48 Elan, and the owners of Edward Heath's two-tonner Morning Cloud. In Portavadie harbour, besides Topas, a cold-moulded half-tonner from 1971, there are only yachts built in GRP: Chairman Gavin's Swan 76 ketch Tigris, the Delta 94 Sanity, a beautifully documented project by webmasters Dan and Ellie, who travelled from Biscay for the meeting. Board members Roger and Karen's She 36 Eriska is a yacht that exudes sheer seaworthiness on the outside as well as below decks. Jack has recently rejoined the S&S community, with his newly acquired Swan 43 Reindeer: »I bought her simply because she is a beauty«. As they all are…
The meeting proves the often overlooked fact that Sparkman & Stephens not only designed spectacular, individual designs, but also a lot of series built yachts. Sailmasters, Contessas and Sagittas were built from designs off their drawing boards. For boatyards it was a selling point to have work done by the then hottest design office in the world. This way they could offer their customers really good yachts that, if they were built properly, had a high resale value. How many passably sailing but visually unsatisfactory boats came onto the market in the past decades? This could not be the case with an S&S design. Nautor in Finland grew with S&S Swans, and when development – and fashion – moved on and Olin Stephens put down his pencil, they signed an up-and-coming star, German Frers. He had previously worked for Sparkman & Stephens.
S&S in New York was a large office that at times employed over 100 people and also designed cutters, powerboats, tugs and smaller navy craft. Its reputation, however, came from sailing yachts. The brothers Olin J. Stephens and Roderick Jr. had chosen the stock market crash year of 1929, of all years, to start their business. Father Roderick Stephens ordered a 52-foot yawl from his son, Dorade, to help him get started. She immediately won the transatlantic race from Newport to Plymouth and subsequently the Fastnet Race. An unusually slim, light boat – but strong and fast. From then on, the S&S boats got better and better. Finisterre was even more successful than Dorade, the S&S yacht cleaned up in the Bermuda Race, in Transatlantic races and in the Fastnet. The 6mR yacht Goose, namesake of this magazine, was built in 1938 and was considered unbeatable for a long time. She was the first 6mR yacht to be built after extensive testing in the towing tank.
For a long time, »computing« was done with the help of slide rules, multiplication tables and logarithm tables. Olin Stephens was able to work out a complete lines drawing with straightedges and curve rulers in a long working day of eleven hours. In the 1960s, he recalled, calculators replaced slide rules, then came computers. The drawing tables were abolished except for three, on which drawings plotted by the computer could be laid out. But one thing remained the same for the time being: the designers designed the boat according to the customer's ideas, the computer was just a tool. Designing was a creative achievement.
However, intuition was not a matter of luck for Olin Stephens. He had dropped out of his studies at the MIT and taught himself the mathematics he needed to design. As early as 1928, one year before founding the company with yacht broker Drake Sparkman, Olin Stephens expressed his conviction in an article for the magazine »Yachting«: »In any design the most important factors of speed seem to be the long water lines and large sail area, with moderate displacement and small wetted surface. Then comes beauty, by which is meant clean, fair, pleasing lines. Though per se beauty is not a factor of speed, the easiest boats to look at seem to be the easiest boats to make go fast.«
Many physicists are convinced that in the end a theory that is not mathematically beautiful is not correct. David Pedrick, a designer who began his career at Sparkman & Stephens, said of his former boss: »He felt that Mother Nature prefers beautiful shapes, so he stressed beauty in his designs and not just brutal performance.«
When Olin Stephens and the then already famous naval architect Starling Burgess were hired by Harold Vanderbilt to jointly design the defender yacht Ranger for the 1937 America's Cup, both built two models each, which were tested in the towing tank. From these four models, one was chosen – the designers both did not reveal whose model it was – and this was the starting point of a long chain of improvements. This was Olin Stephen's principle again and again later: take the best existing boat, study it and try to make it even better. As a designer in the America's Cup, he often had no other choice. In most cases, he already knew the fastest boat because he had developed it himself with his team. Sparkman & Stephens designed five boats for the America's Cup, successfully defending it seven times.
The Sparkman & Stephens company still exists today, it has a new owner and is now based in Newport (Rhode Island). The Association has its centre in England and is active all over the world, wherever owners of S&S yachts are organised. Its mission is »to foster a wider appreciation of the classic designs of Sparkman and Stephens«. Which were quite up-to-date in their time. Chairman Gavin Howe: »If Olin was designing now, he would be designing well rated boats which use modern materials to enable lighter displacement but which would also be the most strong and seaworthy. Interesting, my first sail in a planing keelboat was in 1979 when I did a boat test for a magazine of an Olin designed Tartan T 10 in very windy conditions.«
The association’s membership of 301 vessels embodies just as many stories worth telling. The yearbook reads like a collection of adventures and restoration projects, often both in one. One owner reports how, after years, he managed to seal the connection between the deckhouse and the deck, which sounds less dramatic than the story of the Hamburg architects Erika and Albrecht Peters, whose beautiful 42-foot sloop Sasha, a wooden yacht built by the famous English boatyard Clare Lallow, lay as a torn-open wreck stranded on the Danish coast, where Ali Peters found her and then rebuilt her.
The half-tonner Topas is back home in November after a stormy return journey with, this time, longer port stopovers. A boatyard visit is planned as cracks are showing between the veneers in the outer skin. The trip to Scotland was a success, the owner writes: »After meeting the S&S folks in Portavadie, we could say, the trip was worth it, and Scotland is as beautiful as it is demanding from a nautical point of view.« The yacht was on its best behaviour in terms of seaworthiness, and plans of the boat were found in the Association's archives that no longer existed even at the boatyard. They also found out the name of the designer who was responsible for the boat at Sparkman & Stephens: it was Marco Vukasovic, who had a reputation for drawing particularly beautiful boats.
Hans-Harald Schack (69) ist Journalist und segelt. Er schreibt Magazin-Reportagen und Bücher, macht Lektorate und Übersetzungen. 2014 nahm er am Clipper Round The World Race teil. Die Reise führte von China nach San Francisco und durch den Panama-Kanal in den Atlantik. Sein Web-Log und Reportagen darüber gibt es als e-Book und als Buch: "Von Qingdao nach New York". Zur Zeit ist er mit dem 1971 gebauten S&S-Halbtonner "Topas" in Nordeuropa unterwegs.