Olin Stephens and My Missed Opportunities
Olin Stephens and My Missed OpportunitiesReport Abuse
I'm not sure if everyone is as haunted as I am by regrets. I tend to doubt it. That said, I'm not complaining. My regrets are as much as part of me as my happiest memories. Think of it this way: without its ghosts, a haunted house is merely a dreary old structure in need of paint job and some new shutters.
I was reminded of one of my numerous regrets this weekend when I got the news that Olin Stephens passed away. Stephens, for the few of you who don't know, is the most famous sailboat designer in the history of the sport. He designed eight of nine America's Cup winners from 1937 through 1980. He was responsible for so many developments in our sport that it isn't even worth beginning to list them here. But suffice to say, if it makes sailboats faster, it's likely Stephens, who participated in a celebration of his 100th birthday at the New York YC earlier this summer, had a hand in it at some point. We all stand upon his shoulders.
My senior year at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., two friends and I--we were all engineers and members of the sailing team--decided we would each complete a thesis that combined our major with our passion.
Among the things working in our favor were an energetic professor who had taken a shine to sailing and the local presence of Olin Stephens, who had moved with his wife into a retirement home in town.
I knew who Olin Stephens was. But I didn't understand who he was. Among the things you don't learn in one-design college sailing--which was all I really knew to that point--is an appreciation for the intricacies of yacht design, of what makes one yacht faster than another.
Not surprisingly, Stephens had lots of ideas to occupy the fertile minds of college students. One of my teammates did his thesis on the velocity prediction program at the core of the IMS rating system, working on refining how the program handled speed loss during a tack. Another worked with land yachts.
I took a different tack, picking a subject of my own invention, which would prove to a dead end. I dropped it later in the year.
At the time, the biggest disappointment was that my two friends both graduated "with honors" while I simply graduated. I knew my parents and grandmother would've been that much more proud to see me walk away from my formal education with one extra accolade.
Now that I've come to understand a bit of what Stephens contributed to the sport of sailing, that addendum to my diploma pales in comparison to the opportunity to work with a true genius.
I got a glimpse of that genius a few years later. While in Auckland covering the 2003 America's Cup, I joined a number of other journalists at a party sponsored by Louis Vuitton. Stephens had flown in for a few days of the competition and one point during the party he sat down and held court with us scribes.
It was an amazing conversation. I wish I could remember exactly what we talked about--speaking of regrets, why didn't I bother to record that conversation. In his own humble way, he held rapt some of the biggest cynics in the sport. Despite having sailed with and against Vanderbilt, and designed boats to be made of wood, he was not stuck in the past. He loved new technology. What struck me the most, however, was that every idea and opinion was geared toward improving the sport. I got the sense it was something he'd been doing for more than 80 years at that point. And he still had plenty of good ideas.
While regarded at the time as the elder statesmen of sailing, I got the sense that most of his ideas weren't getting much traction with the establishment. He didn't seem too upset by it. But I wonder if it will be something we will regret in the years to come.