All This and Sailing Too
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One of the characteristics of this book and thus Mr. Stephens himself that one notices early on is that he is so obviously a nice person always willing to acknowledge the efforts of others and praise them. Further he is always eager to excuse and minimize the failings of others as well.
Anybody familiar with the history of yacht design should acknowledge that Olin Stephens is at least one of the top two candidates for the title of “greatest yacht designer who ever lived”. There’s room for disagreement about the top spot but he’s definitely one the two at the top.
One problem that the young Olin Stephens faced was lack of a good school that specialized in training naval architects who wished to specialize in yacht and small craft design. He often expresses regret that he was not able to get a good technical education. I certainly understand his problem. When I was first learning to design there wasn’t a single school that I felt could teach me what I needed to know. I was fortunate in meeting Edward S. “Ted” Brewer one day in a boat yard as he worked on his boat, just before he founded his Yacht Design Institute. I thereafter studied with Ted, first as a student of his school and later as a draftsman working for his firm of “Brewer & Wallstrom”. Nevertheless after 43 years as a professional designer I still spend a lot of time pulling together research and test results to improve my own understanding and make more complete knowledge available to my students. At least we can now say that these days there are options that allow young students of design to gain a good technical education so that they can start their careers with a better knowledge base than was available in the past.
Hopefully some of today’s students will follow in Mr. Stephens’ footsteps to be the great designers of the future and will have an easier time getting the knowledge that they need. I always find it very exciting when correcting lessons to think that some of these students may someday be extremely famous.
Mr. Stephens points out that today we can do much more to establish performance characteristics through calculation than was possible when he started designing. It may be useful to add that this is because of the introduction of computers. Even when I started designing the most sophisticated devices for calculating were slide rules and mechanical adding machines. These days we can now teach today’s design students to do much more sophisticated models to predict speed, motion characteristics, static stability, and dynamic stability. This would simply not have been practical in the past. Further we can do a lot more different kinds of models of great sophistication in developing advanced structures, which Mr. Stephens had to do partly by instinct.
Of course Mr. Stephens has always been noted for more racing oriented yachts than many designers are today. When he started designing there was far more interest in vessels intended to be both good cruising boats and good racing boats. This approach was common at the beginning of Mr. Stephens’ career through to nearly the time he retired. However with the advent of the IOR rule, designers had to make a decision. They either needed to concentrate on rule beating vessels which would continue to win races while perhaps being somewhat usable as cruising boats or to concentrate on designing vessels optimized for cruising with the understanding that they would not rate well under the IOR rule. Sparkman and Stephens straddled this world, continuing to design IOR racers with some pretention to being cruising boats, and also some vessels that were pure cruising boats, though they never sacrificed speed on the cruising boats as they sometimes had to on the racing ones.
In discussing the progress of designs and the work of other designers, Mr. Stephens is always fair and careful. But I did notice one odd quirk. Oddly he refers to the John Alden designed schooners repeatedly as having sawn frames and workboat construction. While it is true that some of the Alden schooners were built with the intent that they would be inexpensive construction and may have had such limitations as galvanized fastenings and iron keels, which limited their life, I am not aware of any of Alden’s yacht designs being unusually heavily built or having any sawn frames at all. They were all steam bent frames in my experience. The only one of his schooners that I know of which had sawn frames was one of the very earliest schooners he designed, which was in fact a commercial schooner, the “Priscilla Alden”. I think Mr. Stephens probably came to think of Alden schooners as “traditional” and less advanced than his creations and over time his memory of their construction drifted to an assumption that they were sawn frame vessels.
On page 73 I note that he says “… passagemaking and winning races called for very different designs. Race winning meant small wetted surface area, in turn a shorter keel and deep sections, with as much outside ballast as possible.” This is an interesting example of how things change. Today top designers of cruising vessels also stress reduced wetted surface, deep sections in the family sized cruising boats range, and 100% outside ballast. By way of contrast while the racing rules still tend to push shorter keels at us, the best educated designers now understand that short keels have been pushed far beyond what maximum performance criteria would indicate and have become so short that they are harming performance , safety, and structural considerations beyond all reason. Further it is now the racing boat which suffers from shallow sections and the cruising boat which tends to have the deeper sections. In a very real sense, cruising boats freed from the constraints of racing rule fashions have continued to provide higher and higher performance while racing boats have gradually become poorer performers. This must surely be a development that Mr. Stephens found ironic in his later years. Indeed in races where the boats are rated as far as possible by true speed evaluation criteria rather than a rating rule. We now see that older designs like some of Mr. Stephens more famous designs are now out there winning races again. This must have been a tremendous vindication of his work for him.
The everyday use of computers for on screen design came along after Mr. Stephens retired though his firm was an early adopter of computers for many things. I notice that when I first read his book, even though my own design firm was a very early adopter of computer technology, I felt that he over stated the adoption of on screen design in the industry as a whole. Now just a few years later I look back and realize that yet again Olin Stephens understood, even in his later 90s, the trends in design better than I did. Now it is clear that manual drafting is already essentially a dead issue, which most new designers today are unlikely to ever use at all. Only the oldest firms today still even retain the ability to do manual drafting and only so that they can do updates on older designs without putting the design into the computer.
Page 79 is especially valuable to the beginning design student for its note explaining the reasoning behing the Dellenbaugh Angle calculation, which is the best explanation I’ve ever seen. It is especially important to remember that this calculation can be used to compare vessels at various wind strengths, not just one assumed wind speed.
Just after this there is a really excellent section on the use of models in tank testing and how it replaces guess work with numbers. With today’s instrumentation and radio control, etc. I would suggest that there is now a possibility of more utility in free sailing models than would have been possible for Sparkman & Stephens during Mr. Stephens’ tenure there.
While I could go on discussing a great many things about what this book can teach us, I do want to discuss one more thing, which I believe is centrally important to Mr. Stephens’s success. In this book he states that examining the longitudinal water flow is all important and the you must avoid “bumps and hollows in the longitudinal flow. Now I had noticed is his book “Lines”, in which for the first time he allowed the publication of the lines of a great many of Sparkman & Stephens greatest designs, that extreme attention was given to perfection of the diagonals, just as Captain Nat Herreshoff did. This led me to believe and to state to students that the lines, and this statement that you must avoid bumps and hollows in the longitudinal water flow, indicated that the attention to perfect diagonals was the secret of his success. Interestingly shortly before Mr. Stephen’s death one of our students attended his 100th birthday party, and had an opportunity to speak to him. He asked if Mr. Stephens would characterize great attention to perfect diagonals as a trade secret of his. Mr. Stephens replied “Absolutely, you must use the diagonals to avoid humps and hollows in the water flow.”
This is a wonderful look into the mind of one of the most admired, and even, in his later years, most loved designers in history. We would strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in yacht design and perfection in sailing vessels. (272 pages) (tm) $45.00