All This and Sailing, Too

I just finished reading Olin Stephens’ autobiography All This and Sailing, Too and highly recommend it.

It’s a beautifully written account of the amazing life of arguably the most influential person in recreational sailing in the last hundred years, maybe ever, including many wonderful photographs and fascinating line drawings.

The book was edited (very well) by John Rousmaniere (author of Fastnet Force 10 and many other important books about sailing) and Joseph Gribbins.

Stephens seems to have been a genuinely nice person, with none of the bluster and ego that having so much influence engenders in so many—think a certain rocket-man who also builds electric cars.

And if you, like me, came to sailing in the second half of the last century, there are fascinating, and kindly told, insider stories of many of the iconic boats, races, and sailors of our time to enjoy and reminisce over.

And even if you came to our sport after the heyday of Sparkman and Stephens’ designs, reading this book will give you a better understanding of why boats are the way they are and how to choose one that will take you across the world’s oceans in safety and comfort, and quickly.

You will also read Olin’s fond and admiring stories of his brother, Rod, who was one of the best yacht seamen of all time. Rod had a relentless drive to do stuff right, from correctly forming a split pin to keeping an engineless yawl named Dorade, and later another yawl named Stormy Weather, (both designed by Olin) safe from harm, while winning many of the world’s toughest ocean races.

And all this before the availability of aids we take for granted today and well before the brothers reached their 30th birthdays.

We might be able to call the names of other individual sailors to rival either Olin or Rod Stephens in our world of sailing—I have to confess that I personally have always preferred the boats from McCurdy & Rhodes to those of S&S—but there has never been, and probably never will be, two people in sailing to rival the brothers Stephens as a team, or the accomplishments that synergy created over some 60 years.

While reading the book I felt a special connection to Olin Stephens because, like me, he never finished university (I never started) and, like me, he always regretted that and particularly not going further with mathematics, although he was certainly way ahead of me.

And, while I only ever met him once, and then only briefly, Rod Stephens has always been the seaman I have aspired to be. When I’m considering taking a shortcut or not completing a task properly, I sometimes say to myself, “What would Rod Stephens say about that?”, and buckle down.

Now, for my library, I need a biography of Jim McCurdy…yes, Sheila and Ian, that’s a not-so-subtle hint.

Comments

Have you read any good sailing book lately. If so, leave a comment and help out those stumped for a holiday season gift.

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Bob Buck

Your review reminded me that I need to read that book. It’s been on my list for some time. I met Olin once when he was in his 90s and he couldn’t have been nicer or more humble. I remember he told me that he was working with a tutor who was teaching him calculus.

Wilson Fitt

Hi John,

It’s an excellent book indeed. There is a good mix of sailing stories going back to the halcyon days of the J-Class behemoths, sketches of some of the great personalities of the sailing world and lucid explanations of fine points of yacht design and rating rules, all told in a self-effacing way. I met him quite a few years ago over lunch with a few other folks. In hindsight, I’m not sure that I was sufficiently in awe, but his manner would have put a quick end to that in any case.

Stein Varjord

Hi John,
A nice review that makes me want to read the book. I never met any of the Stephens’ in person, but have loads of respect. I may have raced against “Stormy Weather” once, in the 1983 Scaw Race, which was a big thing back then. If I’m right, she was about 80 foot and really beautiful. Several other legendary racing yachts were there. “Windward Passage”, “Ondine”, “Nirvana”, “Midnight Sun” and more. All are IOR Maxi Raters, the super yachts of the time. I’d guess some of them designed by Olin Stephens. Spectacular to sail with those huge machines in our 33 footer. We did it in 3 days. They did it in not much over 24 hours. Lively weather in the North Sea. 🙂

Talking about influential personalities in sailing, particularly in the Americas, Nathaniel Herreshoff needs to be mentioned. He was active from about 1870 until after 1930. As a measure of influence: Every winning America’s Cup Yacht from 1893 to 1934 was built by the Herreshoff yard, most of them designed by him. To this day, the “Herreshoff style” is used in loads of boat interiors. That is: White panels with varnished teak trim. He was sharp as a knife, creative and totally unbiassed. Also designed engines and fast steam ships for the navy. A very modern person.

Since I’m a multihull enthusiast as well as a speedaholic, 🙂 he is especially relevant. He was probably the first in the “modern world” to build a catamaran, in 1867 or possibly earlier. He had the first patent. He built several, and raced them, obliterating other contemporary boats. According to legend, cats at the time were discriminated, but that’s actually not at all true. They were seen as exiting. By far the fastest straight line sailing boats in existence, even faster than any similar length steamer. About a century later, however, heavy prejudice became very real. Now that silliness has mostly died out.

I don’t know which book(s) to read about Herreshoff, but I’m sure there are many. Another hero of mine, however, has written a book I love: Bernard Moitessier: “The long Route”. As a person he was also exceptionally kind and mild, despite his obvious capacity for enjoying rough oceans. He’s not anywhere near as generally influential as the above mentioned gentlemen, but to me and many others he’s been a huge personal influence.

Wilson Fitt

I second your recommendation of “Temple to the Wind” and, for those interested in going down the hole even further, suggest “A Race for Real Sailors”, the story of the Grand Banks schooners and the rivalry between Lunenburg and Gloucester.

The connection between the two stories lies in the 1920 America’s Cup series between Sir Thomas Lipton’s Shamrock IV and Herreshoff’s Resolute. These races were the subject of huge public interest and closely followed by the press, both of whom reacted with incredulity when the final race between these two mighty but fragile sloops was cancelled because of concern that they would break up in 20 knot winds and rough seas off Sandy Hook, New Jersey.

Incredulity turned into derision among the hardened Banks fishermen so they initiated the International Fisherman’s Cup race series to show the effete yachtsmen and an enthusiastic public what a race for real sailors would look like. It’s a great story of large, fast and able boats, larger than life personalities and no-holds-barred racing tactics. 

Eric Klem

Hi John,

Agreed, this is a great book. I am a big classic S&S fan largely thanks to my extended family having owned a classic S&S for 30 years. The boat was truly amazing to sail on and showed that the big picture and small details of the design were all done well and the fact that Nevins did a good job of building it helped too. As a kid, I would dream of the different boats in “The Best of the Best” which is a book highlighting some of the great S&S designs. 

Later in his life, Olin lived in the town where I went to college and grad school. He was good friends with one of the fluid dynamics professors so he was around occasionally and I really enjoyed every interaction I had with him. He was still incredibly sharp but also as you say he was humble, an amazing combination.

I might just have to reread it again now that you have me thinking about it.

Eric

Lee Youngblood

Hi John,
I’m impressed with a couple books by Miles Hordern
“Sailing the Pacific” and Passage to Torres Strait”
Not yacht design, nor well known, just realist descriptive writing about small boats in big seas. He sneaks in a bit of interesting history, map making, and ocean currents from Australia to Chilie and to the Torres Strait. Modest fellow. . .
Lee

Michael Jack

Thanks, John. Great idea for a xmas present (for me). I couldn’t find it in Europe but luckily I am travelling to the US next week so will have it delivered to my hotel. It wasn’t easy to find there either but I found it on Abe Books which I have used before. They have a bunch of new and used ones. Here is the link if anyone is interested: https://www.abebooks.com/products/isbn/9780913372890?cm_sp=rec-_-vhr_1-_-plp&reftag=vhr_1

Terence Thatcher

Back in the day, if you didn’t go to S&S, you probably went to Philip Rhodes. There is a beautiful book called Philip Rhodes and His Yacht Designs. I have always loved his boats and I have been around long enough to have seen many when they were new. He drew the sweetest sheerline of his generation.

Roger Errington

His book is a very good read. Looking through the comments reminded me that I have a copy of “L. Francis Herreshoff, Yacht Designer” by Roger Taylor on my bookshelf. I bought it several years ago at Mystic Seaport and have yet to read it. This was a good prompt; it’sbeen bumped up onto my reading list.