Thursday, April 17, 2008

A century of excellence


Olin Stephens turned 100 last weekend, and that’s a birthday worth noting even if you’ve never owned a Sparkman & Stephens design. The old boy’s life spans the history of yachting as we know it – or indeed sailing as we know it. He’s designed some of the loveliest and most enduring yachts ever built, and stamped his influence on cruising, racing and even motorboating. From bulletproof cruisers to America’s Cup winners, graceful yawls to blunt-nosed workboats, Stephens had the kind of magic touch that most boat designers would kill for.

The roll call of famous S&S boats would take too long a time to get through, so I’ll restrict myself to one of my favorites. I was living in Australia during the early 1980s when two remarkable voyages took place. A likely lad called Serge Testa built himself a 12-foot aluminum boat and sailed it round the world. But I digress – this was no S&S design, it was all Serge’s own handiwork, and a finer example of never letting a lack of cash stand in the way of a great adventure has seldom been seen. More on that some other time.

The voyage I really mean was that of Jon Sanders, a sheep shearer from the dusty hinterland of Western Australia. I was a long-haired, bewhiskered editor of a motorcycle magazine in Melbourne in ’81 and ’82, the years in which Sanders circumnavigated Antarctica – twice, alone – in Perie Banou, his Aussie-built S&S34.
I wasn’t interested in sailing per se in those days but I was interested in adventure, and since I knew people who knew Sanders I followed his exploits keenly. He had already made a name for himself by placing second in the 1979 Parmelia Race, from England to Fremantle, on the same boat (another S&S 34). Back in the mid-70s, he’d circumnavigated with stops, and with crew. In between, he’d criss-crossed the Pacific and Indian oceans numerous times and made a dozen or more transits of the southern Australian coastline, and raced a few Sydney-Hobarts.

Later in the 1980s, Sanders traded up to a bigger boat and circumnavigated another three times without stopping – twice west-east, once east-west, covering 71,023 miles in 657 consecutive days at sea. I have a feeling that’s a record that’ll stand forever; Sanders later said: “Normal people would say ‘you’ve got to be mad,’ and I’d think, yup, and if I’m not, I’m sure it would be helpful.”

Mad or not, Sanders trusted his little 34-footer enough to dodge icebergs alone for nearly a year. The S&S 34 was conceived in the dying days of Britain’s RORC rule, and its design was influenced by both that and the new International Offshore Rule (IOR). Olin said at the time: “We hope and believe that the S&S 34 will make a good all-round boat, so as to demonstrate in a fairly small package that a good boat for offshore racing will also be a good boat for cruising.”

The 34 had all the characteristics of what we now identify with those early IOR days – a hull that was diamond-shaped when seen from above, with fine bows and a pinched stern, a short waterline, long overhangs and a generous dollop of tumblehome that meant the person sleeping in the windward pilot berth was further outboard than the rail monkeys sitting above. The skinny-main, big-foretriangle rig set the tone for the decade that followed.

This is the style of boat that leads people who have never sailed one to pontificate about downwind death rolls, lack of stability, poor build quality, bad seakeeping and lord knows what else. Some later IOR boats did for sure give the whole generation a bad name, but many early examples were and remain excellent, solidly built sailing boats that are still rewarding to sail today. Note to people looking for cheap, tough, well-mannered cruising boats – you could do a lot worse than an early IOR racer.

The 34 made its bones when British prime minister Ted Heath won the 1969 Sydney-Hobart in Morning Cloud, and for the next five years S&S 34s won or placed highly in that tough ocean classic. It gained a rep as an excellent heavy weather boat, and even now, beating into a stiff breeze, it would give nothing away to many modern designs. Sailing conditions around the Australian coast are as tricky as you’ll find anywhere, so it wasn’t surprising that the boat proved so popular there. The Aussies soon began building S&S 34s, and believe it or not you can still order a brand new one, built the modern way with resin infusion by the Swarbrick yard.

Following in Sanders’s wake, Aussie youngsters David Dicks and Jesse Martin also circumnavigated alone on S&S 34s, and these little boats have carried many other sailors safely through adventures on the world’s oceans. A few years back I tried hard to find one to buy, but the only example I could track down was a tired old warhorse in California that had way too high an asking price.

They don’t design boats like the S&S 34 any more, because people don’t buy them. Like the Contessa 32 – another ‘70s cult classic - a 34 was a big boat back in the ‘60s, but compared to a modern 34-footer it feels like you’re in a closet. At sea the lack of interior volume is a blessing rather than a handicap, but in port you need to set your sights a bit low in terms of cruising comfort. This isn’t a boat for big crews, which may be one reason it’s so popular with singlehanders.

Even though it doesn’t have the cachet of Dorade, the beauty of Finisterre, or the high profile of many bigger S&S designs, the S&S 34 epitomizes that sweet blend of form and function that made Olin Stephens such a great designer. It looked right, it was right, it still is right, and it’ll always be right. There aren’t that many boats you can say that of, and a good many of those took shape on Olin Stephens’s drawing board.

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