Most naval architects would be happy if just one of their yacht designs was considered a true classic. Yet the quiet, bespectacled Olin Stephens (1908-2008) drew the lines for scores of boats that sailors all know as pinnacle achievements of the art.
Among the most famous Stephens creations are Ranger, the majestic J-classer co-designed with W. Starling Burgess that left all America’s Cup competitors miles behind; Finisterre, the three-time winner of the Bermuda race; Vim and Intrepid, both breakthrough 12-metre designs that proved close to unbeatable in their eras; Running Tide, the powerful sloop that has most probably won more trophies than any other ocean racer.
But it was the first of Stephens’ offshore designs, Dorade, that set the benchmark of excellence for the Sparkman & Stephens studio, and still helps define that company’s trademark style. Commissioned by his father, Rod Snr., the slim-hipped yawl was S&S Design #7, created in 1929 by the unqualified draftsman when he was just 21 years old. Perhaps the most famous of all classic ocean racers, Dorade has now come ‘Down Under’ for the Australian season and will be the guest of honour on Gaffers Day at the Sydney Amateur Sailing Club on Mosman Bay this October.
Dorade was built at the Minneford’s yard in New York under the supervision of Olin’s younger brother, Rod, and launched in May 1930. Her lines were unconventional for the time, when most American offshore yachts were big, broad, heavy schooners.
At 52 feet LOA and with sharp ends and just 10’3” beam, Dorade looked more like an overgrown 6-metre. Only her tall yawl rig marked the Stephens design as a blue-water racer. That spindly triple-spreader mast was revolutionary, as were the long, cutaway forefoot, lightweight construction, deep ballast and 7’7” draft. Another unique element was the special deck vents designed by Rod to let air in, but keep water out. Adopted around the world, they are still called “Dorade vents”.
In July 1931 the East Coast yachting establishment gave this unique little yacht no chance at the start of the notoriously tough Transatlantic Race from Newport, Rhode Island to Plymouth. With Rod as the nominated skipper the Stephens brothers and their crew took Dorade on the Great Circle Route, opting for the shortest distance rather than hitching a ride on the favourable Gulf Stream current.
The tactic worked, and after logging many 200-mile days – but rolling badly because of her narrow beam – Dorade passed the Lizard Point Light a clear two days ahead of the next yacht. As an old man, Olin Stephens recalled that moment as one of the happiest in his long life. On corrected time, Dorade had won the Transatlantic by an astonishing four days. And to the great indignation of the UK yachting toffs, she then went out and won the Fastnet Race. The international fame of the fledgling S&S company was assured.
More than 80 years later, and after nine owners and a complete restoration at the Cantierre Navale Dell’Argentario yard in Italy, Dorade is still winning races.
Co-owned by skipper Matt Brooks and his wife Pam Rorke Levy since 2010, the yacht is currently engaged in an ambitious campaign to compete again in all the major ocean races Dorade won in the 1930s – the Transatlantic, Newport-Bermuda, Fastnet and Transpac. As well, Brooks and his crew could not resist coming Down Under to sail in the Hamilton Island Regatta and Sydney-Hobart Race.
The Sydney Amateur Sailing Club is both delighted and honoured that Dorade will sail with them on Gaffers Day 2017. It will be a unique experience to see her among the fleet of more than 80 classic yachts that come together every two years to celebrate the history of sailing on Sydney Harbour.
– David Salter