Sparkman & Stephens, the naval architecture and brokerage firm formed by Olin Stephens and Drake Sparkman in 1929, is the overarching legacy of a lifetime of remarkable achievement in yacht design and engineering. In 1929-30, while Stephens was still in his 20s, he drafted plans for and then built a 52-foot ocean racer christened Dorade. She was only the 7th yacht he’d drawn; yet within a year of her launch, Dorade put the helm over hard on the entire blue water racing circuit, winning the Trans-Atlantic race by a dramatic two-day margin. Her simplified masthead yawl rig, fine profile, and lighter displacement would disrupt the reign of schooners and gaff-rigged yachts that had dominated competitive sailing for decades, leaving designs by legends such as Alden, Fife, and others in her wake – literally.
In short order, Olin Stephens became the most sought after yacht designer in the world. A 1936 commission from Harold “Mike” Vanderbilt for an America’s Cup syndicate led to the creation of Ranger, a 130-foot J-Class yacht of stunning beauty and unmatched speed. She won 12 of 12 America’s Cup contests in 1937 and became a sailing legend. While racing took a hiatus during World War II, the US Navy Department called upon S&S to develop amphibious troop landing vessels, such as those used in the D-Day, Italian, and Pacific Island invasions; thousands were produced, significantly contributing to the Allied victory. After the war the Firm continued its parade of racing victories. Over four decades, S&S designed every single America’s Cup winner but one – an astonishing achievement unlikely to ever be repeated.
As the yachting industry shifted from wood to fiberglass and from one-off designs to production brands, Sparkman & Stephens remained a designer of choice. High-end builders including Abeking & Rasmussen, Baltic, Concordia, Derecktors, Hinckley, Hylas, Lyman Morse, Morris, Nautor Swan, Northwind, Palmer Johnson, Shaw, Stellar, Tartan, Queen Long, and others boasted of designs by S&S in their advertising. Simultaneously, commissions for unique Sparkman & Stephens yachts – sail and power – continued to flow in from the major figures of the 20th century: Aga Khan, Baker, Disney, DuPont, Ford, Heath, Johnson, McGraw, Mosbacher, North, Reynolds, Rockefeller, Rothschild, Schaefer, Scripps, Sears, Turner, Vanderbilt, Watson, and many, many others. The firm’s legacy remains sterling, even today; to wit: a high-end broker recently concluded a listing summary: “She is a Sparkman & Stephens’ design. What more needs to be said?”