Deceased , Modern

Aileen Shields

Shields Bryan

19252005

Aileen Shields Bryan, daughter of Corny Shields, was among the best female sailors of her time. Sailing from the Larchmont YC, she won the Women’s National Championship Adams Cup in 1948 as well as Atlantic Class and 210 Championships.  In 1950 she and her crew, Margot Gotte, wrote a detailed, 3-page article for Yacht Racing Magazine, titled “How to Win a Sailboat Race”. Also in 1950 she married Alexander Bryan.  Her husband, along with Cortlandt Heyniger, had designed and built the Sailfish, which was essentially a sailboard with a lateen-rigged sail. Aileen, after taking the Sailfish for a sail while pregnant, thought the craft would be more comfortable with a place to put one’s feet. Her ideas were taken to the drawing board and thus the Sunfish, with a cockpit and a slightly wider beam, was born.  The Sunfish has since become the most popular recreational sailboat in the world.

SUNFISH-Story-SI-Spread

Awards and Honors

  • 1948 Aileen Shields – Women’s National Sailing Champion – Adams Cup
  • 1977 Sunfish – FORTUNE “One of the 25 best-designed contemporary products”.
  • 1984 Sunfish – IYRU International Status, qualifying for Olympics & PanAm Games
  • 1995 Sunfish – Inducted into American Sailboat Hall of Fame as “The most popular. Fiberglass sailboat ever designed, with a quarter million sold worldwide.” (this number has since reached over 300,000)

 

An excerpt from her nomination which underscores Aileen’s enormous influence on the creation of the Sunfish:

“The spark that set off Alcort’s extraordinary success was Aileen, Corny Shield’s (NSHOF, 2017)  daughter and perhaps the best female sailor of the time: winner of the ’48 Adams Cup and Class Champion in both Atlantics and 210’s. Corny credits Aileen with introducing Long Island Sound to “the greatest spinnaker-handling asset to come to yacht racing – the spinnaker turtle”. But, Sunfish was her greatest gift to sailing. The story goes: After Aileen married golfer Alex Bryan in 1950, her time on the water was dutifully in a wet bathing suit on the rough sandpaper deck of a Sailfish. For America’s leading yachtswoman, this had its limits. Not wanting to flop around on its flat deck when pregnant, like a beached whale, she “insisted” that Al and Cort build her a wider boat with a cockpit well for her feet, so she could more naturally sail, seated athwartships holding a hiking stick. It’s easy to imagine her saying, “Hey guys, let’s make a real sailboat”, one that’s more fun and easier to sail properly than this uncomfortable, tippy board we’ve been peddling?”

Aileen’s concept was drawn out  in dust on the shop floor… a 1-foot wider Sailfish with a cockpit well. Sunfish was born to become, “The most popular fiberglass sailboat ever designed, with a quarter million sold worldwide” said the American Sailboat Hall of Fame in 1995.

NOTE:  *It can be said that Aileen’s  Sunfish was the first Shields family one-design – an evolution of the wooden Sailfish – and likely the inspiration for her father’s creation of the 30-foot “Shields“ sloop 12 years later (1963) – an evolution of his wooden International One-Design (named AILEEN), adapted by Olin Stephens and built by Cape Cod Shipbuilding?  Her name was on the transom of Daddy’s boat, but not on the Sunfish sail. ”

When Alcort joined other boatbuilders converting to fiberglass in 1959-60, Al & Cort became the Henry Fords of the sailing world… Sunfish being the Model T…as the first mass-produced fiberglass sailboat, outputting as many as 15,000 in 1972 on an overhead conveyor belt. That’s 300 per week, or 100 times Alcort’s output in 1952, when Aileen’s new boat was first launched. There are now over 350,000 worldwide.

 

Below is Aileen Shields Bryan’s obituary, printed in The Vineyard Gazette in 2005.

Mrs. Bryan was born April 4, 1925, in New Rochelle, N.Y., daughter of the late Cornelius and Josephine Shields. She studied at the Rye Country Day School, St. Margaret’s School and the Berkeley-Llewelyn Business School.

As the daughter of world-famous yachtsman Cornelius Shields, she spent much of her youth racing sailboats at the Larchmont Yacht Club. Mrs. Bryan earned her own yachting fame by winning the Adams Cup — the Women’s National Sailing Championship — in 1948, and class championships in the Atlantic and 210 class sailboats.

In 1950 she married Alexander Bryan, designer and builder of the Sunfish and Sailfish sailboats. Together they raised four children in Middlebury and in Edgartown, where they spent many of their summers. Throughout her life she never lost her love for her family, sports and the water.

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