John Alden was raised in Troy, New York. Family summer holidays in Sakonnet, Rhode Island, on Narragansett Bay, gave him sea air to breathe and a life with boats. While a boy of 12 or 13, he stole his family’s new 21’ knockabout and sailed her virtually alone the 300-some miles from Troy to Sakonnet with a dollar in his pocket and canned hotdogs for his grub.
In 1900, his family moved to Dorchester, MA because of his father’s illness. With his father’s death two years later, Alden was out, more or less, on his own. His schooling became haphazard. Yet by 1902, he had worked briefly in the office of the very young Starling Burgess before winning an apprenticeship with B. B. Crowninshield, the preeminent Boston yacht designer of his day.
In the first decade of the 20th century, the fleets of the swells’ marvelous cutters and skimmers raced alongshore, finishing even the most celebrated races in a few days and very close to home. No yacht smaller than 100’ sailed the oceans; it was unthinkable.
Suddenly, in 1906, a New York upstart and rabblerouser, Tom Day, editor of Rudder magazine, insisted it was safe for small boats to race the oceans. And he launched the Bermuda Race, 668 nautical miles, from Gravesend, New York to St. David’s Light, Bermuda, as "the first ocean race for amateur sailors in normal boats". The race perfectly fit the man John Alden.
Alden had opened his own office, in Boston, in 1909, and for years barely scraped by. But he had already absorbed the lesson of a lifetime: B.B. Crowninshield had applied racing yachts’ deeper hulls and finer lines to the enormous Gloucester fishing fleets to increase not only their speed but their safety.
John Alden now reversed this remarkable commercial success to create a small schooner, which in simplicity, sea-kindliness and speed perfectly matched the new race and the new world of offshore racing. His yachts, all called Malabar, dominated the Bermuda Race for a generation. As skipper, he was the first man to ever win three times in yachts of his own design. He won first, in 1923, with his 47’ Malabar IV; second, with Malabar VII in 1926. And most astonishingly once more in 1932, with Malabar X, when the first four yachts to place were Alden schooners. Each was well below 100’.
John Alden and his office -- which became a superb training ground for novice designers -- came to prosper beyond all imagining. From 1925 though the 1950’s, they produced well over 900 hundred different boats of every stripe and kind. Many were built by Maine craftsmen, selected by Alden, for the lower price and more careful hand. He designed fireboats, tugs, and trawlers; over 300 sloops, including the fetching 31’ Malabar Junior, a tidy cruising sloop. Yawls and ketches numbered over 200. Dozens and dozens of one-designs; motorsailers, and 88 power yachts were produced over time. John Alden had become as astute a businessman as he ever was a skipper.
By the early '50's, the design world changed and the rules changed also, but John Alden supported the newer designs of offshore racers. Even as he succeeded in drawing new yachts to a new rule, he remained devoted to one idea: it is always possible to have good boat in a good race in open water. Even today, there can often be no better boat to have. And no better spirit to have aboard.
Alden retired in 1955. His office carried on until 2008, under the helm of Niels Helleberg, naval architect.