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America’s Cup Races: The Beginning

September 28, 2016

The New York Yacht Club was created in 1844, when nine local yachtsmen met to set up an association whose purpose was for the “better enjoyment and development of the sport” (Outing August, 1894). A Boston yacht club had been formed some nine years earlier and others followed. But none ever rose to the prominence of the New York Yacht Club.  

During the early 1800s, our nation’s manufacturers produced mainly smaller items, described as “the kind that could be stored in warehouses” (Cosmopolitan, Sept., 1899). But our shipbuilders soon received wide recognition for their clipper ships. They were built for speed rather than British vessels which had a greater carrying capacity. Yankee schooners often easily outrun British frigates during the War of 1812. 

 

Merchantmen from around the globe gathered in 1851, for London’s World Fair. American shipbuilders were eager to demonstrate their vessels. Also, the British already had a tradition of yacht races off their coast. With the upcoming happenings on the British Isles, members of the barely six-year-old New York Yacht Club were eager to gain recognition in their sport. They approached shipbuilder George Steers with the request that he build a yacht that could “beat the world!” The only stipulation was its cost would not exceed thirty thousand dollars.

Named America, the 101-foot 9-inch long schooner was launched on June 18. She had a mainsail, foresail and a single jib. Built to have “uniform displacement of the water along her lines,” she was vastly different from most vessels of the day. Others were frequently constructed with a full body forward. “A fair line fore and aft is better,” argued George Steers. 

 

During her initial sea trails, America was beaten by the centerboard sloop Maria, but she easily beat others. Undaunted, the America set out from her 12th Street dock on June 21 for Havre, France. Commanded by Nelse Comstock, among her crew was the ship’s builder, George Steers. Passage which took six days, had a run of 284 miles in a 24-hour period. It was said that the harder the wind blew, the faster the schooner sailed across the seas. 

On the last day of July, America weighed anchor at Havre and headed for Cowes, on the British Isle of Wight. The crossing was made in calm seas but arriving after dark, she dropped anchor six mile off the Isle. Overnight, she was enveloped in a heavy bank of fog. At about 9:00 am on the next day, the wind picked up and the fog cleared. As America readied to make her way toward Cowes, she was met by the British cutter Laverock. Her captain wanted to challenge the American schooner. Commodore Stevens who had joined the America at Havre, took the bait. The schooner easily beat the cutter into Cowes Harbor, but in doing so, she demonstrated her stealth before the New York yachtsmen could challenge other British vessels in the upcoming race. It took no time at all for the word to get out among the locals. Equipped with that knowledge, it became difficult for the New York sailors to get any British vessel to sail against them. Least of all, the locals would not make substantial bets against an American victory. The schooner’s owner/financer had hoped to recoup his costs with large wagers that he felt sure they would win. 

Mounting pressure from local sources such as the London Times finally prompted the Royal Yacht Squadron to set up a regatta around the Isle of Wight for August 22.  All boats were eligible to take on the America. The squadron would award a trophy valued at 100 guineas (approximately $800 in 2016).

The course around the Isle of Wight was reputed to be difficult, especially for anyone who had never sailed it. A sailor’s knowledge of its tides and currents were believed to be more important than the speed of a vessel. 

On August 22, the America and seventeen British schooners and cutters joined the race. The largest vessels were the 47-ton cutter Aurora and the three-masted schooner Brilliant; America was 170-ton.

The vessels were lined up in two rows; cutters at the front, schooners to their rear. Start of the race was made with all of the vessels at anchor. Typical of that time, with the starting gun, anchors were raised and sails were hoisted. It was meant to be a measure of boat handling.

 

The regatta, which began at 10:00 am, found the America the last to get underway. She was entangled in her anchor line, forcing her crew to lower her sails. The schooner however, recovered quickly and headed out behind all of the other vessels. Within some 12 miles, she had passed thirteen of the vessels, leaving the Arrow, Aurora, Beatrice and Volante. Finding the America to just their stern, the vessels closed rank, preventing her from passing them without the possibility of fouling one of them. But when the winds shifted to the S.S.W., America catapulted past them near the Nab Lightship. As she reached St Catherine’s Point, none of them were in sight. Rounding the Needle, the schooner was travelling at 13 to 14 knots. She arrived back to Cowles at 8:37 pm. The 41-year-old Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert were watching for the race’s outcome from the quarter-deck of the Royal Yacht. “Which is first” she asked her sailing-master? “The America” was the response. “Who is second,” she asked? There is no second in sight was his answered. Eight minutes later, Aurora made the harbor followed by Bacchante, 9:30 pm, Eclipse, 9:45 pm and Brilliant, 1:30 am. As later recounted by Henty Steers, the builder’s nephew who was part of the America’s crew, arrival times for all of the other boats was never recorded; most had finally made harbor in the early hours of August 23 – others had quit.

The owner of the Brilliant protested the American schooner’s victory, stating that it had passed on the wrong side of the lightship. However, the protest was dismissed; there had been no instructions regarding on which side the Nab, a vessels should pass. 

The American schooner had prevailed over the best of the British yachts. The crew took home the Hundred Guinea Cup where it was held for future regattas by the New York Yacht Club. It was then renamed the America’s Cup. From 1870 to 1980, American yachts won the America’s Cup twenty-four consecutive times. In 1983, the Australian yacht, Australia II won the challenge. 

 

List of Winners for America’s Cup—Link: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Americas-Cup

For more on the history of the New York Yacht Club – Link: https://nyyc.org/about/history-heritage.

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