“ah, Your Majesty, There Is No Second”


The month was August and the clay was the twenty-second. Even the time of the afternoon—5:45—was mentioned by the alert correspondent of the Times of London, who further observed that the Prince of Wales went ashore from the royal yacht wearing his while sailor’s uniform and tarpaulin hat and danced down the road with boyish vivacity.

To bring the appealing picture into focus it is necessary to add only that the year was 1851, that the young prince was the future King Edward VII, and that the occasion was a race in which the most newsworthy competitor was a schooner from the United States, the America .

Queen Victoria was immensely interested and probably assumed that at least one of the fourteen British cutlers and schooners that had started at 10 o’clock that morning in a 53-mile contest around England’s Isle of Wight would defeat the American invader. From the Victoria and Albert , in which the royal party had put aside the cares of state, the smaller steam yacht Fairy was dispatched seaward of the Needles for a view that the young prince and his shoregoing party had relinquished because of wind and drizzle. The Fairy ’s return gave rise to questions and answers so famous and so paraphrased that some historians cloud their authenticity with the invidious word “alleged.”

Thus the Queen is alleged to have asked a signalmaster, “Are the yachts in sight?”

“Only the America , may it please Your Majesty.”

“Which is second?”

“Ah, Your Majesty, there is no second.”

An impetuous student having only the official summary of the race in hand might turn to it and note that whereas the America finished off Cowes some three hours later—at 8:37—the next yacht, the cutter Aurora , was clocked at 8:45. A disparity of only eight minutes in an all-day race is so small that it makes the historic conversation seem not only apocryphal but a dastardly American fabrication. Yet the facts were that the wind, which had been fresh from St. Catherine’s to the Needles, died to a whisper after the America entered the Solent and that the Aurora , a ghoster of little more than a quarter of the America ’s tonnage, picked up several miles of disadvantage and became a very good second.

Nevertheless, the American schooner won the first formal race ever to have been sailed between United States and British yachts and by so doing set in motion a train of mighty events. The year 1958 will witness the seventeenth defense of the trophy which was the tangible result of the race of 1851. But, alas, the America is no more.

It would be gratifying if yachting history were wrapped up in a tidy parcel so that one could say that the immediate effect of the America ’s performance in foreign waters was so profound that she was sailed home and enshrined for the inspiration of future generations. Unhappily, after winning the 100-Guinea Cup of the Royal Yacht Squadron and one other race in 1851, she was sold at a tidy profit to an Irish lord. She was sold and resold, rebuilt and built again, sailed for both the South and the North in the Civil War, returned to the Naval Academy by public subscription after half a lifetime of private ownership, and finally in 1940 was removed from her native element and placed for storage beneath a shed in an Annapolis shipyard. There, on Palm Sunday, 1912, under the onslaughts of a high wind and a 16-inch fall of heavy snow, the shed collapsed and crushed all but the soul of the 91-year-old America . When the war ended, examination proved that the only usable wood in the entire hull was the keel, and in 1946 the yacht was broken up. Today, the America lives only in the minds and hearts of yachtsmen.

Let us look into the inception of this, the most famous of all yachts, her building, lier first of many transatlantic crossings, and the events’ preceding and immediately following her historic race. In 1851 at its newly built Crystal Palace, England launched the first international exposition. With the impending event in mind, a British merchant had suggested in the fall of the preceding year that the United States send over one of its famous pilot schooners to demonstrate American skill in sailing and construction. John C. Stevens, commodore of the recently organized New York Yacht Club, improved upon the suggestion and formed a syndicate for the building of a yacht. George Steers, a young man who had created both pilot boats and small pleasure boats, was commissioned to design it. Since Steers had at that time no place of business of his own but was working in the shipyard of William H. Brown, at the foot of East Twelfth Street, Manhattan, the contract for her construction was given to Brown.