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“ah, Your Majesty, There Is No Second”
The fleet and lovely America showed her stern to Britain’s best and gave her name to international yachting’s most coveted trophy
August 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 5
Of these happily blending circumstances the most fortunate was that in designing the America , Steers departed from the established axiom that to be fast and seaworthy a vessel must have a cod’s head and mackerel’s tail, i.e., bluff bows and a long, tapering run in the afterbody. Steers did not quite reverse the concept, but he did whittle his model out with a long, moderately hollow bow, with the greatest beam almost amidship, and with the afterbody well filled out. In such fashion he had modeled and built the New York pilot boat Mary Taylor in 1849, and she had been a great success, outsailing her rivals in the hard competition to place pilots aboard incoming merchantmen.
Such was the confidence of owners and builder in the skill of George Steers that they entered upon what seems today more like a blue-sky speculation than a sober undertaking to construct anything as unpredictable as a yacht. Down the East River, on South Street, a man could order a square-rigged clipper ship, 185 feet long and capable of carrying 1,600 tons of tea from China, for $70,000. But a sum of $30,000 was asked for a yacht of not less than 140 tons that would be less than 102 feet in length.
The price, mentioned in a letter to George L. Schuyler, a member of the syndicate, was, however, coupled with a stipulation that if within the space of twenty days after delivery the new vessel did not prove faster than any of her size brought against her, the owners need not accept her or pay for her at all. The trials would be at the builder’s expense. Furthermore, if she were taken to England (this, of course, at the owners’ expense) and were beaten by anything of her size built there, the owners might still reject her.
Mr. Schuyler thereupon replied that the price of $30,000 was indeed high, but that in consideration of the liberality and sportsmanship of the builder the offer could not be declined. So the America was built during the early months of 1851, with April 1 mentioned as the completion date. It goes almost without saying to anybody who has built or even heard about the building of a boat that a second letter extended the delivery date to May 1 and that she was still in the builder’s loving hands two weeks after that. On May 17 she was finally ready and on that day, in a fair test, met the sloop Maria , owned by Commodore Stevens, a larger boat and by all odds the fastest in American waters. The America was badly beaten.
Messrs. Stevens, Schuyler, and their four prospective co-owners were thus relieved of their obligation to buy the yacht. But time pressed, arrangements had already been agreed to with Lord Wilton, commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron in England, and they therefore agreed to take the America off the builder’s hands for $20,000. Alter this lapse of time there is only the written word to explain this transaction, but one wonders whether the high original price and the generous terms were not accompanied by the tacit understanding that if the America were very good but not quite as good as the time-tested Maria she would be accepted at the more reasonable figure.
At any rate, another month was devoted to final work and to preparations for the voyage, and on June 21 the America set sail. For the passage she was carrying the Mary Taylor ’s sails, with her own sails and other racing gear stowed below, and was commanded by Captain Dick Brown, a famous New York pilot who was part owner of the Taylor . Since it was not the fashion of the day, none of the owners was included in the crew of thirteen, but George Steers was there, together with two other “passengers,” his older brother James R., and James’s teen-age son. Posterity is indebted to James for his revealing and amusing personal log of the passage.
For example, George was no sailor, despite his skill in fashioning vessels. As for James, he confided to his diary, “Should I live to get home, this will be my last sea trip. All my clothes are wet. It has rained every day since we left.” Even the second mate “turned in rather squamish” on the first night out, while “Cap., mate and Chips took a seidlitz powder.”
As to the speed the new yacht was making, there is enough information in the log to show that the seasick designer had every reason to be proud of his creation. Her best day’s run was 284 miles, an average of about twelve knots. Even more significant, on the seventh day out she sighted the British bark Clyde ahead at ten in the morning and had her out of sight astern by six in the evening.