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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
The only noon position given was for America ’s fifth day from port; it reveals her as on the distance-saving great-circle route across the tail of the Banks in latitude 44° 20′ N. and at the approximate longitude of 50° W. For purposes of comparison, this position puts her about 100 miles closer to England than the larger three-masted schooner Atlantic was on the equivalent day in the race of 1905, in which the Atlantic set the all-time record of twelve days and four hours from Sandy Hook to the Lizard, a headland on England’s Channel coast. But the America had five days of calm (on one of which, nevertheless, she overtook two vessels sighted from her masthead) and still she made Le Havre in a few hours over twenty days.
Crew and passengers of the America did not suffer from a shortage of victuals. There are references in the Steers log to “veal potpie and indian fritters with sauce,” to “stewed chickens, with apple pie for dessert,” and, far along in the passage, to “fried ham and eggs, boiled corned beef, smashed potatoes with rice pudding dessert.” Although George was reported as feeling a little better on the tenth day, he had a bellyache as late as on the eighteenth. Inasmuch as the Steers brothers’ own supply of liquor had been drunk, it became necessary on that day to enter the ship’s stores and break open a case of rum.
One further reference is made to a topic of much greater importance than rum. The America picked up a British pilot off Start Point (which is a few miles east of the Lizard) and the log says: “We have every sail set and the way she glides along knocks the pilot. He wanted to heave the log himself, so we gratified him, he could not believe she was going 12 knots, because she made so little fuss.”
Perhaps if Commodore Stevens or any of the other owners had been aboard, the pilot’s curiosity would not have been so obligingly slaked. Yachtsmen raced for money in those days, and although neither cash nor cups had been mentioned in the preliminary exchange of letters between Commodore Stevens and the Earl of Wilton, the American syndicate had every expectation of wagering and winning large sums on their schooner. It was unfortunate that an Englishman should have been given this intimation of the America ’s speed. But there was worse to come.
After a three-week refit in Le Havre, a place chosen to keep the schooner from the observant eyes of her prospective antagonists, Commodore Stevens and his brother Edwin joined her from Paris, and the America crossed the English Channel to the Solent. Here Fate, acting through the fickle medium of the weather, loaded the dice against the invader. If she had been able to anchor off Cowes in the hours of darkness, none but the Start Point pilot would have had firsthand knowledge of her speed potential. But calm and then a foul tide caused the America to bring up a few miles short of Cowes and so lay the scene for an impromptu race that had devastating consequences.
News of the America ’s, departure from Le Havre had been carried across the Channel by the mailship, and early in the morning a fast, seventy-ton English cutter named Laverock dropped down to be the first to challenge this upstart from the United States.
There were a thousand eyes on shore to see that the Yankee did not evade the issue. What happened was best described by Commodore Stevens, at a banquet tendered him and his associates in the Astor House upon their return to New York: They saw we could not escape, for the Laverock stuck to us…showing she had no intention of quitting us. We were loaded with extra sails, with beef and pork and bread enough for an East India voyage, and were some four or five inches too deep in the water. We got up our sails with heavy hearts; the wind had increased to a five- or six-knot breeze, and after waiting until we were ashamed to wait longer, we let her go about 200 yards ahead and then started in her wake.…
I have seen and been engaged in many exciting trials at sea and on shore.…During the first five minutes not a sound was heard save, perhaps, the beating of our anxious hearts or the slight ripple of the water upon her sword-like stem. The captain (Dick Brown) was crouched down upon the floor of the cockpit, his seemingly unconscious hand upon the tiller, with his stern, unaltering gaze upon the vessel ahead. The men were motionless as statues, their eager eyes fastened upon the Laverock with a fixedness and intensity that seemed almost supernatural.…It could not and did not last long. We worked quickly and surely to windward of her wake. The crisis was past; and some dozen of deep-drawn sighs proved that the agony was over.
When the America , with a lead of a quarter of a mile, anchored in Cowes, the contest was ended. So were the hopes of her backers for making any money on her in the big race to come. An English newspaper, attempting to soften the blow of the Laverock ’s defeat, told its readers that the result might have been otherwise if the speedy cutter had not been towing her dinghy. Commodore Stevens posted a challenge and offered to bet any sum up to 10,000 guineas that the America could outsail any “cutter, schooner or vessel of any other rig of the Royal Yacht Squadron.” There were no takers.