The fleet and lovely America showed her stern to Britain’s best and gave her name to international yachting’s most coveted trophy
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.
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.
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.
For the better part of three weeks the America lay at anchor off Cowes while streams of visitors went aboard her—the most suspicious among them looking for evidences of a hidden power plant. Having despaired of drumming up a match race, Stevens finally decided to enter her in the open race of the Yacht Squadron scheduled for August 22. The race was run, to the America ’s, glory and Victoria’s disappointment.
Six days later America had a match race with the new English schooner Titania , which had been entered but had not started in the August 22 contest. The stakes were a paltry £100. The course, covered in a fresh breeze, was twenty miles to windward and return. Thanks in part to the novel lines of her hull and in part to the close weave and taut set of her cotton sails, the America won with ease.
Now, having proved to the skeptical British that Americans could build and sail a boat that would defeat all comers, the America passed to other hands. Her sale price of $25,000 was more than enough to cover the cost of her building and of the summer’s campaign; beyond that there were the stakes of the Titania match and the sterling silver Squadron Cup.
It is not a handsome cup. In fact, it is not a cup at all, being more accurately described as an ewer. It cannot even be used as a receptacle for champagne because it has a hole in the bottom. At first there was some thought of having it melted down and converting the silver into commemorative medals for each of the members of the syndicate, but wiser counsel prevailed, and a few years later the Squadron Cup (sometimes erroneously called the Queen’s Cup) was deeded to the New York Yacht Club to be held in trust as an international trophy and to be known as the America’s Cup. Another thirteen years elapsed before it was put up for competition. On that occasion—in 1870 off Sandy Hook—the cup was defended by a fleet even larger than the British one from which the America had cleverly extracted it. Among the defenders was the nineteen-year-old America herself, which finished fourth behind the winning Magic and was still spry enough to put five yachts between her and the Cambria , the British challenger.
In the years that have since gone by, the fame of the America and her cup have ever been linked together. Of all the conclusions drawn from her British visit, that of John Scott Russell, a Scottish-born naval architect of the day, is the most enlightening. He had formulated the so-called wave-line theory on which the Titania had been built, and subsequently he was in part responsible for the famous English steamer Great Eastern . Commenting on the Yankee schooner’s performance, he wrote: “America reaped a crop of glory; England reaped a crop of wisdom.…It was worth the loss of a race to gain so much.” He referred not only to the speedy underbody of the American schooner, but to the close texture and clever cut of her cotton sails. Herbert L. Stone, late editor of the magazine Yachting , once declared, “Taking its name from the gallant schooner that won it, this [the America’s] Cup has become an emblem of speed supremacy afloat, the most famous sporting trophy in the world.”
Into the ornate design of the trophy there were introduced several shields, on the central one of which the names of thirteen of America ’s competitors were inscribed. It is a curious circumstance that the name of the Aurora , which had pressed so close upon the heels of the America in her first great race, was omitted from the list. Its omission was unpremeditated substantiation of the answer given to Queen Victoria—“Ah, Your Majesty, there is no second.”