The America’s Cup

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Big yachts have been sailing for the America’s Cup since 1851, which makes it the oldest international sporting trophy in continuous competition. That it has survived for so long seems to defy common sense. No contest could seem more anachronistic than a four-hour race held miles from shore between two otherwise useless objects moving slower than a good marathon runner and maneuvering under rules so complex that even the participants cannot agree about them. But if the America’s Cup survives and thrives, it is precisely because it is so anachronistic. At its heart is an old, simple idea: Two competitors in large, spectacularly beautiful objects, each representing one nation, go head to head (or rather bow to bow) for supremacy.

 

Patriotism, spectacle, and personal challenge—the America’s Cup offers them all. But strangely enough; the event grew out of something altogether different: Prince Albert did not like British hoes and plows. In order to introduce modern agricultural technology to his adopted country, Queen Victoria’s consort organized the Great Exhibition of 1851, an international trade fair at London’s Crystal Palace, where the aisles were filled with manufactured goods of all kinds—reapers and revolvers, lace and printing presses, soap and needles.

Subsequent events might have taken a different path had Stevens named the schooner for his hometown, Hoboken.

The fair had one enduring product that the prince could not have predicted. In New York in the fall of 1850, John Cox Stevens, commodore of the city’s recently formed yacht club, decided to show off American prowess in naval architecture at the Great Exhibition and in races against the boats of the Royal Yacht Squadron, Britain’s leading, most aristocratic yacht club. He and five other men had a 101-foot schooner built on the banks of the East River. Although she represented the New York Yacht Club, they named her America. The man generally credited as her designer, George Steers, gave her a sharp bow, a broad stern, and radically raked masts, all of which distinguished her from the squat, bluff-bowed, narrow-sterned vessels usually found on either side of the Atlantic. Her sails were made of a new material called cotton duck, which stretched far less than the usual flax. With her special sails and fine furnishings, her price was $20,000—about twice the cost of a comparably sized square-rigger and the equivalent of about $350,000 today.

 

Such was Britain’s reputation as a maritime power that some observers predicted disaster for Stevens’s adventure. “The eyes of the world are on you. You will be beaten, and the country will be abused,” the newspaper editor Horace Greeley gloomily warned a member of the syndicate. His opinion was not shared by the British sailors who watched America as she easily slid by one of their swiftest cutters on her way to Cowes, home of the Royal Yacht Squadron. Word of her speed got around, and nobody would accept Stevens’s challenges for one-on-one match races—except one lone client of his railroad business. The squadron’s caution occasioned the Times of London to accuse the club’s members of behaving like pigeons paralyzed by the appearance of a sparrow hawk.

There was, however, one squadron race open to America —a fifty-three-mile circumnavigation of the Isle of Wight on August 22, 1851. The prize was a bulbous silver ewer called the Royal Yacht Squadron £100 Cup. The British exempted America from several rules that might have prejudiced her. She also was a little lucky. Because she inadvertently received the wrong race instructions, she sailed a slightly shorter course than her competitors, a few of the best of which were damaged or otherwise forced to quit the race. But her luck was winner’s luck. Faster on every point of sail, America stretched out to a lead of more than seven miles. Night was falling as she crossed the finish line, and her competitors were somewhere back in the murk. The Times later reported the following exchange between two spectators:

“Is the America first?”

“Yes.”

“What’s second?”

“Nothing.“

That may be the source for the America’s Cup’s most enduring legend, which has it that Queen Victoria, watching the race with Albert from the royal yacht, asked who was second, and a deckhand answered, “Madam, there is no second.”

America also won her single match race, and Stevens was making plans to take her to London when an Irish nobleman offered to buy her at a price providing a nice profit. That unsentimental transaction completed, Stevens and his friends went home with the ewer, which came to be called by the name of its first winner.

Stevens arrived in triumph. “Like Jupiter among the Gods, America is first and there is no second!” exclaimed Daniel Webster. Britain’s reputation as the monarch of seafaring seemed shattered, and by a yacht carrying another country’s name. Subsequent events might have taken a different path had Stevens named the schooner for his hometown, Hoboken.