The America’s Cup

Almost obscured by the huge spectator fleet and the black smoke billowing from their stacks, Valkyrie II rounded the stake boat.

Soon after Stevens’s death, in 1857, the surviving syndicate members turned the trophy over in trust to the New York Yacht Club, with a Deed of Gift dedicating it for use as “a perpetual Challenge Cup for friendly competition between foreign countries.” A challenge to the cup’s holder could come only from a yacht club from another country, and competitors should negotiate terms (for example, the schedule of races and the types of boats to be sailed).

The first challenger, in 1869, was an Englishman, James Ashbury. Like Stevens he expected a match, but when the contest was finally held in 1870 he got a fleet race, in which his Cambria was badly beaten. The winner was a schooner named Magic. Over the next twenty-five years there were eight true one-on-one matches, two involving Canadian boats and the rest British challengers. Most of these races were exciting just because the hundred-foot-or-larger boats were so imposing, with their towering rigs, but a few were thrilling because they were close. One of the most gripping races in all cup history was the final one in the 1893 match between the challenging Valkyrie II, owned by the Earl of Dunraven, and Vigilant, the first of five cup defenders created by Nathanael Herreshoff, of Bristol, Rhode Island.

In a fresh twenty-five-knot easterly breeze that had both boats deeply reefed, Valkyrie walked away at the start and built a two-minute lead in fifteen miles of beating to the windward mark, almost obscured by the huge spectator fleet and the black smoke billowing from their stacks. She rounded the stake boat, headed back to the finish, and, the fierce wind now at her stern, set her spinnaker, which promptly tore to shreds. Behind her Nat Herreshoff, in command of Vigilant, also set a spinnaker. Then he went about the risky job of shaking out his reefs. One of his crew of seventy climbed onto the boom and, with a taut halyard tied around his body to keep him from falling into the water, crawled ninety feet to its end, cutting the reef points. Valkyrie meanwhile kept her reefs in and blew out her second spinnaker. Vigilant, her mast shaking wildly, raced by at twelve knots to win by two minutes and take the series, 3-0.

Although challengers sometimes came close, they won only three races in the first thirteen matches. Even when fast and ably sailed, they labored under several disadvantages. Their boats had to be heavier to survive the long voyage to New York that was required before a ruling in 1956 allowed them to be shipped on freighters. Because the races were held on the defender’s course, the conditions were often unfamiliar. The challengers also had to submit to the New York Yacht Club’s sometimes arbitrary authority in assigning handicaps and deciding on-the-water disputes. Still, sailors kept coming, drawn, then as now, by challenge, patriotism, and spectacle.

Everybody loved Lipton, and almost everybody wanted him to win; because of this, the America’s Cup thrived. So did his tea and grocery concern.

The cup was a spectacle and a spectator sport long before it was covered by television. A greater proportion of the potential audience watched the races in person a century ago, when New York’s population was only two million, than does on television today. Public interest was fueled by the vast population of Irish-Americans in New York who fervently hoped for the defeat of English challengers, and the media fed this interest. Mass-circulation newspapers covered the cup even more thoroughly than they did baseball; the first use of the wireless telegraph was to report cup races from the water; and Thomas A. Edison sent an early motion-picture crew out on a spectator boat to film a race in 1899.

When crowding made the New York Bay course dangerous for competitors and audience alike, the races were moved out into the Atlantic off Sandy Hook, New Jersey, but with little effect. Even out on the rolling ocean, the course was lined with big passenger and ferry boats packed to the rails with thousands of paying spectators. They were entertained by brass bands blaring patriotic anthems—American, Irish, or British as suited the patrons. The spectator fleet sometimes wandered onto the course, prompting racing crews to display signs reading KEEP AWAY. By 1899 the crowding was so bad that the Navy had to provide patrol boats to manage the traffic. In 1930 the races decamped to Newport, Rhode Island, but even there a thousand or more spectator boats could be counted on.

The excitement was as great for the owners as for the crews and onlookers. J. Pierpont Morgan, who helped finance several of the hundred-thousand-dollar-plus defenders, was no sailor, but after his Columbia won in 1899, he hefted his bulky frame aboard the sloop from a launch and, according to the New York Tribune, threw his arms around another syndicate member “with a shout of delight…and danced about with joy.”