The America’s Cup Challenge — 1903

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The record of competition for the America’s Cup is a patriot’s dream. After twenty-four challenges for the trophy, first awarded to the schooner America in 1851 after she defeated a fleet of British rivals, America has never lost. In this hopelessly one-sided history, 1903 stands out as a classic confrontation. In that year the Irish millionaire Sir Thomas Lipton, by now almost as famous for his yachting as for his tea empire, was making his third try for the Cup. He hired a Scot, William Fife, to design a yacht, and on the third day of the third month of the third year of the new century, he launched Shamrock III. Accepting the challenge, a syndicate of Americans headed by Cornelius Vanderbilt hired America’s leading designer, Nathanael Herreshoff, who built Reliance. And the race was on.

Under the measurement rule that governed the series, only waterline length and sail area were computed in a yacht’s rating, or handicap. The two designers turned out yachts that were as long as the rule allowed, 90 feet on the waterline, even longer counting the bow and stern overhangs, which were not subject to measurement but added substantially to a yacht’s speed. Each contender carried an enormous expanse of sail, 14,330 square feet in the case of Shamrock III and more than 16,000 for Reliance, the largest sail plan ever set on a single-masted yacht. But with other design elements, Fife and Herreshoff took nearly opposite tacks, the challenger’s more traditional and conservative, the American’s more experimental. While yachtsmen awaited the three-race series that would prove one of the two approaches, they eagerly watched Reliance ’s performance on practice runs. “She flies away down wind like a puff of smoke,” wrote one commentator. He might almost have been describing this photograph, in which the smoke is provided by a passing steamer.