By Michael Levitt
This gathering in England in the summer of 2001 is to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the America’s Cup, “the oldest trophy in sports.” It began with a letter penned February 22, 1851. The writer was the Earl of Wilton, commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron (RYS), in England. It was addressed to John Cox Stevens, the first commodore of the New York Yacht Club (NYYC).
The letter read:
"Understanding from Sir H. Bulwer that the members of the New York Yacht Club are building a schooner which it is their intention to bring over to England this summer, I have taken the liberty of writing to you, in your capacity of Commodore to request you to convey to them and to any friends that may accompany them on board the yacht, an invitation on the part of myself and the members of the Royal Yacht Squadron to become visitors of the club-house at Cowes during their stay in England. For myself, I may be permitted to say that I shall have the great pleasure in extending to your countrymen any civility that lies in my power, and shall be very glad to avail myself of any improvements in shipbuilding that the industry and skill of your nation have enabled you to elaborate."
Commodore Stevens's response was dated March 26, 1851:
"I regret that accident prevented the reception of your letter until after the packet of the 12th inst. had sailed. I take the earliest opportunity to convey to the gentlemen of the Royal Yacht Club and to yourself the expression of our warmest thanks for your invitation to visit the Yacht Club at Cowes. Some four or five friends and myself have a yacht on the stocks, which we hope to launch in the course of two or three weeks. Should she answer the sanguine expectations of her builder, we propose to avail ourselves of your friendly bidding, and take with a good grace the sound thrashing we are likely to get by venturing our longshore craft on your rough waters. I fear the energy and experience of your persevering yachtsmen will prove an overmatch for the industry and skill of their aspiring competitors. Should the schooner fail to meet the expectations of her builder, not the least of our regrets will be to have lost the opportunity of personally thanking the gentlemen of the Royal Yacht Squadron and yourself for your considerate kindness. With the hope that we have the pleasure of reciprocating a favour so frankly bestowed. I remain, your lordship’s most obedient servant."
For Stevens and his friends, the timing was fortuitous, as, he noted, an appropriate yacht, to bear the wonderful name America, was soon to be launched. The plan was to take her
transatlantic to the world’s fair, or the Great Exhibition of 1851, being organized at the new Crystal Palace in London by Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria. America was to serve as an example of Yankee shipbuilding.
The syndicate agreed to pay the builder, William H. Brown, $30,000 if America was faster “than any vessel in the United States brought to compete with her.” She wasn’t. The 100-foot America finished second to Maria, another Stevens-family yacht, of 97-feet. It was, to be sure, an unfair test as Maria, designed for flat water, was no sea boat. She featured a
centerboard rather than a fixed keel like America. Also, while the two yachts were fairly similar in size, Maria’s sail area at 7,890 square feet was 2,500 square feet greater than America’s. Maria required a crew of 55; America would sail the famous race that lay ahead of her with 21 . Since America failed to “answer the sanguine expectations of her builder,” the syndicate paid Brown $20,000 for her -- two-thirds the asking price. These were sharp businessmen.
To be an example of Yankee shipbuilding was not all of it, however. America’s owners, which included Stevens’s brother Edwin, J. Beekman Finlay, James Hamilton and George L. Schuyler, hoped to win wagers with her. America left Hoboken, NJ -- the site of the NYYC’s first clubhouse -- for France on June 21, 1851, under the command of Dick Brown, a former Sandy Hook pilot. She arrived in Le Havre, France, in 20 days, six hours.
This fledgling country’s offerings at Prince Albert’s International Exhibition were uninspiring. America sent Colt revolvers, agricultural implements and a Mr. Briggs, of New York City, reportedly the world’s premier lock-picker. Describing America’s pedestrian agricultural devices, the London Times wrote airily, “If the Americans do excite a smile, it is by their pretensions" John Cox Stevens (pictured to the right) and his brother Edwin, later the fourth commodore of the NYYC, and James Hamilton traveled to France by steamship to wait for their yacht. While in Paris, Hamilton encountered Horace Greeley, the noted newspaper editor. Greeley, supposedly of “Go west, young man,” fame, warned: “The eyes of the world are on you. You will be beaten, and the country will be abused, as it has been in connection with the Exposition.” He strongly advised that America refrain from racing any British yachts. Hamilton replied, “We are in for it and must go.”
America sailed for Cowes on the Isle of Wight, where Queen Victoria had a summer home, Osborne House. The Isle of Wight is also the home of the Royal Yacht Squadron. The Royal Yacht Squadron was formed in 1815. Two years later, the Prince Regent asked to join “The Yacht Club,” as it was first called. When he became King George IV in 1820, the yacht club asked him to become its patron. The club similarly asked that its name be changed to the Royal Yacht Club -- later the Royal Yacht Squadron. The RYS has been described as the “most exclusive club in the universe.”
In 1851, yachting had a 250-year long tradition in England. “Britannia,” which according to legend and song, “ruled the waves,” had hundreds of yachts at this time. While not the first
yacht club in America, the NYYC was started seven years before in 1844 on Gimcrack , another John Cox Stevens yacht. An hour later, after the American yacht arrived in Cowes, the Earl of Wilton and a welcoming party were aboard America. It was the Earl of Wilton who had first extended the invitation to John Cox Stevens to visit Cowes.
Stevens issued a low-key challenge to any number of “schooners of the Old World” for a race in a breeze of not less than six knots. The British hosts responded politely to Stevens and his party; they were made honorary members of the Royal Yacht Squadron -- a considerable honor -- but this invitation to a contest was politely ignored.
Interest in the mysterious American yacht intensified. The Illustrated London News dismissed her as “a rakish, piratical-looking craft” and commented that she “seemed rather a violation of the old established ideas of naval architecture.” The 83-year-old Marquis of Anglesey, charter member of the RYS, had an opportunity to visit her. He said, “If she is right, then we're all wrong.” After his death, the Royal Yacht Squadron would be housed in his sixteenth-century castle, beginning in 1857. It is there to this day.
When the British ignored America’s challenge, Commodore Stevens increased the stakes. He offered to race any yacht for “any sum from one to ten-thousand guineas” -- a guinea is worth slightly more than a pound. James Steers, the brother of America’s designer, George Steers, described this latter sum, the equivalent of $50,000 then -- perhaps $800,000 today -- as a “staggerer.”
As America waited for a race, her legend grew. James Hamilton wrote, "There was a very great impression at Cowes that America had a propeller which was ingeniously concealed; and our crew amused themselves by saying to the boatmen who came alongside with visitors (there were thousands, as people of all classes were permitted to examine the vessel), ‘In the stern sheets, under the gangway, there is a grating which the commodore does not allow any person to open...'"
It wasn’t a propellor that made America faster; it was, first, her hull shape. Pilot boats, like America, were fine forward and showed their greatest beam amidships, which was then carried well aft. This is the knifelike shape of yachts today. Most English yachts were wide forward and narrow aft -- a shape described as “apple-bowed.”
Also, America was designed to carry no topsails, making her rig elegantly simple as opposed to the complex English yachts, with a second tier of sails. The English boats typically flew multiple jibs, or headsails, one of which was often set “flying ”on a boom and referred to as a “flying jib.”
On Friday, August 22, 1851, America sailed against 14 English cutters and schooners of various sizes: from the 47-ton cutter Aurora to the 392-ton Brilliant. America was in the middle at approximately 170 tons. It is noteworthy that someone talked Commodore Stevens into carrying a “flying jib” and a topsail for the race -- in the English fashion. Captain Brown was against the addition of such sails.
In keeping with the custom of the day, the race started with the yachts anchored, at exactly 10:00 a.m. America overran her anchor and was last to start. The first leg was downwind in very light air, and America, with her easily driven hull, enjoyed the building breeze and caught the fleet. She was aided by a generous decision of her host, the RYS. America, with her steeply raked masts, typical of pilot boats, was at a disadvantage downwind, as her sails had trouble filling. Stevens successfully petitioned the RYS to allow America to boom-out her sails with poles. At the first mark, at Noman’s buoy, America was fifth. The next leg was a reach. Here, America took the lead.
The usual course when racing around the Isle of Wight was to round the Nab Light Vessel. However, the printed instructions given to AMERICA only said, it was to be “Round the Isle of Wight, inside Noman’s buoy and Sandhead buoy, and outside the Nab.” Thus America rounded a white buoy, inside the lightship; the other boats sailed the longer course. This discrepancy later resulted in a protest. Next, came a 15-mile upwind leg to St. Catherines Point. It was on this beat that the jib’s boom, rigged for the “English sails,” broke. Captain Brown said that he was “damn glad it was gone.” Facing off against the wind, America came into her own.
Next, it was a reach to the Needles. There “the wind fell and the haze set in,” according to the Illustrated London News. At 6:00 pm, America neared the 223 -foot royal yacht, Victoria & Albert, Queen Victoria supposedly asked, “Who is first?" When told it was America , she asked, “Who is second?” “There is no second,” was the reply. This line -- apocryphal or not -- became a standard for the race.
When passing the royal yacht America’s crew removed their hats and dipped their flag in a show of respect for the British monarch. America finished the race at 8:37 that evening. Then it was an anxious night waiting for the results of the protest -- stemming from the mark rounding. The protest was disallowed.
The next day, America , at Queen Victoria’s behest, traveled to her summer home, Osborne House. The diminutive Queen, Prince Albert and various ladies and gentlemen in waiting, went aboard the yacht (pictured below). Before going below, Captain Brown asked Prince Albert to wipe his feet. The Prince paused in astonishment. Captain Brown said, “I know who you are, but you’ll have to wipe your feet.”
This Royal visit signaled a change in the English attitude toward Americans. As Winfield M. Thompson wrote in The Lawson History of the America’s Cup, the friendly feeling Queen Victoria showed toward Americans in this critical period of this country’s development was “of more benefit to this nation than the world knew.”
America’s victory became the stuff of legend -- abroad and at home. The London Merchant wrote that this win foretold a change in the world’s order. “. . . The empire of the seas must before long be ceded to America; its persevering enterprise, its great commerce, are certain to secure this prize; nor will England be in a condition to dispute it with her. America, as mistress of the ocean, must overstride the civilized world.”
Daniel Webster, the noted orator and American patriot, commented on America ’s win to a sizable audience at the State House in Boston, “Like Jupiter among the gods, America is first, and there is no second.”
The owners of America returned home without the yacht but with an ornate silver urn. The Royal Yacht Squadron £100 Cup was passed around to members of the syndicate; it was often displayed on dining-room tables. When the surviving members of the syndicate gave it to the New York Yacht Club on July 8, 1857, they called the trophy the “America’s Cup”-- named for the yacht that won it.
Michael Levitt is the communications director of the New York Yacht Club. The author of 11 books, three are about the America’s Cup, including America’s Cup 1851- 1992, winner of a 1992 Benjamin Franklin Award.