Earl of Wilton and the America's Cup

By Henry H. Anderson Jr., commodore

Prince Albert was the protagonist for the Great Exhibit -- the first world's fair -- the Earl of Wilton, commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron (RYS) in 1851, was the protagonist for the £100 Cup. This was the first significant international regatta that led to the transformation of the sport of yachting from a national pastime to an international one.

The Earl of Wilton is described in Memorials of the Royal Yacht Squadron as a "Nobleman of unfailing urbanity and a fine manner, a capacity for business, and a love of order and punctuality, a skilled musician, amateur surgeon¸ sportsman."* His legendary personality is succinctly captured in the following doggerel:

"Next upon a switch-tailed bay with wandering eye
Attenuated William canters by
His character how difficult to know
A compound of psalm tunes and tally-ho,
A forward rider half inclined to teach
Though less disposed to practice than preach
An amorous lover with a saintly twist
And now a jockey, now an organist."

The stage was set for the transformation when at a May 1851 meeting chaired by Commodore Wilton, the RYS resolved to present a cup of £100 for a race open to the yachts of all nations, to be sailed for under the sailing regulations of RYS around the Isle of Wight. According to Memorials, "a decision which was the natural complement to Lord Wilton's offer of hospitality in his letter of February [to the NYYC]," but elsewhere it is noted that the event may have been militated by the plan "to entice yachts from St. Petersburg and Germany to visit the Great Exhibition -- they turned out to be no-shows."

Regardless, it was Lord Wilton who had already taken the "initiative on the part of myself and the members of the Royal Yacht Squadron to welcome visitors to the club-house at Cowes during their stay in England." Without the creation of the £100 Cup regatta the gesture, as it turned out, would have been futile since the only racing available to the AMERICA would have been matches with individual yachts on a wager without handicaps. The traditional regattas on the Solent were open only to members of the clubs conducting them. The sailing regulations of the Squadron prescribed time allowances based on tonnage for fleet racing. At some point, perhaps swayed by Commodore John Cox Stevens, the RYS had waived, "the already accepted principle of time allowance for tonnage, which if applied would have reduced AMERICA's lead to less than two minutes." In conjunction, with the waiver also granted was the AMERICA's request to be allowed to boom out her sails. As noted in Bell's Life, "AMERICA's [raked] masts prevented her having full advantage of her sails unless she booms them out."

Typifying the character and leadership role of Lord Wilton is the comment in the press, "The note of harmony, indeed, which had been struck by Lord Wilton's letter to Commodore Stevens in February had continued to vibrate throughout the season." This observation was repeated by others in statements such as "Wilton set the stage for the friendly spirit"; "Stevens and his afterguard were also praised for their comportment, as were the British yachts-men."

A potential protest over the failure of the AMERICA to observe the Nab when rounding the Isle of Wight was dropped.** Thus the America's Cup Jubilee recognizes not only the victory of the yacht AMERICA but also the role of the commodore, The Earl of Wilton, in creating the venue that led to the transformation of yacht racing into an international sport.
*His practice appears to have been limited to operating on a friend in an emergency and saving his life.
** Respecting the course sailed by the AMERICA, there is reference to the two sets of conflicting sailing instructions that were issued to the yachts: one, "containing the names and colors of the yachts in which the course is described as merely round the Isle of Wight" which were the ones received by the AMERICA, "while the printed program stated, 'around the Isle of Wight and outside the Nab (Tower).'"(Bell's Life) Not having to observe the Nab provided her with a comfortable weather berth over her opponents.
The Earl of Wilton image is from the book The Royal Yacht Squadron (1903).