Adrian Morgan admires the great gamble – and the gambler's luck – that won the £100 Cup – the race that became the first event in the America's Cup.
But to historians of the America’s Cup it was a tragedy, for the shed was the final resting place of America, a low, black schooner whose legacy has inspired controversy ever since. Nearly 75 years after one of the world’s most celebrated yachts was crushed beneath tons of corrugated iron and snow, the myth of her invincibility still endures.
America was commissioned by a syndicate headed by Commodore John Cox Stevens of the New York Yacht Club specifically to take up a challenge proffered by Lord Wilton, of Grosvenor Square, London, commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron, in a letter dated 22 February, 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition.
The price agreed for her building was high – $30,000 – but extraordinary conditions were written into the contract. If she did not prove to be the fastest vessel in the United States the syndicate could refuse her. Moreover, if she were to prove unsuccessful in England, her builders would be obliged to take her back. Stevens, a wealthy man and notorious gambler, was taking no chances – he meant to cover his bets either way.
She was a gamble even on the drawing board, her underwater shape influenced by Englishman John Scott Russell’s Wave Line theory, which aimed to produce a hull that offered least resistance to the water, concave bows replacing the rounded bows of the era.
She was rigged with flat-cut, machine-woven cotton sails. By contrast, most boats of the era set fuller, looser-footed flax sails, which needed dousing with water to make the luff set tight and hard. One observer described how from directly upwind of the yacht America, the width of the mast could conceal the entire mainsail: ‘not a particle of it was visible; there was no belly, and the gaff was exactly parallel with the boom.’
Her launch date was set for 1 April, but it was 18 June before she was finally ready to sail for England. In the meantime the astute Stevens had driven the price down to $20,000 after inconclusive trials against his own fully tuned-up 97ft sloop Maria.
A legend is born
During the course of her Atlantic crossing, James Steers, older brother of her builder, George, was impressed with America as she recorded several daily runs of 200 miles and one of 284. A week or so after setting sail from Sandy Hook, Connecticut, he wrote: ‘She is the best sea boat that ever went out of the Hook.’
After a 20-day passage, the 13-strong crew arrived off Le Havre, where, on first sight, the harbour master reportedly described the black schooner as ‘a wonder’. America spent three weeks refitting, having her masts restepped and her racing canvas carefully bent on, after which Stevens, who had taken the steamer to Le Havre, and his race crew sailed for Cowes.
The crack British cutter Laverock found the much-heralded America early on the morning of 1 August anchored in the Solent, near Cowes, and an informal race was arranged immediately. Stevens described the meeting at a dinner given in his honour at Astor House later that year: ‘We let her go about 200 yards, and then started in her wake . . . Not a sound was heard, save perhaps the beating of our anxious hearts . . . The men were motionless as statues . . . The Captain was crouched down upon the floor of the cockpit, his seemingly unconscious hand upon the tiller…’
Seven miles later, America had, allegedly, worked out a handy lead and the myth of her prowess gathered increased momentum. ‘The crisis was past, and some dozen of deep-drawn sighs proved that the agony was over,’ he added. News of her informal ‘victory’ spread like wildfire.
The story of the Laverock race is often given as the first evidence of America’s invincibility and, indeed, those who might ordinarily have engaged in a little flutter over the Yankee schooner shied away. In those days huge sums were wagered on yacht racing. In one 224-mile Channel race some £50,000 changed hands.
However, the report in the weekly sporting paper Bell’s Life, on 3 August stated that Laverock ‘held her own’ and pointed out that she was towing her longboat. Despite being a proven sea boat, America had failed to impress against the Maria and now, according to some reports, against the Laverock. Stevens himself may well have been worried about his yacht’s performance, for when he did challenge the Squadron it was to be a schooners-only race, no handicaps, over an offshore course and in over six knots of wind. There were no takers.
He then made it known that he was willing to race anyone, but the stake was to be an outrageous 10,000 guineas, more than double the cost of her building. Not surprisingly there was again no response.
For two weeks America lay at Cowes, sails furled. Hopes of a race with Joseph Weld’s Alarm, for a purse of $5,000, came to naught and the British press, sensing a good story, were scathing. The Times wrote: ‘The effect produced by her apparition off West Cowes among yachtsmen seems to have been completely paralysing . . . It could not be imagined that the English would allow an illustrious stranger to boast that he has flung down the gauntlet to England and had been unable to find a taker.’’
Eventually George Robert Stephenson, son of the railway engineer, offered to race his unremarkable 100-ton Titania over a 20-mile windward-leeward course for £100. The date was fixed for 28 August, but he was upstaged by the Royal Yacht Squadron, which, stung by the criticism in the press, finally took the plunge. The race, 53 miles around the Isle of Wight, was scheduled for 22 August and the prize was to be a 27-inch cup made of 134 ounces of silver, worth £100 (some say guineas), paid for by the membership.
On the morning of the race, a south-westerly wind prevailed, aided by a strengthening east-going tide. Betting was heavily in favour of the Yankee schooner.
After a poor start, America lay 5th behind Beatrice, Aurora, Volante and Arrow at No Man’s Buoy and needed to make up ground. Opinions differ over what happened next, but what is known for sure is that America’s local pilot, Mr Underwood, set the black schooner on a fast reach, close inshore, for Bembridge Ledge, missing out the Nab light vessel located to the east of Bembridge. There had been nothing in the rules of the race about leaving the light vessel to starboard.
One historian, A.E. Reynolds Brown, in a slim pamphlet entitled The Phoney Fame of the Yacht America and the America Cup, published in 1980, states that all the yachts except America headed for the Nab light vessel, permitting the Yankee crew to jump into a big lead, more than an hour ahead of the fleet. This version is hotly disputed, however, with others claiming that as many as six other competitors also cut inside the Nab.
From Bembridge to St Catherine’s the fleet was hard on the wind, bucking a strong tide. At Sandown, the 62ft cutter, Wildfire was level, though ineligible for the race as she used moveable ballast. At Dunnose, according to America’s log, the 57ft cutter, Aurora may also have caught up.
At this point in the race, America’s two greatest threats, Mr Joseph Weld’s 193-ton cutter Alarm and Mr Chamberlayne’s 84-ton cutter Arrow retired early, the former going to the help of the latter, hard aground off Ventnor. Then Volante and Freak collided off the same point (one account even puts these two ahead of the America when the collision occurred), which left Aurora as the only first class yacht still racing.
At St Catherine’s lighthouse, the most southerly point of the island, Wildfire, according to The Times, was three miles ahead of the fleet and was not overhauled until Freshwater Bay. Observers at St Catherine’s had timed Aurora just ten minutes astern at that point with Wildfire leading America by 14 minutes.
At the Needles, one famous account reads: ‘For an hour after America passed the Needles we kept the Channel in view and there was no appearance of a second yacht’. Yet by the time America finished off Cowes, Aurora was just eight minutes behind. What no one mentioned was that Wildfire with her gang below decks shifting two or three tons of ballast after each tack, may well have beaten them all, however, her finishing time was not officially recorded.
Into the history books
Following America’s victory Stevens made no strenuous effort to seek further competition, crying off on several occasions with various excuses. He must have been relieved that the one match he could not duck, a friendly match with Titania, was against a schooner regarded by all expert opinion as being out of her league.
Stevens was keen to sell her, but there was no rush to buy at his inflated price. When a gullible punter appeared in the shape of 39-year-old army officer John de Blaquiere, fourth Baron of Ardkill, a man with little sailing experience, Stevens could not believe his luck. He took the money – £5,000 – and ran. After taking all expenses into account, Stevens had made a modest profit on his adventure. America had emerged from her ordeal with her reputation intact, though hardly tested.
In 1852 she raced for the Queen’s Cup and was beaten by Mosquito, a 60ft cutter built in 1848. Alarm and Arrow were to do the same. In her last race under Blaquiere’s ownership she trounced Sverige, built expressly to challenge her, but only after the Swedish schooner, leading by nine minutes after 20 miles, carried away her main gaff.
Blaquiere sold her in 1853 and by 1861 she was owned by a Mr Decie and renamed Camilla, having undergone repairs for rotting timbers and had her masts cropped. At Cowes that year she was beaten by the 20-year-old Alarm, lengthened and newly converted to schooner rig. She then won a race off Plymouth, and sailed to the West Indies.
A year later, under the name Memphis, she appeared under the Confederate flag in Savannah as a blockade-runner, then in April 1862 the US gunboat Ottawa discovered her scuttled in St John’s River, her hull full of augur holes. She was refloated and handed over to the Annapolis Naval Academy.
Six years later, crewed by midshipmen from the Academy, she was among the fleet of the America’s Cup’s first defenders, finishing fourth, in front of James Ashbury’s Cambria. In 1876 she finished 19 minutes ahead of a hopelessly outclassed Canadian challenger.
Her last appearance on a course that bore her name was during the Vigilant/Valkyrie matches in 1893 when she took a party of sightseers to watch the action off Sandy Hook. She lay in Boston Harbour from 1900 until 1916 and in 1920 very nearly ended up as a Portuguese trader in the Cape Verde Islands.
By the late 1930s, as the clouds of war were gathering, she was appreciated as a national treasure and efforts were made to raise the funds to restore her. They failed and on the night of 28 March, 1942, she was lost to the elements forever.