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.
A myth of speed
In the 20 years following her ‘triumph’ off Cowes she had sailed only six races. On this scant evidence her reputation is based. There is no doubt that she was a superb sea boat, but it is as an inshore racer that her reputation must be judged. Many subjective comments were made about her prowess, mostly by non-expert members of the press.
Yacht designers conspicuously failed to follow her lead. Yachts were modified to resemble her, but none proved conspicuously fast. The Wave Line theory, important as it was in understanding hull form and wave resistance, was not the sole answer to speed. And some yachts even reverted to ‘baggy’ flax sails.
Commodore Stevens was fortunate to have come home in profit with his reputation intact. By giving in to the urge to race Laverock that summer morning in 1851, and ruining the possibility of a surprise victory, historians say he may have kissed goodbye to a fortune in potential prize money. More likely he discovered America’s Achilles heel and, like the good gambler he was, sought to cover it up by setting an absurdly high stake, which he guessed rightly that no one would cover. With the help of a sympathetic British press, always eager to chastise their own, America laid the firm foundations of the myth of speed that survives to this day.
America – the design
America (pictured below in 1901 with a much reduced rig) was designed by George Steers, superintendent of the mould loft at the yard of New York’s leading shipbuilder, William H. Brown, at the foot of 12th Street on the East River.
With a hollow entry and carrying her maximum beam of 22ft well aft, America measured 101ft 9in overall on a waterline length of 90ft 3in. By the standards of the day she was a stripped out racing machine, able to carry only the barest provisions.
America was designed to the principles of Scott Russell’s Wave Line theory, first employed in the steamer Wave in 1835, and espoused by the American John Griffiths under whom Steers worked. Russell described America as ‘a pure wave line vessel’ and revelled in the acclaim.
Influential at the time, this theory was not universally accepted. British Naval Architect Dixon Kemp, founder of Lloyds of London and the Royal Yachting Association, said the America was the only Wave Line yacht that got a reputation for speed. By 1880, Russell’s theory had been partially discredited.
A variety of woods were used in her construction: the frames, braced by iron diagonals, were of white oak, locust, cedar, chestnut and hackmatack; her planking, copper fastened, was of 3in white oak; her decks were of yellow pine and her coamings of mahogany. She carried 61 tons of iron ballast, two thirds of it under the mainmast. On her steeply raked 79ft 6in foremast and 81ft mainmast she carried a simple rig: jib, foresail and mainsail, totalling 5,263 square feet made of cotton duck material.