America arrived in the Solent early on 31 July 1851 after a spell in refit in Le Harve. Owner and NYYC’s founding Commodore John Stevens had worked closely with Captain Richard Brown and designer George Steers to optimise America’s boatspeed. With her slippy underwater profile and American cotton sails, she had proved more than a match for any British boat prepared to sail alongside her in the Solent.
America was very much a curiosity in the Solent. Stevens’ repeated invitations to race were rejected, even when he offered a purse of 10,000 guineas, twice the value of his boat. In due course, the RYS challenged America to a race around the Isle of Wight, the prize for which would be the Garrards-crafted 100-Guinea Cup. Stevens gathered six extra race crew from the British yacht Surprise and also took onboard Mr Underwood, a local pilot.
It transpires that at no stage was Stevens given a copy of the race instructions. All he had to work with was a list of entries, racing flags and the fact that the race was ‘around the Isle of Wight.’ The event programme was rather more precise: ’round the Isle of Wight, inside the No-Man’s Buoy and Sandhead Buoy and outside the Nab.’ This oversight takes on considerable significance in the light of subsequent events.
Over 100 boats crammed the Solent on the morning of 22 August 1851, eager to see the spectacle of a new boat from the new world pitted against 17 of the best the old world had to offer. At the five-minute gun, anchors were weighed but America overrode her cable and had to drop a headsail to fall back and clear the bow.
She was the last boat aweigh but with foresail and mainsail boomed out to catch the light westerly breeze, she soon caught up. The schooner Gypsy Queen took the lead, ahead of another schooner Beatrice, with the cutters Volante, Constance and Arrow close behind. As they progressed down the eastern Solent, America had slipped past all but Gypsy Queen.
Volante, with all conceivable sail made, sailed up to and alongside America for a short time and as they approached Sandhead Buoy before taking the lead from Gypsy Queen and leaving America well to leeward in third as the breeze freshened.
At No-Man’s Buoy, Volante lead by 1m 20s from the cutter Freak, with Aurora and Gyspy Queen third and fourth and America fifth, two minutes off the lead. As the breeze freshened still further, America started to pick off the competition and by Brading she had passed all but Volante.
Then, at 1137, while Volante led Arrow, Bacchante, Constance and Aurora towards the Nab light vessel, second-placed America hardened up and made for Bembridge Ledge Buoy, which she rounded at 1147. What discussions took place between Stevens, Brown and Underwood are long lost in time but as an experienced local pilot, Underwood would have known that all RYS courses ran outside the Nab.
It is possible he was preoccupied with keeping America from running aground on Bembridge Ledge and forgot to mention the Nab, or maybe he was convinced that other boats would protest America for not sailing the course and kept his own counsel. Whatever the reason, America took an unassailable if controversial lead at 1137 on 22 August 1851.
America then raced an unofficial entrant, Wildfire, starting off Dunnose but as they rounded St Cat’s, America’s decision to head further offshore despite the tide proved the right one. Wildfire’s inshore tacking dropped her right back. But still America wasn’t clear.
Despite sailing the proper course, the cutters Arrow and Alarm were closing in on the big schooner until Arrow ran aground off Mill Bay. Alarm was among the boats that spent 20 minutes clearing Arrow before both boats retired. But still America wasn’t clear.
Aurora, Freak and Volante were making a better job of tacking inshore than Wildfire had and were reeling in America gradually. Sadly, while cross-tacking,