A Gentlemanly Rivalry. When the Earl of Wilton, Commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron, heard of the New York Yacht Club’s plan to show a vessel at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, he wrote a welcoming letter to his American counterpart, Comm. John C. Stevens. Not mentioning a competition, he suggested he would be glad to learn “of any improvements in shipbuilding that the industry and skill of your nation have enabled you to elaborate.” Stephens, a man who had introduced cricket to his countrymen, could read the Englishman’s intent between the lines. In his reply he informed Lord Wilton that he would be crossing the Atlantic in America, a yacht that was then under construction, and raised the issue of a race: “We propose to avail ourselves of your friendly bidding and take with good grace the sound thrashing we are likely to get by venturing our longshore craft on your rough waters.”
America. Despite his deprecating reply, Stevens and the other members of the syndicate—his brother Edwin, George L. Schuyler, J. Beekman Finlay, Col. James A. Hamilton, and Hamilton Wilkes—were confident of success. They had ordered “the fastest yacht afloat” from George Steers, an admired ship designer, and the builder, William Brown, had offered to forego his bill if America did not answer their needs. Although the new yacht was easily bested in a trial race with Maria, another of Stevens’s yachts which had been designed for speed on smooth water, the ninety-three foot-America —with its sails tautly lashed to its booms and its long, hollow, sharp bow that gave it a wedge-shaped appearance—clearly combined seaworthiness with winning speed. Skippered by Capt. Dick Brown, America set sail from New York on 21 June, arriving on 11 July at Le Havre, a French port on the English Channel, to make final preparations.
Showing Her Stuff. On its crossing of the channel on 1 August, America was discovered by one of its top English rivals, Lavrock. Stevens imprudently allowed his ship to show her speed in the informal race, thus spoiling the odds he could have gotten in wagers on his yacht. Upon docking at the port the Americans found that their ship had gained a formidible reputation. The Times likened its arrival at Cowes, a yachting port on the Isle of Wight, to the “appearance of a sparrow-hawk among a flock of woodpigeons or skylarks.” When no individual matches could be arranged, it was decided that America would race in a Squadron regatta for the standard trophy, a cup worth one hundred guineas. After a poor start the Americans quickly forged ahead of the pack and led the field of fourteen other entrants around the Isle of Wight, finishing in ten hours and thirty-seven minutes, eight minutes ahead of their nearest competitor.
The Deed of Gift. The five syndicate members of America had no immediate intention of making the America’s Cup an enduring legacy. The 134-ounce, 27-inch tall trophy—which is not really a cup at all as it has no bottom—was passed from one member to another and proudly displayed at social functions, but at one point the men considered melting it down to cast commemorative medals so each could have a keepsake. At length they acted on George L. Schuyler’s suggestion and on 8 July 1857 deeded the cup to the New York Yacht Club:
It is to be distinctly understood that the cup is to be the property of the club, and not the members thereof, or owners of the vessel winning it in the match; and that the condition of keeping it open to be sailed for by yacht clubs of all foreign countries upon the terms laid down, shall forever attach to it, thus making it perpetually a challenge cup for friendly competition between foreign countries.
Although the intent of the deed was clear, “the terms laid down” were subject to interpretation.
The Ashbury Challenges. The first challenges for the America’s Cup were made by James Ashbury, a businessman who aspired to be a member of Parliament, in 1870 and 1871. In a strained correspondence with the New York Yacht Club, Ashbury negotiated for a race to his liking. From the beginning he insisted that the word match implied a contest between two ships, a challenger and a defender, but the New Yorkers seemed reluctant to grant the point. In 1870 the negotiations ended with an ultimatum from the club—Ashbury would either forego his challenge or race for the cup with any and all club yachts that chose to enter. On 8 August, racing in a field of eighteen on the club’s regular course in New York Harbor, Ashbury’s Cambria finished eighth; America
placed fourth; and Magic carried the day. The next year Ashbury succeeded in his quest to race against a single opponent in a best-of-seven series of races, but the club claimed the right of choosing its champion for each race from among four defenders. The American yacht Columbia defeated Ashbury’s Livonia in the first two matches but lost the third; Sappho was then chosen to defend the cup and won the fourth and fifth races to end the series. Ashbury, who believed he should have been awarded the second race because Columbia had rounded a stake boat incorrectly, claimed the sixth and seventh races by default and demanded the cup. The New York Yacht Club did not oblige.
A Centennial Challenge. Five years passed before the next challenge was made for the America’s Cup, this time from Canada, and the New York Yacht Club was a good deal more complaisant than it had been in its dealings with Ashbury. Facing difficult times, with a declining membership and unstable finances, the club saw the defense of the cup in the country’s centennial year as a means of boosting their sport. When the New Yorkers seemed to be holding out for a similar arrangement as that of the 1871 races with Ashbury, the leader of the challengers, Maj. Charles Gifford of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club of Toronto, protested that it was too much of an advantage for the defenders to be able to select a champion to suit the conditions of a particular day from among several yachts. The club eventually agreed to choose one defender, Madeleine, which easily handled the Canadian ship, Countess of Dufferin, in two August 1876 races. Despite their poor showing, the Canadians had infused new life into the America’s Cup races, putting the tradition of a single defender racing a single challenger on solid footing for the future.
Ian Dear, The Americas Cup: An Informal History (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1980).
Origins. One of the oldest and most prestigious prizes awarded in international yacht racing, the America’s Cup was originally an 100-guinea silver trophy offered by the Royal Yacht Squadron to the winner of a race around the Isle of Wight on 22 August 1851. John Cox Stevens, a wealthy New Jersey real estate broker and founder of the New York Yacht Club, won the race by defeating seventeen British yachts. He named the cup after his yacht America and put the trophy on display at his Annandale, New Jersey, estate. After his death in 1857, the cup became the trust of the New York Yacht Club “as a permanent challenge cup, open to competition by any organized yacht club of any foreign country.”
Social Atmosphere. In the late nineteenth century yacht racing in the United States, as in England, was a pastime of the wealthy, and it attracted many spectators. The first challenge for the cup since 1857 occurred in 1870 and stimulated enormous interest in New York. On the day of the race, businesses closed down and the harbor swarmed with countless spectator craft festooned with ribbons and pendants. The race itself was the focus of intense rivalry on the part of the participants. The seemingly glamorous world of yachtsmen attracted international public attention and led to speculation in sporting journals as to the merits of particular captains and hull designs. Ship owners spent fortunes on sleek vessels and highly trained crews. Until 1920 the course for the America’s Cup generally started in Upper New York Harbor, ranged out into the Atlantic Ocean for thirty miles, and ended off Staten Island. (An inside course, which was sailed within the confines of New York Harbor, was last used in 1887.)
Ashbury. There was no competition for the cup in the 1860s because the Civil War brought a temporary halt to pleasure boating and racing off the eastern seaboard. In 1870 James Ashbury, a wealthy British railroad entrepreneur, became the first contender for the cup. On 8 August the race featured seventeen New York Yacht Club schooners against Cambria, the British vessel. Cambria finished 42 minutes behind Magic, the winning vessel. Ashbury complained about the course and number of ships, maintaining it gave the New York Yacht Club an unfair advantage in defending its possession of the cup. In response to that complaint,
the New York Yacht Club announced that future challenges would be one-on-one matches rather than mass affairs. In the first one-on-one challenge in 1871, Ashbury entered the Livonia, but it lost two of the three races to the Columbia of the New York Yacht Club.
Challenges. The Canadians and British were consistent challengers to the cup in the late nineteenth century. In August 1876 the Canadian yacht Countess of Dufferin lost to the American Madeleine. Five years later Canada again made a bid for the cup. The Bay of Quinte Yacht Club of Belleville, Ontario, entered Atalanta, a boat designed and owned by Alexander Cuthbert. Mischief, designed by A. Cray Smith, defeated Atalanta. Cuthbert, who wanted to challenge for the cup again with Atalanta in 1882, was thwarted by a rule change that said the same boat could not challenge for two years. In 1885 the New York Yacht Club accepted the challenge of England’s Royal Yacht Squadron on behalf of Sir Richard Sutton. In perhaps the best series of races in the history of the challenge, the English cutter Genesta lost to the American sloop Puritan, owned by a syndicate headed by J. Malcolm Forbes, the son of railroad and shipping magnate John Murray Forbes. The New York Yacht Club retained possession of the America’s Cup with victories by Mayflower over the British Galatea in 1886 and by Volunteer over Thistle in 1887.
Dunraven and Lipton. After Volunteer’s victory, the New York Yacht Club instituted a new rule stipulating that the challenger had to reveal the design of its boat before the race. In 1889 the Royal Yacht Squadron, on the behalf of the earl of Dunraven, issued a challenge for the cup. The challenge was withdrawn, however, when Dunraven refused to indicate the design of his boat, only its dimensions; however, in 1893 Dunraven yielded to the demands of the New York Yacht Club and entered his boat, Valkyrie II. The American boat Vigilant, the first of several America’s Cup champions designed by master boatbuilder Nat Herreshoff, defeated Valkyrie II. In 1895 Dunraven’s Valkyrie III lost to Defender, another boat designed by Herreshoff and owned by J. P. Morgan. Dunraven’s charge that the interference of spectator boats caused his boat to lose led to such acrimony that the New York Yacht Club did not expect to receive another British challenge for the cup until the next century. However, in 1899 the Yacht Club received a challenge from Sir Thomas Lipton, the Scottish-bred Irish tea merchant. His yacht, Shamrock I, lost to the American vessel, Columbia. Lipton’s 1899 challenge was the first of five that the New York Yacht Club would accept from him during the next thirty-one years. Despite his determination, Lipton failed each time to wrest the cup away from the Americans.
Ian Dear, The America’s Cup: An Informal History (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1980);
John Rousmaniere, America’s Cup Book, 1851-1983 (New York: Norton, 1983);
A. B. C. Whipple, The Racing Yachts (Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1980).