Sailing and Yachting

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Sailing refers to the pastime of cruising for pleasure in vessels powered by sail only; a combination of sail and steam, diesel, or gas power; or engine propulsion only. Yachting is the sport of racing in yachts with sails for money or plate (the terminology used for a plaque or trophy). While there is no single "yacht type" of boat, there are many types of vessels used for yachting and sailing, including sloops, cutters, brigantines, shallops, yawls, catamarans, schooners, and ketches.

History of Sport Sailing

With their focus on exploration and trade, early explorers would have thought of sailing for pleasure as a ridiculous notion. By the 1600s, however, scouting craft, or "jaghts," used by the seafaring Dutch served a dual purpose. As warships suited to sheltered waters, they were also well matched for pleasure sailing by affluent Dutch burghers. In the early seventeenth century, Dutch settlers then introduced both the sport and the pastime to the American colonies. It was not until the nineteenth century, however, that yachting and sailing took firm hold in the New World. Different in shape and design from commercial and naval vessels of the time, the Onkabye, a ninety-foot schooner built in 1840, is generally credited as the first American sailing yacht.

During the period from the early 1800s to the early 1900s, several technological advances in ship design and construction formed a crucible for three key pioneers—George Crowninshield Jr., Cornelius Vanderbilt, and James Gordon Bennett Jr.—to foster growth and popularity in this leisure activity.

Key Pioneers

Historians generally credit as the first American luxury or pleasure yacht Cleopatra's Barge, a schooner-type powered by sail and launched in 1816 at Salem, Massachusetts, for her independently wealthy owner, George Crowninshield Jr. (1766–1817). Conceiving it as a floating home, not only did Crowninshield raise the bar at the intersection of speed, seaworthiness, capacity, and comfort, but his outgoing personality was also instrumental in fostering a new level of public awareness of sailing. With paneled walls, gilt-edged ceilings, a fireplace, and fine appointments, the bill for this ship was $50,000 (in 1815 dollars), approximately three times the cost of a similar-sized merchant ship. Furnishings added another $50,000. Once launched, it became a source of curiosity wherever it went. When it docked in Barcelona, Spain, on its maiden voyage, it attracted 20,000 visitors over a five-day period. After the death of its owner, this piece of art was sold for a mere $15,400.

Although the onset of the Civil War and the resulting need for speed would further push development of steam vessels, individuals like Cornelius Vanderbilt (1821–1885) played important roles in attracting international attention to the advantages of steam yachts. First in a long line of Vanderbilts associated with yachting and sailing, Cornelius amassed a merchant fleet of sixty-six vessels over a fifty-year period. By 1853, he was the richest individual in America. To enjoy his wealth, he ordered not just a luxury yacht but also the first luxury steam-motor yacht. A massive hybrid paddle wheeler, North Star was 270 feet long with thirty-four-foot wheels grafted onto the traditional clipper hull in addition to two masts for auxiliary sails. With many of the crew on the maiden voyage volunteers from affluent families, the yacht was large enough to accommodate the Vanderbilt family in style. Yet, the purpose of the ship was much the same as Cleopatra's Barge: to voyage to Europe and show the Old World the New World's achievements and to attract the attention of royalty.

The Vanderbilts' maiden four-month trip to Europe —a trip that would have taken over a year by sailing yacht—not only succeeded in attracting public attention to the speed of steam-motor yachts, but also acted as a harbinger for what was to become an annual migratory pattern for scores of wealthy American yachtsmen and yachtswomen. These young people sailed to the French Riviera in spring, the Baltic in summer, and royal regattas at Cowes, England, and Kiel, Germany, in August. (A regatta is a short event held over a weekend or a week. Cruisers and yachters gather to compete and socialize. Generally held by a yacht club, these events are an annual tradition for many clubs in coastal inland waterways. Regattas contrast with ocean racing, which is a long-term, long-distance event.) Following a winter spent cruising the Caribbean, yachtsmen would then bring their vessels back to the United States, refurbish them, and then start the cycle over again.

James Gordon Bennett Jr. (1841–1918), a newspaperman in his own right, inherited his wealth from his Scottish immigrant father's tabloid paper the New York Herald. As the owner of the racing schooners Dauntless and Henrietta (one of only two sailing yachts accepted by the Union navy during the Civil War; the other seventy-nine were steam-powered vessels) and steam-motor yachts Polynima, Namouna, and Lysistrata, his wealth enabled him to pursue his dual passions of competition yachting and cruising. Not only did this two-time commodore of the oldest, most prestigious yacht club in America, the New York Yacht Club (founded in 1844), attract international publicity, his penchant for excess fostered the development of several technological and aesthetic advances in yachts—such as welding instead of riveting, the introduction of stabilizers and double-hulled vessels, and the development of stunning, unique interior designs—as he strived to push the intersection of speed, seaworthiness, and comfort. His newspaper offices located in both New York and Paris coupled with his involvement in the New York Yacht Club honed his interest in reducing time to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Indeed, the New York Yacht Club had only four steam yachts in its fleet in 1870. By 1890, it had seventy-one, in part due to Bennett's enthusiasm for steam-motor yachts.

Women, Sailing, and Yachting

Dominated by affluent families with names like Astor, Roosevelt, Vanderbilt, and Whitney, yachting and sailing were historically considered spectator sports for women. However, many notable American yachtswomen also played central roles in broadening women's participation in sailing and competitive yachting. Lucy Carnegie, owner of the 135-foot steel-hulled Dungeness and a successful yachtswoman, challenged male supremacy at the New York Yacht Club in 1894. When she petitioned to be the first female member of the all-male club, members convened a special committee to consider this embarrassing matter. After deliberation, the club admitted women as "Flag Members." Allowing yachtswomen to fly the club's flag and to use various mail stations established along the eastern coast of the United States, the club did not permit women to enter its New York headquarters. Fifty years later, the New York Yacht Club finally admitted women as full members.

Throughout the twentieth century, women have continued to take more active roles in sailing and yachting. The first direct challenge between two women members of opposing teams—Phyllis Sopwith, a timekeeper, representing Great Britain and Gertrude Vanderbilt, a crewmember, representing the United States—took place in 1934 in the prestigious yachting race called America's Cup. It was not until 1995 that American Dawn Riley, a veteran of competitive yacht races, including the grueling 32,000-mile Whitbread Round-the-World Race, became captain of the first all-women's team to enter the race for America's Cup.

America's Cup

Considered by many to be the pinnacle of competitive yachting, the America's Cup race has a long, tumultuous history. With centuries of control over the high seas, Great Britain sought to test that supremacy during the Great Exposition of 1851 by challenging the United States to a yacht race. The United States accepted, and the New York Yacht Club commissioned the building of a ninety-foot sail-powered schooner America. Not only did America break the record for a transatlantic crossing en route to the race, covering the distance in twenty-one days, but also this schooner went on to beat the British in a competitive race against fifteen other yachts around the Isle of Wight. In recognition, a trophy known as America's Cup was commissioned and deeded in 1857 for safekeeping between races to the New York Yacht Club. Despite numerous international challenges, America's Cup remained in the hands of the United States for a period of 132 years. Only in 1983 did Australia succeed in its challenge for the cup. The United States regained the cup in 1987, lost it to New Zealand in 1995, and lost again to New Zealand in 2000.

During the 1980s and 1990s, fierce competition and all-out efforts to push design and technology limits shrouded many of the teams challenging for America's Cup in controversy and scandal. In an effort to create a uniform set of rules and measurement standards—an ongoing problem since the early 1800s, when yacht racing first became an organized sport in the harbors of New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco and each yacht club operated under its own set of rules and regulations—the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) specified that challenging yachts must follow specific guidelines for dimensions and design. Thus, since 1992, a new class of longer, lighter boats, the seventy-foot International America's Cup Class—carrying 40 percent more sail on a higher mast—have been used in cup races. Since Australia's victory in 1983, extensive media coverage of the event has meant that millions of Americans who had never heard of the America's Cup race now take an interest in the sport of yachting.

With yachting being traditionally a sport of the wealthy, original sailboats and yachts had wooden hulls and canvas sails. Nowadays synthetic materials predominate for hulls and sails. The introduction of plywood and fiberglass has been ideal for development of lighter, stronger hulls and more powerful rigs (which are composed of the mast, a boom, and the sails).

The advent of synthetic sail fabrics, improved electronic instrumentation, and mass production has opened up the pursuit of sailing to thousands of individuals. From light, maneuverable one-person dinghies to larger vessels requiring trained crew, from cruising for pleasure to ocean racing for competitive purposes, from cruising with friends on inland waters to sailing across oceans single-handedly, from belonging to the Midget Racing Club of America to being sponsored to compete by corporations, cruising and yachting have undergone remarkable democratic transformations in the last fifty years. In the United States alone, there are now over 40,000 registered yachters, yet unlike many other leisure activities, cruising and yachting are accessible to individuals with physical, visual, auditory, and learning impairments. Indeed, in 1998, Geoffrey Hutton-Barber became the first visually impaired individual to sail single-handedly across an ocean.

See also: Boating, Power; Fishing, Freshwater; Fishing, Saltwater/Deep Sea


Bond, Bob. The Handbook of Sailing. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2001.

Chappelle, Howard. History of American Sailing Ships. New York: Bonanza Books, 1935.

International Sailing Federation. Home page at

MacTaggart, Ross. The Golden Century: Classic Motor Yachts. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2001.

Rousmaniere, John. The Seafarers: The Luxury Yachts. Chicago: Time-Life Books, 1981.

Sleight, Steve. Complete Sailing Manual. New York: DK Publishing, 1999.

Careen Yarnal