COWES, ISLE OF WIGHT, GBR (August 22, 1851) – The USA-built schooner AMERICA bested a fleet of Britain’s finest yachts in a race around England’s Isle of Wight today. An ornate silver trophy, a claret jug that had been crafted in 1848 by Garrards of London, the Queen's jeweler, was awarded by the RYS to the AMERICA'S owners led by New York Yacht Club Commodore John Cox Stevens. This in lieu of wagers which would have normally been laid ahead of such races, but none of the English gentleman yacht owners was willing to place bets given the apparent speed of AMERICA on her approach to Cowes from the United States, after a stop in France to re-provision and re-fit, some weeks ago.
The Cup is reported to have cost the princely sum of 100£. Henry William Paget, 1st Marquess of Anglesey, bought one of several such Cups made by Garrards, and donated it to the Royal Yacht Squadron for use in their 1851 Annual Regatta.
This evening as the first yacht could be seen approaching from the Needles through the summer haze of the typical Cowes sou'wester, Her Majesty Queen Victoria, who was in residence at Osborne House for the August holidays but tonight awaited the finish of the fleet on the Royal Yacht, was overheard by members of her Court asking the signalman, "Who is first?" The reply came, "Your Majesty, it is the yacht AMERICA." The Queen then demanded to know, "Who is second?" The ironic reply, which could go down in history as an apt and cogent description of the humbling moment, for English yachting and national pride, "Your Majesty, there is no second."
AMERICA was so far in front of the 13 English yachts that had started with her (of the 16 that had entered), that the second yacht could not be seen. For the record, your Ed. has learned that it was the AURORA. Perhaps it would be appropriate not to engrave AURORA's name on the trophy with the names of the other competing yachts – in recognition of the signalman's pithy but insightful, if not inciteful, observation.
However, the Royal signalman may have been pulling the fingers of those assembled. The esteemed George Carmany III, who admits to being older than he looks, is a an esteemed member of the New York Yacht Club and was present at the Cowes Castle finish line. He observed that, "AURORA, at 47 tons and by far the smallest vessel in the race, finished only eight minutes [other reports said the delta was 22 minutes –TFE] behind AMERICA and was, as they say, in plain sight – at least to those of us not blinkered by national embarrassment. Under any reasonably sophisticated handicapping system AURORA would have been the winner."
Of course the conditions governing the race made it quite clear there was to be no handicapping. It was to be a pure speed test to see who would be the first to finish.
The schooner yacht AMERICA was funded by five members of the fledgling New York Yacht Club (organized just seven years ago in 1844), who decided to build a state-of-the-art schooner to compete against British ships in conjunction with the Great Exposition being held this summer at the Crystal Palace, Hyde Park, organized by the Queen Consort, His Royal Highness Prince Albert.
Designed by George Steers, the 100-foot, black-hulled AMERICA has a sharp bow, a V bottom, and tall masts that are raked aft rather than standing upright, making it strikingly different from the English fleet. Her sails are said to be of a tighter weave and flatter in form than the more billowy, cloud-like English sails. Local yacht racing expert and budding journalist, Robert Fisher, the youthful Lord of Lymington (whom many believe is destined to become a world-renowned sailing historian in his later years), opined thus: "The primary difference appears to be that the America’s sails are cutting-edge cotton, while the British ones are made of the traditional flax."
In June of this year, AMERICA set sail from its shipyard on New York City’s East River, bound for England. Manned by Captain William H. Brown and a crew of 12, AMERICA raced and overtook numerous ships during the Atlantic crossing. After being outfitted and repainted in France, AMERICA sailed to Cowes on the Isle of Wight to challenge the best English yachts in their own waters at the invitation of the RYS on the occasion of the Great Exposition. Indeed, the race was open to "Yachts belonging to the Clubs of all Nations" but only the Americans sent a challenger.
At Cowes, AMERICA challenged all comers for a match race (one-on-one), but there were no takers among the English yachts here for the high season and RYS Annual Regatta the week of August 18th. As an alternative and hospital gesture to the Americans, the RYS hastily arranged today's race, an adjunct to the week's normal program, and the AMERICA joined 13 British ships for this special race around the Isle of Wight. For the record, in the 53-mile race the Americans trounced the competition, beating the cutter AURORA by 22 minutes and finishing nearly an hour ahead of the third boat, the schooner BACCHANTE.
At a subdued dinner given tonight by the RYS Flag Officers, an Irish lord was said to be thinking of offering the equivalent of $25,000 for the yacht, which would give its owners a slim profit over what they paid to construct and campaign her.
[2017 UPDATE – Later AMERICA went through a series of other owners, one of whom changed the yacht's name to CAMILLA. As the CSS MEMPHIS, it served briefly as a Confederate blockade runner during the Civil War. The Confederate navy scuttled the yacht in Florida to keep it from falling into Union hands, but it was found, raised, and rebuilt by the U.S. Navy, which renamed it the AMERICA and used it as a Union blockade ship. Meanwhile, in 1857 the first owners of the AMERICA deeded the 100£ Cup, mistakenly inscribed by the syndicate as the "Hundred Guinea Cup," to the New York Yacht Club, "...upon the conditions that it shall be preserved as a perpetual Challenge Cup for friendly competition between foreign countries."
[The first race for the trophy, which became popularly known as the "America Cup," and later's the "America's Cup," was not held until August 1870, when the British ship CAMBRIA competed against 14 American yachts in Lower New York Bay. CAMBRIA finished 10th. The NYYC schooner MAGIC won the race, and the AMERICA, refitted by the Navy for the occasion, finished fourth. After service as a naval training ship, AMERICA fell into disrepair under private owners. Today, it exists only in fragments having been destroyed in Annapolis, MD during World War II when the roof of a shed collapsed on it after a heavy snowstorm.
[From 1870 until the late 20th century, NYYC-sponsored U.S. yachts successfully defended the America’s Cup 24 times in races generally spaced every three or four years, except for a World War II hiatus of 21 years from 1937 until 1958. Since the conclusion of the second America's Cup "Match" (as the regattas have come to be known) in 1871, the America’s Cup race has been between just one defending vessel and one challenging vessel from a foreign country. In 1983, after 132 years, the United States lost the trophy for the first time when the Royal Perth Yacht Club's AUSTRALIA II defeated NYYC's LIBERTY, skippered by Dennis Conner, off Newport, Rhode Island – ending the longest winning streak in international sports. Since then the Cup has been won by yachts representing clubs in New Zealand (1995, 2000 and 2017), Switzerland (2003 and 2007), and the United States (1987, 1988, 1992, 2010 and 2013).]
Happy 166th Birthday to the America's Cup, which at least until 2021 is New Zealand's Cup. In the long and storied history of the oldest trophy in international sports, the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron is the only club to have lost the Cup (2003) and won it back (2017). As depicted in the photo circa 2013 in San Francisco by the esteemed Gilles Martin-Raget (FRA) above, the Cup appears as it did in it's original 1851 size before the addition, in the latter part of the 20th Century, of the two bases that provided more engraving space. That's the replica yacht AMERICA owned by Capt. Troy Sears (USA, San Diego). On the occasion of the 166th anniversary of that historic 1851 race around the Isle of Wight, here's hoping the Cup regains the lustre of the past decades.