August 22 marks the 150th anniversary of sailing historys most famous race, which was won by historys most famous yacht. On that day in 1851, the 100-foot America, an adaptation of New York pilot schooners, beat a fleet of English yachts in a 53-mile race clockwise around Englands Isle of Wight. That victory planted the seed that sprouted into the 131-year competition for the Americas Cup, the trophy she won that day and that was renamed for her.
To celebrate the anniversary, the two clubs that were there at the beginningthe Royal Yacht Squadron and the New York Yacht Clubare sponsoring the Americas Cup Jubilee at Cowes, on the Isle of Wight, on August 19-25, including an anniversary race around the island. (The latter is scheduled for the 21st because of extreme low tide on the actual day.) What will probably be the most spectacular regatta in the history of our pastime, the Jubilee was initiated by the Squadron in the sportsmanlike spirit of that first race so long ago. How many institutions do you know that would work so hard and long to celebrate the 150th anniversary of a loss?
All the 40-plus clubs that have ever sailed for the Cup were invited to participate. In the fleet of 208 yachts are 110 non-UK entries from 11 countries, including 43 boats from the US. The 60-foot 12-Meters that raced for the Cup from 1958-87 will be there in volume37 entries dating back as far as 90 years. All three surviving J-Class boats, those glamorous 130-footers that raced for what Sir Thomas Lipton called the "Auld Mug" in the 1930s, will be racing, as well as eight or nine modern day 75-foot Americas Cup Class yachts. I will be there aboard the 50-foot ketch Snow Lion, racing and observing the spectacle. So much has been written about the 1851 race and America over the decades including my biography of the boat, The Low Black Schooner) that one would think there is no more to say. But this occasion calls for a salute to this remarkable vessel, and also for the correction of a couple of myths.
To begin at the beginning, America was fast. She sailed through most of her competitors on the light-air run after the start, and then, in very different conditions, opened up a huge seven-and-a-half-mile lead on the 20-mile beat in moderate to fresh air. "That boat of yours is a wonderful creature," one yachtsman exclaimed to an American. "She beats us large [off the wind] or to windward, and when the breeze died the other day she actually out drifted us." America was not perfect (in fact she had some features that caused her designer, George Steers, to make some alterations after she reached Europe), but still she was a breakthrough.
By my reckoning there have been six "super boats" in Americas Cup history, all pretty much unbeatable if sailed properly. In reverse chronological order, they are last years New Zealand winner, the 1983 Australian winner (Australia II), three U.S. defenders Intrepid in 1967, Ranger in 1937, and the immense Reliance in 1903and there on Day One was America.
Why was she so fast? Her sails were made of that eras low-stretch version of Kevlar, called cotton duck. She carried a sail somewhat like a modern-day asymmetric spinnaker (a flying jib) set on the nineteenth centurys version of a sprit (a jib boom, which was a strut extending from the bowsprit). But it was her hull that made most of the difference. A model of America that was tank-tested in 1966 was found to be extremely weatherly, making so little leeway that it was in the range of 12-Meters, which remain an exceedingly close-winded bunch. The hull was not, as is commonly believed, radically innovative. Steers, pulled off the much tougher trick of melding a number of design trends dating back as far as 75 years prior to produce a complete package of sharp bow, lengthy run, relatively low wetted surface, long waterline length, and near-perfect balance under a simple but powerful rig. Steers, who had a genius for proportion, once explained that the ideal, subtle taper from amidships to the bow and stern was "just like the well-formed leg of a woman."
Among the myths about America are two concerning why she went to England and whether she cheated. Although she was not a national effort, her victory stimulated a sensation back home. "Like Jupiter among the Gods, America is first, and there is no second!," exclaimed US Senator Daniel Webster, the countrys greatest orator, after he read a report of the race. (Webster apparently was quoting a newspaper story, not the extremely charming but probably legendary tale that Queen Victoria had been told, Madam, there is no second.) That a yacht carrying the countrys informal name had beat the Brits at their own game was tremendously appealing at the time when the US was beginning to flex its muscles in the international arena. America became a national treasure and was not broken up until her 94th year, in 1945.
Still, she was not built as a national representative. She was taken to England by a syndicate of private individuals who aimed to represent New Yorks progress in naval architecture at the 1851 Great Exhibition (the first worlds fair), but who also hoped to get in a little racing on the South Coast. If she had been named New York (or, for that matter, Hoboken, honoring the home town of her syndicate head, New York YC founding Commodore John Cox Stevens), Websters response might well have been more tempered and less likely to stir up the jingoism that made Cup races a popular spectator sport long before ESPN.
As John Cox Stevens knew instinctively, Cup competition thrives on three universal passions. One, of course, is national feelinga point that todays transnational syndicates and crews ignore at their own peril. The second passion that drives the Cup is the spectacle of large, expensive yachts competing in tight quarters. And the third is the appeal of head-to-head challenges between matched owners and boats. All this Stevens and his friends assumed when they established the Cup as "perpetually a challenge cup for friendly competition between foreign countries""friendly" meaning private, individual, and not bloody.
"She might have been named New York (or, for that matter, Hoboken, honoring the home town of her syndicate head, New York YC founding Commodore John Cox Stevens."
Accusations of cheating are definitely unfriendly, and there has long been one against America to the effect that she would not have won the race had she not cut three miles off the course by sailing inside the Nab light, off the east end of the Isle of Wight.
The facts, as laid out by my English yachting historian friend Sir Peter Johnson, are very different. First, there were two sets of race instructions: one required entrants to round the Nab, and the other did not. Stevens was given one of the latter. Second, half a dozen of the 14 English yachts also cut the Nab. And thirdwhich I did not know until Peters research picked it upAmerica and the others gained very little because the Nab light in 1851 was not todays tower standing four-and-a-half miles off the island but a lightship almost four miles closer in. To summarize: whatever advantage America gained was (1) legal, (2) not unique, and (3) slight.
Come the third week of August, whatever advantage history has gained from her owners effort and Americas win is certain to pay off in truly friendly feelingsand spectacular images of extraordinary yachts off the Isle of Wight.Watch for daily coverage here at SailNet.
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