America’s Cup: How a Schooner and Yacht Club Changed History

Oracle Team USA - America's Cup race
Oracle Team USA – America’s Cup race

The 2013 America’s Cup finals continue this week. The first team to reach nine points wins–current standings are 7-1, with Emirates Team New Zealand leading Oracle Team USA. This annual boat race is filled with excitement, speed, individual and team skill. It is the “oldest trophy in international sport” and pre-dates the modern Olympic Games. A look at the story behind the America’s Cup shows its place in history and why it mattered.

Founding of the New York Yacht Club

Sailing ships were a common sight during the 19th century along the eastern seaboard of the United States. In ports like Boston and New York, large clipper ships towered over smaller schooners — each one with a purpose and destination. Even though Lower Manhattan was a crowded city with accompanying dirt and smells, most of the island was still considered “country.” Summer estates and day hotels (like a country club or spa) were sprinkled throughout the rolling hills, waiting for the weekend visits from the middle and upper classes. A frequent activity was sailing in New York Harbor, the East River and the Hudson River. Sometimes, they would enjoy a leisurely sail and other times, would participate in a race.

Home of the America's Cup
New York Yacht Club

One man who enjoyed a good yacht race was John Cox Stevens from a prominent family in both politics and boating. Stevens had a new yacht, Gimcrack, anchored near the Battery off Lower Manhattan. On Tuesday afternoon, July 30, 1844, he invited eight fellow New York yachtsmen aboard. He proposed forming a club for local businessmen and residents for weekend racing in New York Harbor, and that would also offer cruises during the summer to New England. The men agreed and called this new club the New York Yacht Club. Stevens was appointed the commodore.

They didn’t waste any time getting their yachts together for their first cruise. Three days after the formation of the new club, they sailed to Newport, Rhode Island. But it would still be several years before they entered one particularly eventful race.

Schooner America and Invitation to England

Stevens and other members of the NYYC had built the schooner America. The plan was to display her at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in England as an example of Yankee shipbuilding, and then race her. She sailed under her own power from Hoboken, New Jersey on June 21, 1851, captained by a former Sandy Hook pilot, Dick Brown. The voyage took 20 days and six hours for her to arrive in Le Havre, France.

Items on display at the exhibition from the young United States included Colt revolvers, agricultural tools, and a man from New York City who was supposed to be the world’s best lock-picker. The London Times was not impressed, especially with the agricultural implements.

Three of the owners of America, Stevens being one of them, traveled to France to wait for the arrival of their schooner. While there, one of them had a conversation with the famed newspaper editor, Horace Greeley, who advised against racing. England already had a 250-year tradition of yachting. If this was daunting in any way to the Americans, they didn’t let it show. After all, they had been invited by the commodore, the Earl of Wilton, as guests of the Royal Yacht Squadron (RYS) clubhouse at Cowes on the Isle of Wight.

Yacht That Changed History
Schooner America

Upon arrival, the Earl and a welcoming party came aboard the schooner. After the formalities, Stevens extended an invitation to the “schooners of the Old World” to race. He was politely acknowledged as a guest and an honorary member of the RYS, but the invitation was ignored. The Illustrated London News dismissed her as going against the traditional lines of naval architecture.

Each time Stevens’ invitation to race was ignored, he would raise the stakes. The largest amount he offered was 10,000 guineas, which would have been $50,000. Even without a race, the schooner was quite an attraction. People by the thousands came by to look at her. She was there to be seen by everyone, regardless of their social class.

America Races and a New Tradition Begins

Her big chance finally came on Friday, August 21, 1851. She would race against 14 English cutters and schooners ranging from 47 tons to 392 tons. America as at 170 tons. She was the last to start due to overrunning her anchor, but quickly made up time. When she reached the first mark, she was already in fifth place.

The standard race course around the Isle of Wight included rounding the Nab Light Vessel. The American schooner received a different set of printed instructions. Instead of saying to “round” the light vessel, it said to go “outside” her. This meant that the schooner had a shorter course than the other boats. A protest followed but authorities dismissed it. America was gaining so much distance from the other boats that it couldn’t be attributed to just a shorter section of the course.

Queen Victoria was aboard the royal yacht Victoria & Albert during the race. As a lone schooner came out of the mist, the queen asked, “Who is first?” The reply was America. Her next question was, “Who is second?” The four-word answer became a racing standard, “There is no second.”

America's Cup Trophy
America’s Cup Trophy

When America sailed past the royal yacht, the crew took the hats off and dipped the flag out of respect. After the race, the owners were presented with the silver Royal Yacht Squadron Cup. Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and other royal officials walked aboard the schooner at the royal family’s summer residence, Osborne House. The London Merchant wrote that the seas will soon be “ceded to America” and England will not be “in a condition to dispute it with her.”

The owners of the schooner America were given an ornate silver trophy, an urn known as the Royal Yacht Squadron £100 Cup. Each member kept it in his home for awhile until it was given to the New York Yacht Club on July 8, 1857. Its name was changed to the America’s Cup, after the yacht America.

Written by: Cynthia Collins

America’s Cup History

New York Yacht Club

A Journey Through History – America’s Cup