Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Where it all began – A race around the Isle of Wight

From America's Cup by Magnus Wheatley

The Victorian yachting scene of the early 19th Century was a very different place.
It was a time of gentleman’s wagers as the transition from the old world to the new created opportunity for the wealthy to prove their yacht’s capabilities.
The Royal Yacht Squadron was founded on 1st June 1815 at the Thatched House in London with a principal objective far removed from what we know today.
Back then, club members merely gathered primarily to execute boat-handling skills and manoeuvres to signals unique to the Squadron and it wasn’t until 1818 when the first recorded monies were initiated for races between local Cowes boatmen at the annual regatta.

Up to that point, wagers were an in-house affair between members, with the first recorded in 1815 between two cutters weighing in at 60 and 65 tons respectively (The Charlotte and The Elizabeth) and it was a period of increasingly larger sums being placed and intense competition between members.
Indeed, wealthy Victorians in the first half of the 19th Century in England found great pleasure in wagers – it was almost the light entertainment of the day.

As racing became a thing, some six trophies were crafted at the finest silversmiths and even the King donated a beautiful tankard but as the middle of the century fast approached, yacht racing at the Royal Yacht Squadron, who didn’t move into their impressive Castle at the entrance to Cowes harbour until much later in 1857, was waning.
A new Commodore, the Earl of Wilton, was appointed in 1849 and quickly took on a remit to broaden the Club’s appeal.
At the May meeting in 1851, a £100 Cup was waged for a race around the Isle of Wight with one eye on attracting international participation, in particular from the United States.

But skip back to the year 1844 and the real genesis of today’s America’s Cup can be found with the formation of the New York Yacht Club aboard John Cox Stevens’ schooner Gimcrack.
With Prince Albert’s Great Exhibition set to be held at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851, Stevens and five other founding members of the NYYC took it upon themselves to create a vessel capable of showcasing the great skills and innovations of US shipbuilding.

As was the time, a wager was offered to George Shuyler (one of the six original founders of the NYYC) by East Coast boatbuilder William Brown in a letter that set out to create a craft “faster than any vessel in the United States brought to compete with her” for the not inconsiderate sum of $30,000.
It was a no-lose bet for the founders, as they deemed that if Brown was correct, they could win considerable prize sums once the yacht had crossed the Atlantic, and the yacht ‘America’ was duly commissioned.

In customary America’s Cup style, repeated down the ages through to this very day, the yacht America was somewhat radical from the outset.
She was built to withstand an Atlantic crossing planked with beautiful three-inch thick white oak set on five different varieties of hardwood framing and diagonal iron bracing.
The deck was a yellow pine of some two and a half inches whilst the hull was copper sheathed to just above the waterline.
The Certificate of Registry, issued on the 17th June 1851 by the New York Customs House, states that America was 93ft 6inches long with a beam of 22ft 6inches and a draft of 9ft.
She weighed in with a tonnage just over 170.

A few days after registry, on the 21st June 1851, America set sail for Le Havre in France, replete with grey primed topsides for finishing off ahead of race preparation across the English Channel away from prying British eyes.
She arrived on July 9th, 1851, and entered an intense period of refit.
The topsides were enamelled in black and racing sails, made of cotton (the British boats used heavy flax) were laced to the spars – unconventional at the time.

John Cox Stevens and his brother Edwin A.
Stevens took charge of the vessel from here on and on 31st July 1851 they left Le Havre to travel to the Isle of Wight and challenge the very best that the assorted yacht clubs in England could muster.

Arriving off the north side of the Island that night in thick fog they anchored off the sands of Ryde Town and waited for the arrival the following morning of the cutter Lavrock to guide them up to Cowes.
Lavrock was known as one of the fastest of the English fleet and America was hesitant to sail against them, laden down as they were still with stores for the trip across the Atlantic.
But after starting considerably astern, quickly the crew of America found they could sail higher to the wind at a consistently faster speed and overtook Lavrock, resting just off Cowes at anchor a third of a mile ahead in short order.

The Earl of Wilton came aboard and welcomed the New York Yacht Club’s rapid vessel and its crew to Britain.
The London newspaper, The Times, reported that the vessel had arrived and alluded to its speed saying that it had the effect which “the appearance of a sparrow hawk on the horizon creates among a flock of wood pigeons or skylarks,” and in an instant the wagers and bets that had been mooted by owners of commensurate old-world yachts or on behalf of various royal clubs quickly dried up.

However, this was a time when yacht design was of fascination.
The old and the new world vessels wanted to pitch against each other to see and assess relative speeds and characteristics.
America was seen as ‘radical’ with a refined rigging arrangement, smaller sail area and sleeker form.
She quickly became a vessel to watch as she lined up alongside or astern of others of the English fleet in races from both the Royal Victoria Yacht Club and the Royal Yacht Squadron that she was ineligible to compete in that summer, owing to the ownership structure or membership status of the crew.
That she was fast, was never in doubt.

The first, and perhaps only, real test for America was the Royal Yacht Squadron’s £100 Cup initiated by the Earl of Wilton to be sailed on a clockwise course around the Isle of Wight on August 22nd, 1851.
A total of 18 yachts entered but only 15 made it to the starting line varying from the 392-ton, three-masted schooner ‘Brilliant’ to the 48-ton cutter Volante.

As was tradition (and a tradition that lasts to today), cannon fire was issued by the Royal Yacht Squadron at 10am to signal the start of the race with all the vessels sat at anchor on their stations to follow the easterly flowing tide down the Solent.
As the fleet took off in moderate to light winds, America overran her anchor and was quickly spun round in the breeze to face the west and for the first few hours of the most famous race in yachting’s history, it was a game of catch-up.
Setting a different sail-plan, much smaller than the rest of the fleet - the Lawsons History of the America’s Cup documents that: “The America went easily for some time under mainsail (with a small gaff-top-sail of a triangular shape braced up to the truck of the short and slender stick which serves as her main-top-mast), foresail, fore-stay-sail, (jib) and jib (flying-jib) while her opponents had every cloth set that the Club regulations allow.” Indeed, the British yachts had hoisted vast acres of flax sailcloth, but with cotton flat-cut sails laced to the spars and a better hull-form, America quickly started to pull through the fleet.

By the No Mans Land buoy off Seaview, it was a race amongst the smaller cutters who could ply their way through the water and maintain their speed in the moderate airs ahead of the heavier schooners.
An hour and a half after the starting signal, America seized the lead from the 48ft Volante having jockeyed and swapped positions down the waterway just before the Nab Light that marked the eastern approaches to the Solent.
And it was here where the first, and possibly longest lasting, controversies of what became the America’s Cup, occurred.

An unwritten rule, perhaps a memorandum of understanding between gentlemen members of the Royal Yacht Squadron and accepted by the other notable royal clubs, dictated that yachts would pass to the east of the Nab Tower light buoy, leaving the navigation mark to starboard as they filed along on their way to the southern-most tip of the Island.

However, Robert Underwood, the British pilot who was aboard the America having been recruited by the US Consul in Southampton to guide the vessel in these trickiest of coastal waters, stuck by the letter of the instructions for the race that he had received.
America tacked inshore and passed to port inside the buoy before the Yaverland foreshore and on to Sandown and Shanklin.

Although America was clearly faster, it was anything but plain sailing on the windward leg up against the tide to St Catherine’s Point as she held a one-mile lead over the Aurora, with the Volante having sprung her bowsprit, the Arrow going aground and the Alarm standing by to assist.
The fleet was dwindling.
America’s innovative jib boom snapped just off Dunnose Head although for the Sailing Master, Dick Brown, it was somewhat of a relief as he didn’t feel jib booms should be carried to windward.
Once the crew had cleared the debris with minimal loss in position, America increased her pace thus confirming Brown’s hunch.

However, it was a long haul around the tricky coastal waters of the back of England’s famous Isle as the Lawsons History of the America’s Cup chronicles: “notoriously one of the most unfair to strangers that can be selected, and indeed it does not appear a good race ground for anyone, inasmuch as the currents and tides render local knowledge of more value than swift sailing and nautical skill.” America finally rounded the Needles, an outcrop of rocks that mark the western end of the Solent at 5.40pm some seven and a half miles ahead of the 84ft cutter Aurora with just the nine miles of the Solent down to Cowes left to run.

Almost immediately after rounding the Needles and entering the narrow, deep channel down through the approaching Hurst narrows, the America ran slowly past the Royal Yacht, sat at anchor in Alum Bay with the Queen (Victoria) and Prince Albert present on her decks.

As is customary, the ensign was lowered (quite a thing for Republicans to do) and Commodore Stevens of the NYYC doffed his cap as a mark of respect.
As the winds lightened into the evening, it was a long haul down to Cowes with the Aurora closing in on America to within just a few minutes.

According to the Lawsons History of the America’s Cup: “The evening fell darkly, heavy clouds being piled along the northern shore of the strait; and the thousands who had for hours lined the southern shore, from West Cowes long past the Castle, awaiting anxiously the appearance of the winner, and eagerly drinking in every rumour as to the progress of the match, were beginning to disperse, when the peculiar rig of the clipper was discerned through the gloom, and at 8h 34m.
o’clock (railway time 8h 37m., according to the secretary of the Royal Yacht Squadron) a gun from the flagship announced her arrival as the winner of the Cup.
The Aurora was announced at 8h.
58m.; the Bacchante at 9h.
30m.; the Eclipse at 9h.
45m.; the Brilliant at 1h.
(Saturday morning).
No account of the rest.”

As the America, with her crew of 13 onboard passed the flagship, she was, according to Lawsons: “received with the most gratifying cheers.
Yankee Doodle was played by the band.”

But it was back up at the Needles at the western end of the Solent where possibly the most famous phrase of the America’s Cup, a phrase that many of today’s sailors use and live by, was supposedly uttered to Queen Victoria by a signalman onboard the Victoria & Albert Royal Yacht as he peered from the deck down the Solent:

“Say signal-master, are the yachts in sight?”
“Yes, may it please Your Majesty.”
“Which is first?”
“The America.”
“Which is second?”
“Ah, Your Majesty, there is no second.”

Perhaps an embellishment of the truth, the name of the “perspicacious” signal-master was never recorded but the tale and its succinct line has stuck with the America’s Cup since and beautifully encapsulates the competition.

When the news finally reached the United States some two weeks after the race, it was received with “general satisfaction, quietly expressed” according to Lawsons.
“In Boston the news was received during a celebration at the State House, of the opening of railway communication between the United States and the Canadian provinces.
Daniel Webster (Congressman and US Secretary of State) was addressing a large audience in the hall of the House of Representatives.
He broke off in his speech to announce the victory: “Like Jupiter among the Gods, America is first, and there is no second.”
There really is no second in the America’s Cup.

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