The defeat suffered in 1851 in Cowes convinced the British shipowners that they should attempt the undertaking of bringing back home, at the earliest opportunity, the ex-Hundred Guinea Cup now known as the America’s Cup. The first person to believe this could be achieved was James Ashbury, who in 1870 crossed the Atlantic Ocean – as required by the regulations –, in the opposite direction to that taken by the America, in order to challenge a substantial fleet from the New York Yacht Club in front of Staten Island. The Cambria came in tenth out of 17 participants – the best one was the Magic - and Ashbury threw down the gauntlet for another challenge for the following year
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View of Thomas Lipton's yacht Shamrock I, 1899.(Photo by Detroit Publishing Company/Interim Archives/Getty Images)
The event was poisoned by arguments and violent protests (the first legal battle in what has now become an infinite series….). On that occasion, the English shipowner consulted his lawyers and insisted that he should compete against a single yacht and not a fleet of adversaries. He also protested about the marking system and about how the Regatta Committee had positioned the competition course. In the end he returned home disappointed by the defeat inflicted on his Livonia and embittered by the lack of sportsmanship shown by the Americans who aboard the Columbia and the Sappho had snatched away – according to him – the victory he was due. The two next challenges came from Canada, but both the challengers – the Countess of Dufferin (1876) and the Atalanata (1881) – failed by a long way to worry the defenders (respectively the Madeleine and the Mischief) and were soundly beaten.
Lipton, the major loser
Between then and the end of the century a further six challenges were raced, including the first one launched by Sir Thomas Lipton, who changed the history of the competition. The names of the defenders mean little other than to remind everyone of the American tradition and their superiority over the English adversary arriving in the waters around New York. Here are the names, however: Puritan (1885), Mayflower (1886), Volunteer (1887), Vigilant (1893), Defender (1895). The impact of the Columbia was very different; this was the boat which in 1899 and in 1901 found itself facing the first two Shamrocks from the above-mentioned Lipton. Born in Scotland of Irish descent, the “tea king” launched as many as five challenges between 1889 and 1930: he lost them all, but entered the history of the America’s Cup thanks to his great sportsmanship, the elegance with which he accepted his defeats and his unrivalled passion in respect of the trophy which, by the way, was also an excellent driver for his international business. In practice, he was auto-sponsoring his own boats.
The insult of 1920
Lipton was effectively the first challenger to force the Americans to commit themselves in a serious fashion, by throwing down on the table a wad of dollars and by studying modern boats. In 1903, in order to avoid having the trophy snatched away from them by the powerful Shamrock III, the syndicate headed by William Rockfeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt arranged for the construction of the Reliance, a jewel of technology and excellence which at 43 metres long remains one of the most imposing racing yachts in the history of the event. After the interruption caused by the First World War, Lipton presented himself once again in New York with his fourth Shamrock, designed by the future icon of nautical construction Charles Nicholson: during the challenge of 1920, he won the first two regattas, and thus came close to achieving his dream. However, the defender, the Resolute, succeeded in equalising the score and secured the lead in the decider. Incidentally, here too the Americans displayed little in the way of sportsmanship, not to say actual misconduct: the jury cancelled the fifth heat because of strong winds (these conditions favoured the Shamrock IV), and during the re-run a light breeze prevailed. Ideal for the qualities of the lighter Resolute.
The J-Class vessels arrive
The final adventure of the “tea king” marked the début of the spectacular J-Class – the first rating classification in the America’s Cup – and of Newport (Rhode Island) as the location for the regatta. But in 1930, Lipton failed to make the winning technical choice: his Shamrock V – which curiously was flagged under the Irish ensign – was extremely beautiful but traditional, with a steel frame and decking in mahogany. Defending the trophy was the Enterprise, built by Harold Vanderbilt, and assembled using materials and techniques borrowed from the world of aeronautics. This was a minor revolution, starting with the mainmast in aluminium: it was an undramatic 4-0 result, to such an extent that it persuaded the American yachtsmen to present to the 80-year-old Sir Thomas a valuable cup made of gold – sculpted by Tiffany – bearing an inscription full of affection and goodwill. “To the great challenger, who was the most cheerful and tireless of all losers”. Lipton was very touched, replied that he would soon be back again for a sixth challenge, but died the following year, with a minor but very satisfying prize: he was admitted to membership of the Royal Yacht Squadron, the exclusive club which had always rejected him as a member. Incredible but true.