Yachtsmen (and sport historians) are among the few who know that the America’s Cup is the oldest competition in absolute terms: its origins go back to 1851, preceding by almost half a century the modern Olympics which saw the light of day in Athens in 1896. When you think about it, it is incredible that the greatest human and technological challenge – for a time with a purely national character, but today without frontiers – was created from a typical Anglo-Saxon contest, without any pretensions whatsoever. For this we must thank a group of New York businessmen who decided to challenge the English, on their home territory. They were rich yachtsmen from the Big Apple, headed by John C. Stevens, the commodore and founder of the New York Yacht Club. They had one objective: to participate in a major regatta in order to demonstrate that the boats and yachtsmen from over the ocean were just as good as their ex-colonisers. And that the old saying “Rule Britannia, Britannia rule the waves” – so cherished by her Majesty’s subjects, had run its course.
The Hundred Guineas Cup
The prize trophy was the Hundred Guineas Cup (which subsequently became the America’s Cup, in honour of the winning yacht), which was designed by the London goldsmith Robert Garrand in 1848. It was purchased by the first Marchioness of Anglesey and offered to the Royal Yacht Squadron of Cowes as the trophy for the regatta organised in 1851, on the occasion of the Great Exhibition in London. The historic route consisted of an anti-clockwise circuit around the Isle of Wight, which the RYS fleet knew perfectly. For this reason, the U.S. yachtsmen staked their chances on the speed of their vessel. The job of building the schooner America was entrusted to George Steers, one of the most popular naval architects of the day. The purpose was very clear: he had to build “the fastest yacht ever seen on the water”. The boat was built at the shipyard of William Brown, on the East River, which undertook to take the boat back again if it failed to meet the high expectations made of it. Having got wind of this plan, the Count of Wilton, commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron, formally invited John C. Stevens to Cowes in order to understand what was being plotted across the ocean.
The English fell into the trap
In his letter of reply, as well as accepting the invitation, the NYYC commodore explained that he was “honoured to be able to make the adventure with his own yacht in the dangerous English waters and that he would certainly be beaten by such a glorious fleet”. This was a cunning psychological ruse: Stevens was a betting man and in reality, what he was hoping was to beat the English in a resounding fashion. In order to achieve this, as well as preparing an extremely fast vessel, he had to ensure that his adversaries thought the contrary and remained unsuspecting of any danger, dropping their guard…This was the first demonstration of how psychology and cunning are of as much fundamental importance to the America’s Cup as the actual strength of the participants, and in fact secrecy remains one of the key characteristics of the competition 170 years later. America crossed the Atlantic without any problems and as it approached the English coast, it was joined by the cutter Leverock, which was considered to be one of the fastest yachts in the British fleet. It was distanced with such ease that the home yachtsmen started to exhibit some reluctance at the idea of competing against the American hull. Only a severe “dressing down” by the Times convinced them to participate in the regatta.
“There was no second, your Majesty”
There were fourteen participating yachts and although they varied greatly in shape and dimension (from 47 to 392 tonnes) no handicap system was applied. At the time, the start was signalled with the boats at anchor and their sails down. The English were initially quite encouraged when they saw America falter at the start, but that only lasted a short time: the schooner immediately picked up speed and was the first to cross the finish line. One anecdote which nowadays forms part of the legend, tells us that the mythical queen Victoria, who was watching the competition from the royal yacht, asked her orderly who came first. “America, Majesty”, was the disconsolate reply. “And the second?” “There was no second, your Majesty” stuttered the official, such was the enormous distance between the winner and the rest of the fleet.
The trophy arrived in Manhattan
Despite the result which, beyond the purely sporting aspect, marked once again the superiority of the American seamanship over that of the British, the New York ship-owners failed to show any great interest either in the schooner, which was sold to Lord John de Blaquiere, or in the cup itself, which came close to being melted down to create a set of medals. Luckily this was avoided and the trophy was transferred to the New York Yacht Club. There it was re-baptised with the name of the winning schooner and received its just place of honour, especially designated, in the principal lounge of the Manhattan head office. The trophy was donated to the New York Yacht Club under a Deed of Gift which set down that there would from then on be a “perpetual challenge trophy to promote friendly competition between nations”. That is how the United States initiated what proved to be the longest series of victories in the history of the sport. During the 132 following years, boats flagged under the Stars and Stripes defended the trophy, winning it for 24 years between 1870 and 1983, when Australia II became the first challenger to win and claim the trophy from them. But above all, in the mist surrounding the Isle of Wight, the America’s Cup was born.
Read the next episode: America’s Cup (1851-1930), the challenge to the Americans