The year 2001 saw the 150th anniversary of the original race in which was won the cup subsequently presented to the New York Yacht Club; this became the prize in arguably the world’s greatest yacht race. 

The Cup

The cup’s name comes from the yacht America which, in 1851, won the Royal Yacht Squadron’s race round the Isle of Wight for a Cup of One Hundred Sovereigns (not guineas – the cup is often referred to mistakenly as the Hundred Guinea Cup, by which name it became known in America where it was subsequently engraved). The cup is named after the yacht, not after the country that held it for so long. From contemporary accounts of the challenges the Americans seem to have used pounds (sovereigns) and guineas interchangeably. 100 guineas would have been £105.

The cup is sometimes mistakenly referred to as The Queen’s Cup. This misnomer appears to have arisen from a speech given on the victorious return of America’s owners to the New York Yacht Club; this was widely reported and the name stuck. The Queen did present a cup each year to this club but that race was only open to Royal Yacht Squadron yachts: in 1851 to cutters of between 50 and 100 tons. She did however present cups to other yacht clubs and America was initially entered to race for The Queen’s Cup of the Royal Victoria Yacht Club at Ryde on the Isle of Wight, just across the water from Portsmouth. This may have been the source of the Americans’ confusion about the cup’s name. Alternatively, the course round the Isle of Wight was known as The Queen’s Course so that also may account for the confusion.

The cup itself, a bottomless silver ewer weighing 134 ounces and standing 27 inches high, was purchased from Robert Garrard the jeweller in 1848 and subsequently presented to the RYS by Lord Anglesey. As Lord Uxbridge he had been a founder member of the club in 1815 and he was still an active yachtsman in 1851 with his cutter Pearl. In those days cups were not returned but were won outright. The cup, with the $25,000 for which they had sold the yacht America after their brief but successful sojourn in England, went to America with its new owners. It was initially proposed that the cup be melted down and souvenirs made for the America syndicate members – which would have saved much trouble and many fortunes! However, in 1857 it was presented to the New York Yacht Club as a perpetual challenge trophy. Not until 1870 was it first raced for as The America Cup. Known today of course as The America’s Cup, many books have been written on the history of this great competition.

The cup is engraved with the names of all the yachts that raced America in 1851 with the exception of the runner up Aurora. When Queen Victoria asked about yachts following America up the Needles Channel she was reputedly told ‘There is no second’, a phrase later used to great effect in a speech by Daniel Webster in America. The Queen waited for Aurora to appear before returning to Osborne but, as far as the cup is concerned, the phrase is true.

The Yacht America

America was built for a syndicate of American yachtsmen and visited these shores in response to The Great Exhibition of 1851. The brainchild of Prince Albert, the consort of Queen Victoria, this exhibition was designed to show off to the world the best of everything British. The yacht was to show off to the British the best of America. The Queen and Prince Albert took a great interest in the yacht’s progress once she arrived, followed the race part way themselves and visited the yacht the following day.

America was designed and built by George Steers at William H Brown’s yard in New York. Brown offered to build her for $30,000 although delays and renegotiation reduced that figure to $20,000. Had she not proved a winner she need not have been accepted by the syndicate at all. She was a schooner, length 101’3″ breadth 23’ and depth 10 – 11’ and carried 5263 square feet of sail. Her owners were John Cox Stevens, Commodore of the New York Yacht Club and his brother Edwin; Colonel James A Hamilton and his son-in-law George L Schuyler; Hamilton Wilkes the NYYC’s first Vice Commodore, who oversaw her building; and a non-yachtsman John K Beekman Finlay.

While being built she was visited by the British Ambassador who mentioned it to a friend, Lord Wilton, who was the Commodore of the RYS. He wrote offering the club’s hospitality to her owners if they came to Cowes. In 1851 the Club’s present home, Cowes Castle, was still a place of defence mounting large guns; the club’s then house was on Cowes Parade nearby. When the club moved into the Castle its former home became The Gloster Hotel; this building has been since replaced by apartments. Stevens’ reply mentioned the ‘sound thrashing we are likely to get by venturing our longshore craft on your rough waters’.

America set sail across the Atlantic on 21 June, arriving at Le Havre on 11 July to be met by the Stevens brothers and Colonel and Mrs Hamilton who had crossed by steamer. She was readied for her appearance in English waters and sailed for Cowes on the 24th July. Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, was somewhat dubious about the likely success of the venture and said ‘The eyes of the world are on you; you will be beaten and the country will be abused, as it has in connection with the Exhibition ….. if you do go and are beaten, you had better not return to your country’.

The Stevens brothers joined the yacht to sail across the Channel and she arrived at the Island on the 25th July. On her way up to Cowes the next day she informally matched and passed Captain Williams’ yacht Lavrock (known locally as ’White’s Improvement’) – despite being well laden with French wine bought in anticipation of the entertaining to take place aboard. Her owners and designer took heart, increasingly so as they watched the English vessels being raced. Alarm they thought ‘an odd looking craft, very full forward and about 14 feet rake to her stern post, plumb forward’. They found a warm welcome in Cowes and much curiosity.

America attracted enormous interest among yachtsmen, shipbuilders and boatmen and among the local population generally. She was reported in the national as well as local and yachting press. The Illustrated London News opined ‘As a model, she is artistic, although rather a violation of the old established ideas of naval architecture’. The hollow bow she sported had first been seen on a Squadron yacht in 1827, but her almost wedge shape was unfamiliar. However her steeply raked masts with their taut sails were subsequently reckoned by many to be the main reason for her speed in a strong wind. The Marquis of Anglesey, one of her many visitors, almost fell overboard trying to see if she had a propeller and his son, Lord Alfred Paget, whose yacht Mona was one of the entries in the race against America, remarked ‘If she’s right we must all be wrong’.

The Challenges

The RYS Minutes of 9 May 1851 record the decision to hold a race on Friday 22nd August, during the club’s Regatta, which would be open to yachts of clubs of all nations. This first such race was arranged so that America could take part if she came to England. Squadron races were normally open only to their own yachts. In 1845 a £50 cup was offered for a race by vessels under 30 tons belonging to any ‘regularly established yacht club’; there was another in 1846 for yachts of ‘any other Royal Yacht Club’ but the practice had not been continued.

Once they had arrived America’s owners and the Steers brothers variously visited London, were taken out on RYS Members’ yachts to watch the racing, socialised and entertained in return. The NYYC Commodore posted several challenges at the RYS Clubhouse for yachts to race America. Initially it was schooners for fun, the last was any yachts for £10,000. These were not accepted, much to the disgust of The Times newspaper. Eventually Robert Stephenson, the famous locomotive and civil engineer and a friend of Stevens, agreed to race Titania, his John Scott Russell designed 100 ton iron schooner, against America for £100. This race, which America also won, took place nearly a week after the famous race for which, by then, America had been entered. Although the RYS had experimented with handicapping in previous years, the race basis was to be ‘no time allowance for tonnage’. The club’s single ownership rule was waived to allow America’s entry, as was the rule preventing booming out.

The Competition

18 yachts entered; 15 raced. Fernande, a 127 schooner built by William Camper at Gosport and owned by Major Francis Mountjoy Martyn, did not take her station in the two lines of yachts off the harbour entrance. Stella, a 39 ton cutter built by George & James Inman at Lymington in 1851 and owned by Richard Frankland Esq, and Titania, built by Robinson and Russell at Millwall in 1850, took their stations but did not start. The other competitors were:

Alarm 193 ton cutter, Thomas Inman, Lymington, 1830, owned Joseph Weld

Arrow 84 ton cutter, Inman 1821, owned Thomas Chamberlayne

Aurora 47 ton cutter, Michael Ratsey, Cowes, 1838, owned Thomas Le Marchant

Bacchante 80 ton cutter, Thomas and James Manlaws Wanhill, Poole, 1847, owned Benjamin Heywood Jones

Beatrice 117 ton schooner, Camper 1851, owned Sir Walter P Carew

Brilliant 393 ton schooner, John Rubie, Southampton, 1839, owned George Holland Ackers

Constance 136 ton schooner, built Joseph White, East Cowes, 1851, owned Marquis of Conyngham

Eclipse 50 ton cutter, Wanhill 1847, owned Henry Samuel Fearon

Freak 60 ton schooner, Wanhill 1849, owned William Curling Esq

Gipsy Queen 99 ton schooner, White 1848, owned Sir Henry Bold Hoghton

Ione 57 ton schooner, built White 1851, owned Almon Hill

Mona 56 ton cutter, built Richard Pinney, Poole, 1846, owned Lord Alfred Paget

Volante 48 ton cutter, built Harvey, Ipswich, 1851, owned J L Craigie

Wyvern 127 ton schooner, built Camper 1845, owned Duke of Marlborough

Most of the yachts were on the RYS List, but a few belonged to members of other clubs such as Henry Fearon who was a member of the Royal Western and the Royal St George. Volante’s owner belonged to the former and also to the Royal Thames and the Royal London. The owners of several of the yachts, even if members of the RYS, were also prominent in other clubs. The entrants for the race that day included the yachts of the Commodores of the Royal Victoria, the Royal Thames and the Royal St George and Vice Commodores of the Royal Victoria, Royal Welsh and Royal Mersey. So America was pitted against the yachts of many of the most prominent sailing men of the day.

The Race

‘In the memory of man Cowes never presented such an appearance as upon this day. There must have been at least a hundred yachts lying at anchor in the Roads; the beach was crowded from Egypt to the piers, the esplanade in front of the Club thronged with ladies and gentlemen, and with the people inland, who came over in shoals with wives, sons and daughters for the day. Booths were erected all along the quay and the roadstead was alive with boats, while from the sea and shore rose an incessant buzz of voices, mingled with the splashing of oars, the flapping of sails, and the hissing of steam, from the excursion vessels preparing to accompany the race….. It was with the greatest difficulty the little town gave space enough to the multitudes that came from all quarters to witness an event so novel and so interesting, and the hotels were quite inadequate to meet the demand of their guests’

America with the Stevens brothers and Col Hamilton aboard, with extra crew loaned by another yacht and with a local pilot (Robert Underwood brother-in-law of Cowes shipbuilder Ratsey), was last away at the start. The yacht club’s battery had fired a five minute gun at 9.55 am on which signal sails were hoisted. At 10 am the yachts got underway in an 11 knot SW breeze. By the first mark, Nomans Buoy, only just over three minutes separated the first nine yachts with the rest at half minute intervals behind. America was fifth, after Volante, Freak, Aurora and Gipsy Queen. Wyvern retired. The picture by T S Robins, in which some of the yachts are clearly identifiable from their racing flags, may represent the part of the race after America passed Volante to take the lead but before Volante stood for the Nab Light vessel. Several yachts followed Volante so increasing the distance sailed; the rest followed America. Race card and race instructions apparently differed, one just saying Round the Isle of Wight while the other contained the normal Queen’s Course instruction to round the Nab.

Despite delays when she lost her jibboom America never thereafter lost the lead; the wind freshened and she forged ahead, rounding the southern tip of the Island at 4 pm. While Aurora, Freak and Volante were short tacking down the coast disaster struck, Freak fouled Volante who lost her bowsprit – the local boatmen’s favourite was out of the race. At Mill Bay Arrow went aground, a steamer and Alarm going to her assistance. When America passed the Needles at 5.47 her nearest rival, Aurora, was several miles astern so that when the Queen enquired who was second no vessel was to be seen. However, as America goosewinged down the Solent so the wind died and she took nearly three hours to reach the finish line between the markboat and Cowes Castle in the gathering darkness. Her much smaller rival Aurora was thus able almost to catch her, being timed at 8.45 just minutes after America at 8.37. Bacchante and Eclipse arrived at 9.30 and 9.45 respectively, Brilliant at 1.20 am, by which time the fireworks and the dinner were over. Any yachts finishing later were not recorded.

America was sold and the syndicate members returned home to the New York Yacht Club in triumph. She remained in Britain for several years and, while renamed Camilla, was owned by Squadron member Lord Templetown. Her two races, and the yacht herself, had a profound influence. Seven of the entrants, and other yachts, were altered; Alarm was lengthened twenty feet by the bow and rigged as a schooner in 1852. Ideas from America’s design, and more especially her sails, seeped into British yacht building; as have the innovations inspired by the subsequent races for the America’s Cup. As John Scott Russell said ‘This challenge of America to England was of incalculable benefit to England. America reaped a crop of glory; England a crop of wisdom. It was worth the loss of a race to gain so much’.

The very fact of America’s visit, and the competition which her cup was to inspire, have had an enormous effect on the development of international yachting. Particularly strong links have been forged between British and American yachtsmen and between the New York Yacht Club and the Royal Yacht Squadron. The Jubilee Regatta arranged by the two clubs promised as much interest, excitement and spectacle as the race of 1851; it delivered it.