Wins the First America’s Cup Race Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The schooner America won a yachting race around the Isle of Wight in the English Channel, beating a powerful English yacht team and marking the end of British maritime dominance. The challenge led to the establishment of the America’s Cup, a race so named in honor of the first victor. The America’s Cup became yacht racing’s most coveted prize.

Summary of Event

In the spring of 1851 several New York Yacht Club New York Yacht Club members formed a syndicate to design and build a yacht to compete against English yachts as part of England’s Great Trade Fair in 1851. The syndicate consisted of John Cox Stevens, commodore of the New York Yacht Club; Edwin Augustus Stevens, his brother; George L. Schuyler; James A. Hamilton; J. Beekman Finley; and Hamilton Wilkes. The syndicate’s purpose was twofold. First, it wanted to prove the viability of the superiority of American yachts in front of an English crowd, where the sport had its greatest following. Second, they wanted to cash in on the betting that accompanied these sporting events. America’s Cup Race[Americas Cup Race] Yachting Wight, Isle of America (yacht) [kw]America Wins the First America’s Cup Race (Aug. 22, 1851) [kw]Wins the First America’s Cup Race, America (Aug. 22, 1851) [kw]First America’s Cup Race, America Wins the (Aug. 22, 1851) [kw]America’s Cup Race, America Wins the First (Aug. 22, 1851) [kw]Cup Race, America Wins the First America’s (Aug. 22, 1851) [kw]Race, America Wins the First America’s Cup (Aug. 22, 1851) America’s Cup Race[Americas Cup Race] Yachting Wight, Isle of America (yacht) [g]Great Britain;Aug. 22, 1851: America Wins the First America’s Cup Race[2840] [g]United States;Aug. 22, 1851: America Wins the First America’s Cup Race[2840] [c]Sports;Aug. 22, 1851: America Wins the First America’s Cup Race[2840] [c]Science and technology;Aug. 22, 1851: America Wins the First America’s Cup Race[2840] Stevens, John Cox Stevens, Edwin Augustus Schuyler, George L. Brown, William H. Steers, George Brown, Richard

Historically, American shipbuilders Shipbuilding;United States had a technical expertise in both sail making and ship design that was envied throughout the world. American tea clippers were a significant, if not dominant, factor in the lucrative tea trade from China. Additionally, American ships were assuming many of the trade routes that English ships had traditionally dominated. One aspect of sailing had not been challenged by the Americans: yacht racing.

Answering the call, the syndicate contracted with William Brown Brown, William H. to produce a fast schooner. The design was given to George Steers Steers, George , a marine architect well known for his design of quick pilot boats. Pilot boats raced each other when trying to secure contracts with oceangoing vessels in need of guidance through harbors. The large vessels would hire the first pilot boat—and, therefore, the fastest—to reach them; the competition to get to a ship first created some of the fastest open-ocean boats in the world. The syndicate believed that experience in this type of occupation would provide the group with an architect who could produce a fast vessel with excellent handling abilities.

George Steers envisioned, for the syndicate, a schooner with several radical design characteristics. His schooner was 101 feet, 9 inches in length (90 feet, 3 inches at the waterline) with a beam (maximum width) of 23 feet. It drew 11 feet of water and had a displacement of 170.55 tons and a total sail area of 5,263 square feet. The hull design was a radical departure from the usual yachting design. It had a very pointed bow and a gentle taper to its widest point, just at the mainmast. Its stern was rounded and beveled and its masts were severely raked, that is, the masts angled toward the stern, forcing the thrust to be applied harder to its keel.

Currier & Ives print of the America.

Perhaps the schooner’s most important innovations were in its sails. First of all, it carried sails made of cotton, which allowed the sails to remain almost straight when in operation, and they were much less bulky than the sails used on English ships. Second, it carried a large sail forward of the foremast, which gave it advantages when running into the wind. Christened America, the yacht represented the best its country had to offer in design and materials, and it was determined to prove itself against the English because of the intense rivalries between these two countries in industry, culture, and most of all, seamanship.

In the summer, America sailed for Europe, making the crossing of the English Channel in twenty days. It was provisioned and prepared in Le Havre, France, and made anchor in the Solent, the channel between the Isle of Wight Wight, Isle of and England, on July 31. In the morning, an English cutter named Lavrock challenged America to a race. The Americans had much to lose and little to gain in this race. First of all, to lose would be an embarrassment. Second, the syndicate had built America to make money in betting, and there were no bets on this race. Finally, if the syndicate showed too much of what America was capable of, it might have little luck finding Europeans who would bet against it.

America took the challenge. Captain Richard Brown Brown, Richard began America’s first, if unofficial, European race to the Royal Yacht Squadron in Cowes. America, however, was overburdened for a race. It had onboard provisions to take to England and was some five or six inches lower in the water than it would be if it were in racing trim. Although the initial contest was uncertain after America went to windward, it gained steadily and easily reached Cowes one-quarter of a mile ahead of Lavrock.

Winning the race was a mixed blessing for the syndicate. England’s yachting community was loath to challenge a ship that, even under severe handicap, still handily beat one of their best. The syndicate could find no one who would challenge America. English sportsmanship, and the English press, came to America’s rescue. After several scathing articles that likened America’s arrival to the scattering of birds when a hawk appears, the Royal Yacht Squadron sent an open invitation to compete in its annual regatta on August 22. The prize for winning this race would be the One Hundred Guinea Cup, so named because the cup was made for the price of one hundred guineas.

At 10:00 a.m., the race started with fifteen vessels, ranging from 47 to 392 tons. America was slow to start, but within ninety minutes it had taken the lead. Three of the English yachts dropped out of the race. America finished approximately fifteen minutes ahead of its nearest competitor, the Aurora. Great Britain’s Queen Victoria, who witnessed the race, was gracious in her praise of America and its crew. Victoria is often credited with helping create one of the enduring mottos of the America’s Cup race: “There is no Second,” one person’s answer to her question of who placed second in the race. Although apocryphal, this saying has remained part of America’s Cup race lore.

America raced just one more time, its last against the English yacht Titania later that year, beating it by one hour. America, after being sold to an Irish lord, also became a Confederate blockade runner. It was captured by the Union Navy Navy, U.S.;Civil War and used as a blockading ship, a naval training ship, and was finally lost in an accident at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, during World War II.

The cup won by the America, by this time called the America’s Cup, was presented to the New York Yacht Club in 1858. Rules were then set for racing challenges for the cup. For 132 years the cup remained in New York before it found a new home. The rules have changed over the years, but the America’s Cup remains an enduring symbol of yacht racing excellence.

Significance

The technological superiority of America was quickly evident after it went unchallenged as a racing yacht. Its legacy made the America’s Cup races some of the most technologically, physically, and mentally challenging of sporting events.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bavier, Robert N., Jr. A View from the Cockpit: Winning the America’s Cup. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1965. An insightful look at the race from the perspective of the crew and captain of the winning boat Constellation in 1964.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Illingworth, John H. Twenty Challenges for the America’s Cup. New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1968. A narrative of twenty of the most interesting America’s Cup races.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lipscomb, F. W. A Hundred Years of the America’s Cup. Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1971. Analysis of one hundred years of the race, with emphasis on the ships themselves. Contains a wealth of drawings and illustrations of the craft.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Riggs, Doug. Keelhauled: Unsportsmanlike Conduct and the America’s Cup. Newport, R.I.: Seven Seas Press, 1986. An analysis of the America’s Cup races, with emphasis on Australia winning the trophy in 1983.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shaw, David W. America’s Victory: The Heroic Story of a Team of Ordinary Americans, and How They Won the Greatest Yacht Race Ever. New York: Free Press, 2002. A history not only of the first America’s Cup race in 1851 but also of the forgotten history of the working-class men who built the America and sailed it across a dangerous Atlantic Ocean to England.

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