The First International Yacht Race

This article about the first international yacht race (which is now known as the Americas Cup) appeared in the The San Francisco Call in 1899. It shows the intense rivalry that the race had over 150 years ago, still exists today.

How we out-sailed the British in 1851, have beaten them ever since and propose to do it again in 1899.

Not all who are Interested in international yacht races perhaps realize that the first race between American and British yachts took place as far back as 1851. At a general meeting of the Royal Yacht Squadron, held May 9, 1861, it was unanimously agreed to give a cup of the value of £100, open to yachts belonging to the clubs of all nations, subject to the sailing regulations of the Royal Yacht Squadron, the course to be round the Isle of Wight (about eighty-one miles) and the race to be sailed on Friday, August 22.

First International Yacht Race

It was in the halcyon days of American clipper when this offer of the first yacht club In the world was made, and lt was followed immediately by the construction, on the part of the New York Yacht Club, of the good and famous craft America, the boat that brought the cup to America, and placed it in charge of the New York Yacht Club, in whose care it has remained ever since. In accordance with the original plan the cup must remain forever a challenge cup. But never again has the trophy crossed the seas, notwithstanding the repeated attempts of our English cousins to bear it back in triumph to its original home.

A stirring, adventurous and notable career indeed had the famous first winner of the cup. Built by Americans for the express purpose of meeting and vanquishing the yachts of England, or any other yachts, she vanquished all with the greatest ease. So far as yachting is concerned. Britain has no longer ruled the waves since the day when the America raced in English waters. Afterward the yacht was purchased by an Englishman, and for a time flew the Union Jack instead of the Stars and Stripes. During the period of the Civil War the America’s sailing qualities tempted a syndicate to purchase her for use as a blockade runner. During this period the yacht lurked about the Florida Keys and made flying trips to Bermuda and Nassau. Finally she was caught in the St. Johns River and was scuttled in order to save her from capture. She was raised and became a training ship at Annapolis.

In the year 1870 there, came from England Commander Asbury’s challenge for the America’s cup, then, as now, in the Possession of the New York Yacht Club, it was the unanimous desire of the country that the America should be allowed to compete for the defense of the cup which she had originally won. She had won it against a fleet, and in 1870 a fleet was sent out to defend it against the British challenger, the Cambria.

The America beat the Cambria, but she was preceded by three other American yachts at the finish, the Magic, the Idler and the Silvie. After the race the America returned to Annapolis and resumed her duties as a training ship. Three years later she was condemned by the Government and sold to General Benjamin F. Butler. At his death she passed into the hands of his son, Paul Butler. The America was built by George Steers, the Herreshoff of his day, and launched in March. 1851. Her principal owner was Commodore J. C. Stevens, who in 1844 had founded the New York Yacht Club.

The year 1851 was notable for the opening of the first world’s exhibit ever held. This was at the Crystal Palace in London. As a sort of culmination to the ceremonies that attended Its opening there was to be a great international assemblage of yachts at Cowes. Many races were arranged for. The America was sent over to represent the nation which had built her and whose name and colors she bore.

From the moment of her arrival at Cowes she became an object of curiosity and apprehension, and on one pretext or another the British yacht owners hesitated to accept the challenge which Commodore Stevens issued to the world. Finally the challenge was accepted and the race was sailed on Friday, August 22, 1881.

Shortly after 9 o’clock on Tuesday morning the yachts were at their stations off the clubhouse, the America lying considerably astern— a strange-looking craft enough, with her long, low, black hull, her breadth of beam and her thick, stiff looking rakish masts. Pitted against her were fourteen yachts, of which six were schooners and eight cutters. Among these were the flower of the English sporting navy, the choicest products of trans- Atlantic shipbuilding skill. At 10 o’clock the signal gun was fired from the club house. Before the smoke had well cleared away the fleet was under way, moving steadily to the east with the tide and a gentle breeze. The only laggard was the America, which did not move for a second or so after the others. Steamers shore boats and yachts of all sizes buzzed along on each side of the course and spread away for miles over the rippling sea.

If the British heart leaped with a momentary exultation over the slowness of the America in getting under way it was only momentary. She soon began to creep up on her opponents, passing some of the cutters to windward. In a quarter of an hour she left them all behind, save only the Constance, Beatrice and Fairy Queen, which were well together, and went along smartly with the light breeze. In another quarter of an hour she was clear of them all. Off Sandown Bay, the wind freshening, she carried away her jibboom, but as she was well handled, the mishap produced no ill effect, her competitors gaining a trifle, but not approaching her. From the moment she rounded St. Catherine’s Point the race was practically over. When finally she reached the starting vessel, at 25 minutes to 9 p. m., there was no competitor in sight. The news reached Her Majesty the Queen on board her yacht.

“Who is second?” asked the Queen. “Your Majesty, there is no second,” said the messenger. This was true at the moment, but 20 minutes later the Aurora arrived at the stakeboat, and was awarded second honors.

So ended the first great international yacht race in victory for America, and this story has been repeated up to the present day. Sufficient for the day is the glory thereof; there Is no need of prophecy.

The Columbia, America’s new cup defender, satisfied her owner, Commodore Morgan, and Designer Herreshoff by beating then Defender 3 minutes and 53 seconds over a thirty-mile course on July 6, although the race was an unsatisfactory one, owing to a bad. lumpy sea and baffling winds. This race was simply a tryout for the yacht. Since that time she has beaten the Defender in several races, under varying conditions the official trials will come off some time in September.

The nautical sharps who witnessed the race are of the opinion that the English challenger will be unable to take the cup from this side of the water.


The Columbia is carrying a more true fin-keel than the Defender, which gives her a great deal more stability and better windward qualifications. Experts agreed that owing to the character of the keel carried by the Defender, which was of the bulbed and rocker type, in her race with the Valkyrie 111. in 1895, she did not work well to windward, and showed a tendency to carry a lee helm. The new defender’s lead keel weighs about 95 tons, and is more the shape of a plate than a bulb. The advantage gained by giving the Columbia a plate-shaped keel instead of the bulb type is principally in the sail-carrying power. It also allows her to cut the water more easily.

The sail area of the Columbia is 13,800 feet. This is the largest spread of canvas ever placed on a racing cutter. The Valkyrie III, carried 13,000 feet, and the Defender 12,600 feet.

Her approximate dimensions are: Length over all, 131 feet; water line, 89 1/2
feet; beam, 24 feet 2 inches; draught, 20feet.

The length of the mast is 107 feet 6 inches; 22 feet in the masthead and 8 feet below deck and 77 feet from deck to hounds, where the Defender measures but 72 feet. The topmast measures 63 feet. The bowsprit extends outboard 27 feet. Therefore the distance from the fore side of the mast to the farthermost point of measurement is 73 feet. The distance from the water to the tip of the club top sail Is 175 feet. Therefore it would be impossible to sail this yacht under the Brooklyn bridge, because a mast 140 feet high just clears the bridge.

The launching of this beautiful craft on June 10 was the occasion of a holiday at Bristol. The shore on both sides of the shops where she was built was black with people, as were also the roofs of the shops. Crafts of all descriptions decked in gay colors, dotted the immediate waters of the bay. At exactly 8:16 Mrs. C. Oliver Iselin christened and started the new yacht from her cradle down the slight incline to the water. Cheer after cheer arose as her keel struck the water, and she seemed to bow gracefully In acknowledgment of the reception. It is estimated that at least five thousand people witnessed the launching. This is twice the number that saw the Defender take her initial dip, which clearly demonstrates that there Is a keener interest taken in the cup races this year.

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