Yacht that launched the America's Cup


February 21, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Where did she come from? New York town.

Who was her skipper? Old Dick Brown.

Because of the snow and the chaos it exacted over the past week, you might have missed a short item in Monday's Baltimore Sun sports section reporting that, after a long drought, the America's Cup, the oldest trophy in international sports, will return to the U.S. after it had been in European hands for the past 15 years.

The trophy made its trans-Atlantic return after USA 17, owned by software tycoon Larry Ellison, swept by Switzerland's two-time defender Alinghi in waters off Valencia, Spain, last Sunday in the 33rd America's Cup competition.

Since 1851, wealthy yachtsmen, grandees and other assorted magnificoes have spent fortunes attempting to win or hold onto a Victorian-style, bottomless ewer that cost $510 when it was new.

The cup, often called the "Old Mug," is named for the first vessel to win the seagoing challenge in a race around England's Isle of Wight on Aug. 22, 1851, that saw the American schooner yacht America triumph over 14 of Britain's Royal Yacht Squadron's schooners and cutters.

Oddly enough, the story of the America has a Maryland connection - and not a particularly happy one - and a few old-timers might remember when it lay in the Severn River during the 1920s and 1930s at the Naval Academy.

Commissioned by the New York Yacht Club, the America was built by George Steers, a noted shipwright and designer, and William H. Brown, owner of a New York shipyard.

The America that was commissioned by the New York Yacht Club and budgeted at $20,000 was built in the Williamsburgh yard of Hawthorne & Steers, across the East River from New York City.

The vessel, which was 95 feet long, 23 feet wide amidships, was built of white oak, locust, cedar, chestnut and mahogany; its frame was supported by diagonal iron braces.

The America's keel was 80 feet long and its bottom was sheathed in copper that rose six inches above the water line. It displaced 170 tons and drew 11 feet of water.

"From stem to amidships the curve is scarcely perceptible, her gunwales being nearly straight lines and forming with each other an angle of about 25 degrees," reported The Spirit of the Times in an 1851 article.

The America was delivered to its owners on June 17, 1851, and three days later set sail for Le Havre, France, with a crew of 13.

The America was under the command of Commodore J. B. Stevens, who upon its arrival at Cowes, England, wired the following challenge to the Earl of Wilton:

"The New York Yacht Club, in order to test the different models of schooners of the old and new world, proposes through Commodore Stevens to the Royal Yacht Squadron, to run the yacht America against any number of schooners belonging to any of the yacht racing squadrons of the Kingdom."

Stevens heard nothing for a week and then sweetened his challenge. He would sail the America against "any cutter, schooner or vessel of any other rig of the Royal Yacht Squadron."

Britain finally agreed to the race.

At the helm of the America during the race was a veteran sea dog, Capt. Richard "Old Dick" Brown. The 81-mile race commenced at 9:55 a.m. on Aug. 22, 1851.

Gypsy Queen took the lead at the start, with America far back. Within 15 minutes, only three boats led the New York challenger, and it finally pulled ahead of the Aurora, its only serious competition.

Among the spectators that morning were Queen Victoria and Prince Albert aboard the royal yacht Victoria and Albert.

At 5:40 p.m., the America was rolling across the English Channel at a brisk 13 knots and 7¿ miles ahead of its nearest competitor. When it was beating its way home to the final buoy, it is said that Queen Victoria asked: "Who is first?"

She was quietly told that it was the America.

"Who is second?" she asked.

"There is no second," came the reply.

At 6 p.m., the America was declared the winner, with the Aurora coming in some 24 minutes later.

The race generated such good feeling that Victoria and Albert paid a visit to the America three days after the contest.

Prince Albert became flustered when Brown requested that he wipe his feet before entering the America's cockpit.

"I know who you are," stammered Brown, "but you'll have to wipe your feet."

After the historic race, the America was launched on a nomadic career that would come to an end in the Severn River.

It was purchased by Capt. John Blaquiere, an Indian army officer, who sailed the vessel in the Mediterranean, and after 1853, it went into a period of "obscurity and neglect," John Scott Hughes, yachting editor of The London Times, wrote in a 1958 article.

The America lay in the mud at Cowes until being sold to Lord Henry Montagu Upton, who in turn sold it in 1858 to Henry S. Pitcher, an English shipbuilder.

A year later, the vessel ended up in the hands of Henry Edward Decie, who renamed it Camilla. Taken to the West Indies, it was outfitted as a blockade runner and sold to the Confederate navy at Savannah, Ga., in 1861.

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