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U.S. Timeline - The 1850s

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  • Timeline

  • Detail - 1851

    August 22, 1851 - The America's Cup yachting race is inaugurated with the victor crowned in the yacht aptly named, "America."

    America's Cup


    Yes, it was a rich man's sport, and, in 1851, predominantly a sport dominated by the toney confines of high British society. So, when an American syndicate got together to build a yacht that could compete against its European superiors, it was a rather bold thing to do. But, that's what John Cox Stevens did. From his post as Commodore at the new New York Yacht Club, the son of an American Revolution soldier and grandson of a delegate to the Continental Congress, got six friends together to commission a one hundred and one foot schooner they would name "America."

    Built by George Steers, whose father, and he, would build ships for the U.S. Navy, the America yacht was launched on May 3, 1851. Stevens and his friends were determined to race against the best and compete for the 1848 crafted Auld Mug, now known as the America's Cup, an ornate sterling silver trophy donated for the 1851 Annual Regatta around the Isle of Wight held by the Royal Yacht Squadron, with association to the Great Exhibition of 1851, the first World's Fair. Stevens was invited to compete in a new race, a fleet race, open to all, not just Royal Yacht club members. America would contest for that on August 22, 1851.

    Fifteen yachts (three more were entered, but did not end up competing) plied the wind for the start of the Queen's Course around the Isle of Wight at 10:00 a.m. The competitor's were America (the only foreign entry), Alarm, Arrow, Aurora, Bacchante, Beatrice, Brilliant, Constance, Eclipse, Freak, Gipsy Queen, Ione, Mona, Volante, and Wyvern. By the end of the race, after ten hours and thirty-four minutes, the American entry proved victorious with the cutter Aurora finishing second, twenty-four minutes behind. Queen Victoria was in the crowd.




    Account of the Race, London Times, August 22, 1851


    The Yacht Clubs
    From Our Own Reporter
    COWES, THURSDAY Afternoon.

    The challenge of the Americans has at last been accepted. Mr. Stephenson, M.P., has taken up their gage, and all that remains is to sail the match as soon as the regatta tomorrow is over. The conditions of the race are not known, but the sum staked on the event by Mr. Stephenson is 100L. The vessel which is opposed to the America is an iron schooner of 100 tons called the Titania. She was built by Mesrs. Robinson and Russell, and is said to be a fast vessel in smooth water; but I must confess I share in the doubts expressed by most people here as to her being a fit rival for the America, and am inclined to think she will be beaten hand over hand, notwithstanding the high reputation of her builders. However, Mr. Stephenson will have the credit of taking up a challenge which could not have been permitted to lie before us much longer without some degree of discredit being attached to the spirit of our yachtsmen, which hitherto has been unquestioned. If he win, the America, may pull down her stars and stripee as soon as she likes. If he be beaten, it will only be after a good race; and no one can say he did not do his best for the credit of the country, and that he did not lose 100L. with a becoming grace honoris causil. It is a characteristic trait that the hon. member puts his trust in iron, but wonderful as are the capabilities of that universal metal it is yet to be proved that it is a better material than wood for the hulls of yachts.

    Under the rays of a bright sun and a clear sky, scarcely freckled with light patches of cloud, the appearance of Cowes to-day is very animated and picturesque. The moorings in front of the esplanade and before the Royal Yacht Squadron Clubhouse are studded with yachts, which it may be fairly said are innumerable, for the graceful confusion of hulls, sails, and spars, and the shifting about of the various vessels from place to place, render it impossible to count them. The waters of the Solent in every direction are studded with yachts careening over in a fine sailing breeze, with every stitch set, leaving the roads and beating up towards the Needles, or running up to their anchorage fom Southampton-water and the Nab. In the middle of them all lies the America, easily distinguished by the peculiar cut of her hull, her bows and entry so fine and acute, and her stern cocking up slightly at the end; by her tall raking masts; but, above all, by a huge square ensign at her main, of blue bunting, dotted with a whole heaven of white stars and by her distinguishing flag at the peak-white with red stripes, a square blue patch in the upper quarter, with a circle of white stars around a foul anchor - the flag of the New York Yacht Club. Further out lies the trim little Fairy, with her fiery-coloured funnel, and the Royal yacht as bright as a new pin. Boats are pulling to and fro in all directions. Every steamer from Ryda, Southampton, and Portsmouth brings over a full freight of gentlemen in yachting costume, and of ladies in the peculiar attire devised at watering-places to keep off the weather. Lucky is the man who has a berth afloat, and is not forced to run up and down the little mountainous streets of Cowes looking for a bed with a heavy carpet-bag and the thermometer at 90' - and that too generally without success. On the beach and esplanade pretty little groups are strolling about and talking over the great event of to-morrow or criticising the various yachts; some of the ladies being greatly puzzled at that "ugly looking America without any clean nice ropes, or anything attractive like the vessls near her, being able to sail so well," and a tremendous traffic is going on in the transfer of hampers, bottle cases, and joints of meat, fowl, end such creature comforts from the shore to the men at sea. The clubhouse is crammed with members, and altogether there is more excitement than is usually visible on such occasions among the easy-going yachtsmen. It does one's heart good to see the Marquis of Anglesey as full of life and fire as in his beat days, with a jaunty tarpaulin hat on his head, a pair of flowing canvas trousers, and a dapper little blue jacket, walking about in front of the club, with a hearty shake of the hand for all his friends, and a word for all around, and then getting into his boat with a stout stiff stride, as though he never had left a leg behind at Waterloo. But that the old Pearl had no chance, I am certain that the Marquis would not have allowed the Americans to have it to say that it was weeks before any Englishman took up their challenge. Lord Jersey and a number of other members of both Houses are also here, looking much better, but very different as regards the outward man from what they were a few weeks ago in London. About 1 o'clock a fillip was given to the sauntorers and idlers by the America showing signs that she was getting under weigh, She hoisted her mainsail, then her fore and aft foresail, and when her prodigious foreesail was up and filled shot from her moorings like an arrow towards the Needles, greatly to the discomfiture of a little fleet of artists around who were busily engaged in taking her portrait. I had a good opportunity of seeing how she was handled, as I was close alongside at the time speaking to Mr. Stephens, and I must say that, though her men were smart, in that respect we have nothing to fear from her, the start being made only in a fair average way. This is no criterion, to be sure, of what she can do, as there was no occasion for haste, the Commodore merely wishing to have a sail in her; but it did not strike me that her crew, undoubtedly fine, able-bodied young men, were at all superior to our ordinary sailors. Her exterior is so finely smoothed - I might say polished - that it is difficult to believe till you touch her sides that she is not made of iron, and I again observed the curious way in which the water fizzed up from her bows - it was not raised up in foam breaking away before the prow as with our cutters, but started up in thin little jets and fell away under the bows just in the same way that water spurts up before a knife blade moved rapidly through it. Another peculiarity, and one I think which it would be well if our yachtsmen copied, is that her sails are laced to the booms and masts, so that not the slightest particle of wind can escape the sails. Long as her masts seem she stands remarkably well under canvas. Judging from her course to-day, she steers easily and is very manageable. With all sail set she is not so handsome to our eyes as our own craft, mainly on account of the cut of her main and fore and aftforesails, which are more in the shape of lengthened, obtuse-angled parallelograms than our own, and have not near so great a difference between the length at the boom and at the gaff.

    Just as I am writing this the people are running down to the piers and to the beach. It is nearly 3 o'clock, and the America is sailing back from the Needles, past Cowes, with a flotilla of yachts around her. She has foresail, fore and aft foresail, and mainsail set (her new jib not being used), and goes almost as softly, lightly, and quickly through the sea as a swallow skims over a meadow. About 20 cutters, schooners, and yauls are after her, most of them with every sail they can set, but she shoots away from them with the greatest ease. Several yachts which have been cruising about alter their course, and drop in before her, but the America gains on the best of them as if they were not moving at all, and before she had passed the point which shuts out my view of the Solent, just off the entrance to Cowes from the Portsmouth side, she had left them all hopelessly in the rear, the work of about 10 minutes.


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    Cowes Regatta, London Times, August 23, 1851


    Cowes Regatta
    (BY ELECTRIC TELEGRAPH.)
    COWES, FRIDAY, 10:30 P.M.

    The 100L Cup for all Nations was run for to-day, and after a most exciting contest, was won by the America, which beat all her competitors with the greatest ease.

    The day was fine, and at starting there was not much wind.

    Eighteen vessels entered for the cruise, and went off beautifully at 10 o'clock. At the Nab the America shot ahead, and at the Needles was seven or eight miles ahead of the nearest yacht. She carried away her jib-boom.

    The Arrow ran shore at Ventnor. There were no other casualties, though it blew freely from S.S.W. outside. Many of the yachts have not yet returned.

    The Queen went off to the Needles to see the race, and the Royal yacht ran part of the way home with the America. She rounded the Needles at eight minutes to 6 o'clock, after which the wind died away, and the rest of the match was a mere drifting race. The America was loudly cheered by all ashore and afloat.

    The America arrived at the starting vessel at 8 35 p.m.; the Aurora 47 tons cutter, Mr. T. Le Marchant at 8 55.

    A defense of the cup did not occur until 1870, and the cup was retained by an American yacht twenty-four straight times from 1870 to 1980 without defeat. The yacht Australia II wrestled the trophy away from the American side for the first time in 1983. Since that time, two other nations have also won the event. The next challenge for the America's Cup will be held in 2021.

    Image above: Painting of the yacht America winning the inaugural America's Cup race, 1851, Fitz Henry Lane. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons. Below: Start of the 1893 America's Cup race, 1893, Detroit Publishing Company. Courtesy Library of Congress. Info source: Library of Congress; London Times; Americascup.com; Wikipedia Commons.


    1893 America's Cup race




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