The first America’s Cup

Jan/Feb 2003

Since the racing has begun in New Zealand for the latest round of the America�s Cup, this might be a good time to look at the first competition. We can remember those men who, for the sake of national pride, were responsible for starting the America�s Cup tradition. A new book by author David Shaw takes an in-depth look at these men and the vessel they produced.

Image Credit: The Mariners’ Museum, Newport News, Va.

America�s Victory (Free Press, $26) is a fine account of the well-known race for the Hundred Guinea Cup. But it also tells the tale of the men who sailed the schooner America trans-Atlantic and then took on the cream of the British yachting establishment.

George Steers, who had already made a name for himself designing swift yachts and pilot schooners in New York, designed the schooner America. John Cox Stevens, George Schuyler, and James Alexander Hamilton, founding members of the New York Yacht Club, hired Steers to design and build a schooner that they could sail to England to represent the United States during London�s Great Exhibition of 1851. Every sailor knows how the schooner beat the best that the British had to offer, racing against cutters and other schooners, taking home the Hundred Guinea Cup that would become the America�s Cup. Few people, though, are familiar with the story of how the New York Yacht Club basically stole the boat from Steers and builder William Brown, holding them to contracts that were virtually impossible to meet. Even fewer people know that the real heroes of this event were Richard Brown and Nelson Comstock, captain and first mate of America.

In June 1851, the schooner departed Sandy Hook, N.Y., bound for the English Channel. Commanding America was Brown, perhaps one of the best of the Sandy Hook pilots. Also aboard were Comstock and a crew who had learned their trade sailing schooners. The design that Steers had conjured, and then helped to build at an East River shipyard, was radical for its day. Like the clipper ships being designed by George McCay, Steers� ship was lofty and had a fine knife-like bow that cut the water instead of pushing it away. No one, including Steers, who was aboard with his brother for the passage, knew if the ship would survive the crossing.

British shipping merchant W.S. Lindsay said this about a trans-Atlantic passage during the age of sail:

�A voyage across the Atlantic must ever be attended with greater peril than almost any other ocean service of similar length and duration; arising, as it does, from the boisterous character and uncertainty of the weather, from the icebergs which float in huge masses during spring along the northern line of passage, from the dense fogs frequently prevailing, and from the many vessels of every kind to be met with, either as employed in the Newfoundland fisheries, or in the vast and daily increasing intercourse between Europe and America. In such a navigation the utmost care and caution requires to be constantly exercised.�

Shaw�s compelling book follows these men aboard this untried schooner as they sail into the greatest moments of their lives. We will join these 19th-century mariners as they depart Sandy Hook and prepare to sail America across the Atlantic and into history. They took a northerly route, and despite the fact that it was June, had a rough passage.

On June 30, America is eastbound at a DR position of 48? 47� N by 50? 15� W. The schooner is racing along under the four lowers with the wind from the southwest. The chronometer is reading five minutes fast. The index error is 2� off the arc. The height above the water is 15 feet. Capt. Brown takes a sun shot at 13:42:20. He uses the upper limb.

A: What is his shot time?

B: Brown gets a good upper-limb shot of the sun. The Hs is 57? 05.4�. What is his Ho?

C: Calculate LOP from Ho. (Use H.O. 249 Vol. 3, page 68 with an assumed latitude of 49?. For those without the table, the numbers from H.O. 249 are as follows: Hc 56? 24�; d +51; Z 131?. The correction for minutes of declination is +8�.) From these numbers, calculate final Hc and compare with the Ho. What is the intercept?

D: Set up a plotting sheet and plot the LOP.  

By Ocean Navigator