Written by Dr Hamish Ross
The month of November marks the beginning and the end of the yacht America for which the America’s Cup is named.
America under construction in New York in 1851.
On the 15 November 1850, George Schuyler on behalf of a syndicate of five, including himself and Commodore John Cox Stevens and William Brown signed a contract to build a New York pilot schooner for the Great Exhibition, due to be opened by Queen Victoria in Hyde Park, London on Thursday 1 May 1851. The contract was for $30,000.00, conditioned on her being the fastest yacht in the United States. Unfortunately, she was delivered a month late and failed to defeat Commodore Stevens Maria during her trials. Left with the prospect of selling a failed yacht and in deep financial trouble, Brown had little option but to accept a ‘take it or leave it’ price reduction of $10,000.00 by Schuyler.
During the building, the her owner’s plans for England changed and the America would be diverted to the Royal Yacht Squadron (RYS) in Cowes after an invitation was received from RYS Commodore, the 2nd Earl of Wilton, inviting the owners to enjoy the hospitality of the Squadron during the yachting season. The Earl had been born Thomas Grosvenor, the second son of the Marquess of Westminster (the title was later elevated to a dukedom in 1874 – the last non-royal dukedom to be created). Wilton served as Commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron for thirty-two years between 1849 to 1881.
On 22 August 1851, America raced against 15 yachts in the Royal Yacht Squadron's "all nations" race around the Isle of Wight. America won, finishing 8 minutes ahead of the closest rival. After 1851, the America went through a number of owners, including service as a Confederate blockade runner under the name of the Memphis, being scuttled in Jacksonville, later raised to serve in the US Navy, and was raced by the Navy in the 1870 America’s Cup fleet race match (winning fourth place).
She was sold into private ownership in 1873 to Benjamin Butler, a controversial Union Army Major-General and later a colourful politician and lawyer. Under Butler’s ownership, the America underwent two major refits in 1875 and again in 1885. She was donated to the US Navy in 1921 and was towed to the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, as an on-water exhibit, where her condition gradually decayed. The onset of the Great Depression delayed the expenditure of an estimated $80,000.00 for a necessary refit.
Charles Francis Adams Jr., the America’s Cup winning skipper of Resolute in 1920, great-great grandson of the second US President John Adams, great grandson of the sixth President, John Quincy Adams, serving as the Secretary of the Navy, felt unable to approve the expenditure of such money in 1930 during the onset of the Depression. She was classified as a Navy relic in 1941 (IX-41) and hauled out at the Annapolis Yacht Yard for work. Some preliminary was carried out on her from time to time, mainly stripping her back to sound timbers, but only around other more urgent work which took precedence.
The America being towed to Annapolis on what was to be her last voyage in 1921
The outbreak of the Second World War further delayed any thoughts of a determined restoration and her fate was sealed after a shed in which she was being housed in Annapolis collapsed during a severe snowstorm on the night of Palm Sunday, 29 March 1942. When the War ended, the Navy was forced to cut back from its wartime budget and was busy decommissioning many of its ships. Nostalgia was in short supply in 1945 when it came to preserving famous ships.
Her end was sealed on 20th November 1945 when the US Navy signed an order for her scrapping, when faced with a repair bill of $300,000.00. The Navy received $990.90 for the scrapping of an icon. Many pieces of the America were souvenired and every now and then, pieces of the America come on the market, but rather like a ‘grandfather’s hammer’, it is rather hard to know if any piece offered dates from 1851 or was added later during one of its many refits. It is said, like relics of the ‘cross’, there are more pieces of wood claiming to be from the America than in a New England forest.
One of the last photographs of the remains of the America before she was scrapped in 1945.
Three replicas of the America have been built. They were built in 1967 (Boothby, Maine), 1995 (Albany, New York) and in 2005 (Varna, Bulgaria) with varying degrees of authenticity some having an additional 4 feet of beam to increase accommodation and additional skylights. The first two are based in the US and the latter in Rostock, Germany sailing as the Skythia.
The America, the most famous yacht in the history of the sport of sailing has bequeathed us a competition which represents the pinnacle of the sport in terms of technology, design, sailing skill, management, all these necessarily infused with smart strategic and tactical planning and execution, in which only the very best will win.