The History of the British Challenge

A look back at the 21 British Challengers that have attempted to bring the America's Cup back home since 1851.

A look back at the 21 British Challengers that have attempted to bring the America's Cup back home since 1851.

The World’s Oldest Sporting Trophy

The America’s Cup is the oldest international sporting trophy in the world. It predates the FA Cup, the Ryder Cup and even the modern Olympic Games by 45 years. The first America’s Cup took place in 1851, 35 years before the car and 52 years before the inaugural flight of the Wright Brothers. Though it started in Britain, a British team has never won it. “50 years of hurt” – how about 170?

The lack of success for Britain is, however, not for a lack of trying. Over the past 170 years there have been many British challenges for the Cup, some more successful than others, but they all have one thing in common. Not one of them has ever brought the famous “Auld Mug” back home.

The America's Cup trophy photographed sometime between 1900 - 1915 c/o Detroit Publishing Co. / Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division

The Early Years: 1851-1895

The first edition of the America’s Cup took place in 1851. It began when during that year’s Great Exhibition the Earl of Wilton, the Commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron (RYS), sent an invitation to members of the recently-formed New York Yacht Club (NYYC), suggesting that they might like to enjoy the club’s facilities in Cowes.

John Cox Stevens, Wilton’s opposite number in New York, replied enthusiastically. “Four or five friends and myself have a yacht…we propose to avail ourselves of your friendly bidding and take with a good grace the sound thrashing...”

The RYS, however, only ever raced its member’s yachts, which by the club’s rules had to be individually owned. So instead, Wilton arranged for a race for a £100 Cup, a stock item from Garrads, to be open to yachts of all nations.

On Friday August 22nd, 1851, the race for the ‘£100 Cup’ took place. John Cox Stevens and his friends from the NYYC raced their schooner America. It was indeed a ‘sound thrashing’, but not as Commodore Stevens had predicted. As America passed the Royal Yacht in first position, and saluted by dipping its ensign three times, Queen Victoria asked one of her attendants to tell her who was in second place. “Your Majesty, there is no second,” came the reply.

That phrase, just four words, is still the best description of the America’s Cup today, and how it represents the singular pursuit of excellence.

The America, schooner yacht, 1851 c/o Ackermann & Co / National Maritime Museum

The NYYC went home with the cup from Garrads and would subsequently present it to the world as a challenge cup amongst yacht clubs of friendly nations the world over. The ‘America’s Cup’ was born.

The very first challenge came from an Englishman named James Ashbury, who raced against a fleet from the NYYC in 1870. After much dispute James Ashbury’s Cambria was defeated by nine boats in a fleet of 14 over a New York Harbour course. A second unsuccessful challenge followed by Ashbury the following year.

In 1885 the New York Yacht Club would face their first challenge to win back the Cup from the Royal Yacht Squadron, it was the fifth challenge they faced to date and came from Sir Richard Sutton’s Genesta. He lost 2-0. The RYS would not give up, however, and challenged the NYYC both in 1893 and 1895 again, this time through the Earl of Dunraven. He too, was defeated each time, and accused the Americans of cheating for which he was pilloried at the time.

Valkyrie III, the unsuccessful British challenger in 1895 c/o Detroit Publishing Co. / Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division

Sir Thomas Lipton and Charlie Barr: 1899 – 1930

From the turn of the century through to 1930, the British challenge for the America’s Cup was dominated by one man, Sir Thomas Lipton.

Born in a Gorbals tenement, Lipton built his own business empire from the ground up. The Irish/Scottish tea baron challenged for the America’s Cup five times between 1899-1930 and was one of the first people to introduce the concept of sports sponsorship to the world.

Lipton utilised his own genial character and America’s Cup challenges to raise both his personal profile and the profile of his tea business. The publicity was a strong motivating factor for him and he felt that yachting was a way of gaining access to the upper reaches of society.

Sir Thomas Lipton c/o Detroit Publishing Co. / Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division

To some extent, he succeeded. He sailed with both the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) and subsequently his son King George V. Indeed, it is believed that the Prince of Wales was the first to ask him to challenge for the America’s Cup.

For Lipton’s first challenge, The London Evening News set up a canvas map of the racecourse and marked the yacht’s position with coloured lights updated by telephone from the Daily Mail’s New York cable room. The crowds that subsequently gathered in London were so big that the Embankment had to be closed by a large contingent of police. This was typical of the interest and publicity that Lipton could raise in his challenges.

On the other hand, like the British challenges before him, all five of Lipton’s challenges failed to win the ultimate prize and bring the Cup back home. A succession of five yachts named Shamrock challenged for the Cup in 1899, 1901, 1903, 1920 and 1930 but each time came up short against the NYYC’s yachts, often in one-sided affairs.  

Shamrock I and Columbia after the start c/o Detroit Publishing Co. / Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division

Perhaps ironically, however, in the first three Cups he contested, Lipton was beaten by a boat skippered by another Brit, Charlie Barr.

Barr is Britain’s most successful America’s Cup skipper and the only Briton to have been onboard an America’s Cup winning boat until INEOS TEAM UK Skipper Ben Ainslie won the Cup with Oracle Team USA in 2013.

Born in Gourock, Scotland, to a family of famous yacht skippers and fishermen, Barr had a reputation as a ruthless and uncompromising man, whose main assets were innovative tactics based on a thorough understanding of the racing rules and a perfect judgment of time and distance which made him a tremendous starting helmsman. He was also a great man manager which enabled him to drill his crews to perfection.

Charlie Barr skippering Reliance, 1903 c/o Detroit Publishing Co. / Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division

Barr bested Lipton’s yachts three times in the America’s Cup. First, skippering the brand-new Columbia yacht he beat Lipton’s Shamrock at the age of 35 in 1899. He then repeated the feat with Columbia in 1901, despite the fact it was probably a slower boat than Lipton’s Shamrock II, and he needed all his qualities as a skipper and sailor to come through the test and establish his greatness.

His final victory was onboard Reliance. Reliance was developed by the NYYC in reaction to the closeness of the match against Shamrock II and was the biggest and one of the most original and breath-taking Cup boats in history. She completely dominated the competition and won 16 of 19 races to become the Defender, before thrashing Shamrock III in all three races.

Charlie Barr's Reliance crossing the finishing line in 1903 c/o Detroit Publishing Co. / Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division

After an unsuccessful fourth challenge with Shamrock IV, Sir Thomas Lipton’s fifth and final match was in 1930, the first in the legendary J Class era. Whilst Shamrock V was a beautiful boat, she was met by four new J Class yachts from which the NYYC could choose their defender. This was a great example of a good Challenger being simply overpowered by the Defender’s resources. Harold Vanderbilt and Enterprise won the defence trials with a revolutionary and very light (50% lighter than Shamrock’s) duralumin mast, the ‘Park Avenue’ boom and many other innovations which all proved decisive. Lipton’s time had come and gone.

Sir T.O.M. Sopwith: 1934-1937

The final pre-Second World War British challenges were led by Sir T.O.M. Sopwith, who bought Shamrock V from Sir Thomas Lipton.

Sopwith came from a very different background to Lipton. He was born in Kensington and his father was the MD of a mining company. He was an industrialist, with a background in engineering and science. He was a contemporary of the Wright Brothers and a pioneer of the aviation industry in the UK, indeed he developed and built the most successful fighter in the First World War.

Sopwith was also a sportsman in all senses; he raced cars and motorcycles, held the world waterspeed record in a powerboat, played ice hockey and won a gold medal with the British team at the first ever European Championships. He was also a sportsman in the sense of the traditional English gentleman, apparently a fine shot and fisherman, sailing his own boats.

Sir T.O.M. Sopwith photographed in 1911 c/o Detroit Publishing Co. / Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division

Sopwith brought that sporting desire and scientific, innovative approach to yacht racing. There is widespread agreement that Sopwith’s first Endeavour, the 1934 J-Class Challenger, was the fastest and best prepared boat ever to leave Britain. She went to meet a weak American fleet, with the NYYC elite still struggling with the impact of the Great Depression.

It was an incredible opportunity. Endeavour, however, left the UK without half of her professional crew. They wanted more money for the trip to the US, as their return to the UK would be too late to get work on the fishing boats. Sopwith offered them a little more, along with a win bonus, but it wasn’t enough. Rather than negotiate further, Sopwith replaced those who wouldn’t agree to the new terms with amateurs from the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club. At the end of a long and remarkable life (he died at the age of 101) Sopwith declared that not paying the crew what they had demanded was his only real regret.

Nonetheless, Endeavour won the first two races and led the third on the final leg. Sadly, from then on, they were out-sailed by a slicker, tighter American crew in a match noted for its rancour and controversy. The match ended 4-2 to the Harold Vanderbilt’s Rainbow and provoked the notorious headline; “Britannia rules the waves and America waives the rules.”

Once again spooked by the closeness of their escape, the Americans pulled out all the stops and produced another superboat for Sopwith’s following challenge in 1937, Ranger. She completely outclassed Sopwith’s Endeavour II and his moment was lost with the coming of the Second World War.

1958 - 1964

In a post-war world of austerity, the size of the boats were considerably reduced, and the action restarted in the 12-Metre Class. In 1958 Britain’s Sceptre, steered by Graham Mann, lost by significant margins and a 4-0 scoreline to Columbia.

Sceptre and Columbia c/o Life Magazine / sceptre1958.co.uk

In 1964 it was no better for Tony Boyden’s Sovereign when he lost by even bigger margins and lost 4-0 to Constellation. Britain’s post-war challenges were struggling for the same reason as they had before the War, the Americans simply had more boats competing to defend, more resources and for the majority of the time access to superior technology.

1980 – 2003

It was 1980 until Britain would challenge for the America’s Cup again, and in the intervening period a lot had changed. It started with the Australians challenging in 1967 when they had their own trials between two Australian boats. The French then joined the fray in 1970 and the first multi-national challenger trials were held. It was this trend of greater numbers of challenging boats that would eventually tip the balance of power away from the NYYC and to the Challengers.

Unfortunately, Britain only competed again once this trend was already at its peak and the Australians were becoming the dominant force in the Cup competition. They challenged seven times over two decades, providing a period of continuous practice and experience.

That stability ultimately led to the Australians with Australia II, perhaps the most famous America’s Cup boat of all time, becoming the first team to win the trophy from the New York Yacht Club in 1983 and breaking the 132-year winning streak. It was the longest running winning streak in history exemplified by the fact that the NYYC had bolted the Cup down in their yacht club. Onboard the successful Australia II as navigator was the young Grant Simmer, now CEO of INEOS TEAM UK.

Britain never managed to produce a period of continuity like this in the post-war era and the results showed that to be the case. Tony Boyden’s Lionheart lost to France in the semi-finals of the challenger trials in 1980, Peter de Savary’s Victory lost to Australia II in the final of the elimination trials in 1983 and Graham Walker’s White Crusader could do no better than a sixth place finish in 1987.  

There would be a 16-year break before the next British challenge, when in 2003 armed with the boats and designers of the previous Japanese challenge, Peter Harrison entered the world of the America’s Cup Class and set up a team with Britain’s best racing boat designers. Skippered by Ian Walker, Wight Lightning was however ultimately eliminated in the semi-final round of the challenger series. It was the start of another long sojourn from the Cup ranks for British challengers.

Ben Ainslie & INEOS TEAM UK: 2012-

In 2012, Britain’s most successful Olympic sailor of all time Sir Ben Ainslie announced the formation of a British team to challenge for the America’s Cup.

Before then, however, he had an America’s Cup to compete in himself with the American challenge, Oracle Team USA. In San Francisco in 2013, Ben Ainslie was onboard the Oracle yacht skippered by Jimmy Spithill as Tactician when the Americans came back from an 8-0 deficit to Team New Zealand to win the America’s Cup 9-8, in what the Wall Street Journal subsequently described as one of the greatest comebacks in sporting history. Ainslie became only the second Brit ever, following Charlie Barr, to be onboard an America’s Cup winning yacht.

25/09/2013 - San Francisco (USA CA) - 34th America's Cup - Sir Ben Ainslie lifting the America's Cup with ORACLE Team USA
© ACEA / PHOTO ABNER KINGMAN

After that victory, however, Ainslie set a goal to go one better and win the Cup again, but this time for Britain. He led the British challenge into the 35th America’s Cup in Bermuda in 2017. Despite some successes including victory in the America’s Cup World Series, it was not to be for the first-time British challenger as they exited the Cup at the semi-final stage against Emirates Team New Zealand.

In 2018, INEOS and Sir Jim Ratcliffe came onboard to back Ben Ainslie’s British Challenge in the 36th America’s Cup. A change in some key personnel followed, including four times America’s Cup winner Grant Simmer joining the team as CEO and Nick Holroyd, who was previously Technical Director for the Kiwi team that revolutionised the America’s Cup by introducing foiling, joining the team as Chief Designer.

INEOS TEAM UK will now challenge for the 36th America’s Cup in their bold and innovative new AC75 raceboat, BRITANNIA, as the first back-to-back British challenge that can claim continuity since Sopwith’s second attempt in 1937.

“Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves”

BRITANNIA taking flight in the Auckland Harbour for the first time
© C GREGORY