The birth of the America's Cup

A Journey through History with the INEOS Grenadier

The legend is born

1851 was the year of the United Kingdom’s Great Exhibition, organised by Sir Henry Cole and Prince Albert, it was to be an international showcase of British industry, technology, and progress. Britain’s maritime heritage following centuries of naval dominance (“Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves”) was to be a major part of the spectacle.

To showcase the best of British naval architecture, the Earl of Wilton, Commodore of the prestigious Royal Yacht Squadron (RYS) in Cowes, the Isle of Wight, 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.

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...”

A BRITANNIA edition Grenadier outside the Royal Yacht Squadron in Cowes, Isle of Wight.
©Lloyd Images

In June 1851, the yacht America, specially commissioned for the Great Exhibition at a cost of $20,000, set sail from New York City’s East River, bound for England. The state-of-the-art schooner, designed by George Steers, was a 100-foot black-hulled boat with a sharp bow, a V bottom, and carried 5263 square feet of sail.

Expectations in America were low. Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, writing to Commodore Stevens said; “The eyes of the world are on you; you will be beaten and the country will be abused, as it has in connection with the Exhibition. If you do go and are beaten, you had better not return to your country”.

Nonethless, the early signs were more promising for the Americans. Manned by Captain William H. Brown and a crew of 12, the America raced and overtook many ships during her Atlantic crossing. During that crossing, James Steers, older brother of her builder George, wrote “She is the best sea boat ever that went out of the Hook” a week after setting sail from Sandy Hook.

The RYS, however, by the club’s rules, only ever raced its member’s owned yachts. So instead, to enable international entrants, the Earl of Wilton arranged for a race for a £100 Cup, a 134oz silver ewer bought from jeweller Robert Garrard in 1848, to be open to yachts of all nations.

The America's Cup, the £100 ewer from Garrads, at the Royal Yacht Squadron
© Carlo Borlenghi

At a RYS meeting on 9th May 1851, the date was set. The regatta, which was to be a clockwise race around the Isle of Wight starting in Cowes, was scheduled for 22nd August 1851. The course was named the “Queen’s Course”.

America arrived at Le Havre on 11th July, met by the Stevens brothers who had crossed by steamer. She subsequently set sail for Cowes on 24th July. Upon her arrival in Cowes, she was met with much curiosity. Lord Alfred Paget, whose yacht Mona was one of the race entries against America, took a close look at her and stated, “If she’s right we must all be wrong”.

In all, 18 yachts were entered for the race, though only 15 started it. The yacht Fernandes never made it to the start, whilst Strella and Titania did get to the line but never started the race. The 15 yachts that raced for the £100 Cup were America, Alarm, Arrow, Aurora, Bacchante, Beatrice, Brilliant, Constance, Eclipse, Freak, Gipsy Queen, Ione, Mona, Volante, and Wyvern. Seven schooners and eight cutters.

The BRITANNIA Grenadier in Cowes close to the start line of the 1851 race, which later became known as the first edition of the America’s Cup.
©Lloyd Images

The Race

At 10AM on Friday August 22nd, 1851, the signal gun was fired by the Royal Yacht Squadron’s battery to mark the start of the race in the waters off Cowes. There was a 11 knot south-westerly wind, strengthened by an east-going tide.  It was a scene like no other, with reports of at least hundred yachts gathered on the water and the esplanade in front of the yacht club thronged with crowds. The hotels in Cowes were completely full.

America, however, had a poor start and found herself in fifth place, behind Beatrice, Aurora, Volante and Arrow. She needed to make up ground and she did, quickly. Only an hour and a half later, at 11:30AM, America’s local pilot (Robert Underwood, brother-in-law of Cowes shipbuilder Ratsey) set the black schooner on a fast reach for Bembridge Ledge, cutting to the inside of the Nab light vessel located to the east of Bembridge, and she took the lead.

As America passed the Royal Yacht Volante in first position, she saluted by dipping her ensign three times.

INEOS TEAM UK’s test boat, BRITANNIA I, flying past Nab Tower in the Solent, a lighthouse tower constructed to replace the original Nab light vessel which marks the point where America sailed past Volante and took the lead in 1851.
© C GREGORY

Once America had the lead, she never lost it. The wind strengthened and she flew ahead. By the time she rounded the southern tip of the Island, by St. Catherine’s Point (near the spot where the original Britannia, the Princes of Wales’ famous racing cutter, was later scuttled in 1936) at 4PM she was one mile ahead of her closest competitor, Aurora.

By that point of the race, several of America’s closest threats had already retired. Mr Weld’s Alarm and Mr Chamberlayne’s Arrow both retired early, the former having had to help the latter who ran hard aground off Ventnor. Volante and Freak, meanwhile, collided, causing Volante to lose her bowsprit and forcing both yachts out of the race.

Those accidents had left Thomas La Marchant’s Aurora as the only first-class yacht still racing against America.

The BRITANNIA Grenadier by St. Catherine’s Lighthouse, the southern most point of the island. As America rounded the southern tip, she was one mile ahead of her closest competitor Aurora.
©Lloyd Images

Over the next couple of hours America went from strength to strength. By the time she passed the Needles off the west coast of the Island at 17:47, Aurora was several miles astern.

Indeed, as America passed the Needles with no other yacht visible, the legend goes, Queen Victoria, who had come to the coast to watch from Osbourne House, her residence on the Island, asked one of her attendants to tell her who was in second place. “Ah, Your Majesty, there is no second,” came the reply.

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

The BRITANNIA Grenadier looking out to the Needles from Compton Bay. As America passed the Needles Queen Victoria asked one of her attendants to tell her who was in second place. “Your Majesty, there is no second”, came the reply.
©Lloyd Images

The race, however, was far from done. As America sailed down to the Solent, the conditions changed and the wind died. So much so, in fact, that it took her over four hours to subsequently reach the finish line between Cowes Castle and the markboat from the Needles.

Aurora, meanwhile, was nearly able to catch up. In the end she finished at 20:45PM, just eight minutes behind America who crossed the finish line at 20:37PM. Bacchante and Eclipse followed at 21:30PM and 21:45PM respectively. Brilliant crossed the finish line at 01:20AM, by which time the dinner and celebrations were all over. Any yachts finishing after Brilliant were not recorded.

The £100 Cup was taken back to New York and renamed the America’s Cup, after the winning yacht. The members of the America syndicate donated the Cup, via the Deed of Gift of the America’s Cup, to the New York Yacht Club on 8th July 1857, specifying that it be held in trust as a perpetual challenge trophy to promote friendly competition among nations. And so, the America’s Cup we know and love today was born.

In America, the Cup was also engraved with the names of all the yachts that raced America, except for the runner up Aurora, another reminder that in the world of the America’s Cup, there is no second.

For the 36th America’s Cup, and 22nd British Challenge for the Cup, INEOS TEAM UK will race for Royal Yacht Squadron Racing, representing the Yacht Club where it all began with the simple aim to, for the first time in history, bring the Cup back home. 

The BRITANNIA Grenadier outside INEOS TEAM UK’s HQ in Portsmouth.
©Lloyd Images

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