The portrait gallery which starts on the opposite page sketches in line and prose 10 men, each of whom in a particular way contributed to the century-long history of the famous yachting trophy, the America's Cup. The history of any great trophy is not only a matter of the statistics of victory and defeat, but also, and primarily, it is a human record. It is perhaps enough to know about the America's Cup that it was won in an English regatta in 1851 by the schooner America; that after nearly being melted down for inscribed medals it was pulled from a carpetbag half-forgotten in a Greenwich Village townhouse in 1857, and deeded to the New York Yacht Club as a challenge cup open to challengers from foreign countries; and that 16 times British yachtsmen have challenged for the cup and on each occasion have gone away empty-handed—a remarkable testimonial to American yacht-racing skill.
But it is the men involved in competition for the cup who have made its history one of the most colorful in sports—a history always flamboyant, and marked with competitive spirit at its highest. They spent freely, even prodigally, of their time, their money and their energy to build sailing craft which were the finest in the world, in which to compete on open ocean waters for a trophy which through the years assumed the status of a legend—and thus they acquired, each to some degree, something of a legendary character themselves.
The bettor who started it all
He was the son of a Hoboken family of railroad pioneers, the playboy of the family, a fancier of cricket (he tried unsuccessfully to introduce the game in the U.S.), a gambler who wagered as much as $10,000 on a horse race, the founder of the New York Yacht Club in 1844 and, in 1850, the organizer of the syndicate which built the schooner America, for which the cup was to be named. His motives in ordering the yacht were twofold. As a keen competitor he felt compelled to accept the British suggestion that this country send abroad a representative of American nautical skill; as a gambler (in those days cash bets running to thousands of dollars were an accepted adjunct to yacht racing) he thought any investment would be returned many times over. Unhappily, the first sight of his rakish craft in English waters discouraged not only all betting but almost all racing; the only tangible return to Stevens' investment was the famous silver pitcher, worthless as a container, being open at both ends, and valued at perhaps $40 on the bullion market. It scarcely augured its momentous role in history.
A seasick builder with a passion
He seemed to have none of the attributes one would expect of the yacht designer. His great love, the sea, treated him roughly: he was made seasick by the slightest swells; to compound his miseries, he could never leave New York Harbor without suffering extreme pangs of homesickness and while he traveled to England aboard the famous yacht which he created, the trip was torture for him. Yet he had a passion for yachts; he was only 10 years old when he built his first boat—a scow so dangerously unseaworthy that his older brother destroyed it. He was just into his 30s when he designed and built America, staking his career on the bold concept of her lines, absorbed in her, spending his off days adzing and smoothing the surfaces of her hull. She was so fast that after her victory around the Isle of Wight a rumor swept the Solent that she had a propeller. Curious sightseers in rowboats circled her stern. "I would not wager a guinea against the Yankee craft," said a famous clergyman, "but I will give a hundred to see her bottom"—an unintentional tribute to the remarkable genius of her young designer.
The dandy who evened the odds
The first challenger for the cup, John Ashbury was a tall, pale man with a habit of running delicate fingers through his beard, a dandy who bathed every night before dinner—to the vast suspicion of the Saturday-night-bathing American public. The New York Yacht Club looked upon him with equivalent suspicion which mounted, eventually, to horrified indignation. Able to thwart Ashbury's first challenge in 1870 by sending a fleet of 23 yachts against him, they found themselves recipients of such a storm of letters, counterplots and threats from the outraged Englishman that they were forced to bow to him and permit his second challenge, also unsuccessful, to be run as a match race between two yachts much as it is today. The change was not made gracefully. Ashbury's letters were so vindictive that the New York Yacht Club returned three trophies he had donated. Despite his methods, however, his determination to even the odds between defender and challenger was the first great shaping force in the cup's history.
Protests, outcries, Furies
The Abchvillain in the annals of the New York Yacht Club is not Ashbury, but an English peer who came along 22 years later to contest for the cup. He was Lord Dunraven, twice a challenger with his two Valkyries and famed in yachting history for accusations of fraud and deceit as shrill as any war cries uttered by the Teutonic Furies after which his yachts were named.
When he first challenged, Dunraven was in his early 50s. He was a soldierly, energetic man with a large nose and a ruddy face. He had given up violin playing for yachting following his graduation from Oxford: "The violin," he said in explanation, "requires suppleness and delicacy of the hands and fingers; handling ropes, rowing, etc., are incompatible with that necessary condition." His first challenge in no way forecast the unpleasantness that was to come. He lost in three straight races, all close but without incident. He was a popular loser. He had tried hard—even to the extent of attempting to improve the physical condition of his crew with a nonalcoholic health mixture of his own devising, a black-hued concoction referred to in the press as a Valkyrie cocktail. For his colorful though bizarre personality (he kept monkeys and an aviary of birds in his hotel suite), he was widely feted by New York hostesses; his style of dress (he wore pink shirts) and particularly his footwear were copied by a few of the more eccentric elegants of the day—a witness to the extent of his popularity since at the time Dunraven was suffering severely from gout and limped around New York in a brown shoe and a slipper.
The first inkling of the disastrous break in relations that subsequently developed was contained in a letter from Dunraven to the New York Yacht Club just before the start of the series between his second challenger Valkyrie III and the American boat Defender. It was a request that both challenger and defender be measured and marked at the waterline. Dunraven pointed out that it was possible to add ballast surreptitiously to increase the waterline length. Since it is axiomatic that the lengthier the hull in the water the faster a yacht is capable of moving, Dunraven was implying the possibility of deceit. It was a strangely worded request, and no one is quite sure what prompted Dunraven to make such an implication, except that possibly he had heard a rumor prevalent that year that tampering with water ballast had been alleged on a yacht owned by C. O. Iselin, the manager and a member of the Defender syndicate. In any case, the New York Yacht Club dutifully appointed a committee, and the day before the first race measurements were taken.
Late that same night, Valkyrie's crew noticed some strange activity aboard Defender. They reported to Dunraven that the tender Hattie Palmer was lying alongside Defender and that, amid the sound of hammering and clink of iron, the crews were seen carrying bulky weights from one boat to the other.
Naturally, Dunraven took a good look at Defender the next morning, and she seemed to him to be three or four inches lower in the water. Following his defeat in the first race, he called for another measurement—which was found to be an eighth of an inch off the original, such an insignificant figure that the New York Yacht Club considered the matter closed.