Like all sports rooters, the crowd longed for heroes. The Herreshoffs were constitutionally unfitted for any such stance, but the sporting English earl could have had the fans in the hollow of his hand if he had not been so ornery. At first sight he seemed like the very flower of English aristocracy, gifted (he was an amateur violinist and a writer, and a big-game hunter as well as a sailor) and eccentric (when he arrived in New York wearing a bedroom slipper on one gouty foot, mismated shoes became de rigueur among his admirers). But he was also, it was soon discovered, tyrannical, intolerant and peevish. No one knew this side of his nature better than his crew. They were granted little shore leave, and the newspaper-reading public soon learned that he forced them, in place of rum, to consume Valkyrie cocktails, a nauseating mixture of molasses, tea and sulphur compounded to fortify their nerves and muscles.
When the showdown came, during the opening weeks of October, they and their professional pilot-captain were out to win for England, if not for Dun-raven. Against them Nat, appointed by Edwin Morgan to pilot the American boat, took the helm. It was the first time that he had been called "Captain Nat," but Captain Nat he stayed for the rest of his life. Under a faded cap, stoop-shouldered and wearing unpressed white ducks, tiny Nathanael Herreshoff looked like a fugitive from a Bristol onion patch. But his touch was magic, his ship as much a part of him as a horse is part of a rider.
The first two races—the contest was to be three out of five over a 30-mile course—were botched by fluky, unpredictable weather. One engagement even had to be canceled on account of calm. The third was scheduled for Friday the 13th. A strong wind was sweeping across the Sandy Hook peninsula, whipping up whitecaps, rocking and tossing the fleet of spectator craft and causing several mishaps at the starting line, which made the race late in getting under way. By the time Vigilant and Valkyrie crossed the line the wind had accelerated to almost gale force. Sensibly, Nat ordered a reef taken in the mainsail, and Dun-raven's boat followed suit. Valkyrie made capital of a skillful getaway and sliced ahead, maintaining her advantage and leading Vigilant by almost two minutes at the end of the hard drive to windward.
Nat knew he was beaten unless he piled on every inch of canvas Vigilant could handle. But her centerboard had jammed and could not be lowered fully to guarantee her stability. What occurred on the run home, which has been called the most exciting yacht race ever sailed, was recorded by a knowledgeable eyewitness, W. P. Stephens:
"On board Valkyrie no attempt was made to shake out the reef in the mainsail or to shift topsails; but as soon as Vigilant was off the wind, and her spinnaker, sent up in stops in a long, compact rope, was broken out and sheeted home, the real work of the day began. Her balloon jib topsail fouled in hoisting, and a man was sent to the topmast head, and thence down the topmast stay, to clear the sail. After this was done a man was sent along the [mainsail] boom, with a lifeline from the masthead about his body, cutting the reef points as he went. Meanwhile a man at the topmast head was lashing the working topsail, clearing the topsail halyard and sending it down to the deck, while another man at the gaff end was doing the same with the topsail sheet. With the working topsail still in place, the whole mainsail was shaken out, the halyards sweated up, and the small club-topsail was sent aloft. By dint of this work, such as was never before witnessed in yachting, at the imminent danger of losing the mast and the race, Vigilant sailed past Valkyrie near the finish line and led her across by two minutes, thirteen seconds."
When he knew that Vigilant had won Nat collapsed. He was below in a coma of exhaustion at the last and did not hear New York Harbor thunder its joy to heaven.
Dunraven was indignant. "It was unfortunate and very irregular, too.... I have never known it to happen in England." The noble earl blustered and whimpered alternately. The spectator fleet, he alleged, had cramped his style; Vigilant's crew of 70 had provided mobile ballast, etc. In short, the contest had not been fair.
Other English yachtsmen took up the cry so vociferously that George Gould bought Vigilant in order to sail her to England and repeat the race under reverse conditions. He talked the proposal over with the Herreshoffs, and Nat agreed to act once more as captain so that the circumstances that had prevailed off Sandy Hook might be duplicated.
Such a challenge was irresistible to British sportsmen, who duly reproduced the hazardous state of affairs that had so crowded the American course—they jammed the Firth of Forth with pleasure craft. Conditions were even worse, in fact, for on the appointed day, early in July 1894, a cutter slashed into Valkyrie II and sent the British boat to the bottom. One crewman lost his life.
But this disaster did not end the challenge. There was at that time another British yacht that had been designed by the man who designed Valkyrie and was, to all intents and purposes, her sister ship. This was Britannia, owned by Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales. His ownership was by courtesy. The prince had never paid for her, since Queen Victoria kept her son short of pocket money. But he openly preferred the high seas—where he was his own master—to any of his mama's palaces. It was plainly up to Bertie to save Britannic face by beating Vigilant with his own yacht.