SI Vault
George Plimpton
October 29, 1956
'Ranger,' the crowning glory of a great tradition; the mystery of her design revealed; a near disaster; a decisive victory; exaltation in a violent sea
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
October 29, 1956

The Ultimate Triumph

'Ranger,' the crowning glory of a great tradition; the mystery of her design revealed; a near disaster; a decisive victory; exaltation in a violent sea

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

All Yachtsmen take for granted, if often with little humor, the windless summer days when their boats sit becalmed on an oil-smooth sea. The topic of speed is one which, under such circumstances, a yachtsman would rarely consider, and, if he did, he would associate it with a passing powerboat—watching in either envy or chagrin its wake swell up to him, knock the light air out of his sails and sway the mast back and forth in a despairing crash of tackle. Nonetheless, a sailboat is an instrument of speed—her designers striving for a creation in which her speed potential is realized—and when yachtsmen converse on the relative speed of yachts, the name of Harold (Mike) Vanderbilt's America's Cup defender Ranger crops up automatically. She was so fast that, rather than a competitive racing yacht, she was what Vanderbilt calls the "ultimate conception"—her performance as startling in her short life of sailing (only one summer) as any in yacht racing history.

The top possible speed of a yacht depends on her length, the larger yacht being potentially the faster. The clipper ships with waterline lengths upwards of 200 feet were capable of enormous speeds: the James Baines is said to have been logged at 21 knots (approximately 24 mph); the clipper ship Lightning purportedly logged a day's run of 436 miles. There are various formulas for computing a racing yacht's maximum speed. Vanderbilt's calculation uses the constant 1.4 times the square root of the sum of the waterline length, plus the overhang length the yacht submerges when reaching at a 30� heel in a smooth sea. In Ranger's case, 87 feet on the waterline and allowing 23 feet for the overhang extension, Vanderbilt's formula works out at 14.7 knots (1.4 x ?[87 + 23] = 14.7). Her speed could not be compared with that of a clipper ship, but she was fast enough in her own J boat class to outclass the rival yachts completely. Of the 34 races Ranger finished in the summer of 1937 she won all but two. Yachtsmen who raced against her simply conceded first place and competed among themselves for second place. "We used to think of Ranger," one yachtsman said recently, "as the mechanical rabbit which always leads the greyhounds over the finish line. We had to think that or go out of our minds with frustration."

Ranger was built as the answer to T.O.M. Sopwith's second challenge for the America's Cup with his Endeavour II. But, unlike Enterprise and Rainbow, the new defender was not a syndicate yacht, her expenses shared by a number of yachtsmen. All attempts by the New York Yacht Club to form a syndicate in 1937 had failed. Since the Nicholson-designed challenger was very fast, reportedly faster than any of the existing American boats in the J class, it would have been a foregone conclusion that the America's Cup was on its way back to England had not Vanderbilt stepped in and offered to pick up the bill for the building, equipping and racing of a new defender.

It was a decision resulting from Vanderbilt's competitive instinct which determined that he would do everything possible to retain the trophy with which he had been so closely identified—a decision in keeping with the traditions of the America's Cup. That the Cup exists at all, in fact, is due primarily to the similar competitive instinct which drove two Americans a century before to a gamble on their belief that they could design and build a ship faster than anything afloat and the willingness to make all sacrifices and take any risk to prove it. The two men were George Steers, a boat designer and builder who is supposed to have started his career at the age of 10 with a scow so dangerously unseaworthy that his older brother destroyed it, and William H. Brown, also a boat builder and the owner of a shipyard at the foot of East 12th Street in New York in which Steers worked as a subcontractor.

In the year 1850, the two men heard that two American yachtsmen, John C. Stevens, then commodore of the New York Yacht Club, and his close friend, George L. Schuyler, had decided to build a yacht and send her over to England, then preparing for the first great international exposition in the Crystal Palace, to race as a representative of American skill in nautical matters. William H. Brown sat down and wrote Schuyler a series of letters describing the terms under which he would undertake to build such a yacht. The conditions were remarkable. Brown wrote that he would build the yacht for $30,000, a sum to be paid only if in trial races she proved faster than any American boat brought to compete against her and subsequently outraced every vessel of her size in European waters, a magnanimous offer that staked the boat's cost against the possibility that she would be the world's fastest racing yacht. The conditions were hard to refuse. "The price is high," George Schuyler wrote Brown (today it wouldn't buy a J boat's Duralumin mast), "but in consideration of the liberal and sportsmanlike character of the whole offer, test of speed, etc., we have concluded that such a proposal must not be declined."

The yacht—a schooner, 101 feet nine inches over-all, designed by George Steers and christened the America —was launched in the spring of 1851 from Brown's 12th Street yard. Her first race—the test to see if Brown was to collect—was against the huge (she had a 95-foot boom) gaff-rigged sloop Maria. To Brown's and Steers's horror the Maria proved faster in the one race completed. Fortunately both Schuyler and Stevens felt that improvements in America's rig would lead to a different result. They wanted to keep the yacht, but, considering the outcome of the race against Maria, they felt they were entitled to knock one-third off Brown's original figure. They offered him $20,000 in cash for the America , a sum which was, under the circumstances, gratefully accepted.

The America went on to uphold Brown's promise to become this country's most famous yacht. "A hawk among pigeons," the British described her after watching her perform off Cowes. She won, and brought back to the United States the Hundred Guinea Cup, later given over to the trusteeship of the New York Yacht Club as the America's Cup. Twenty-five years after her keel was laid—and by then under the owner's flag of General Benjamin F. Butler—the America was still fast enough to sail as a noncontestant on the windward leg of the 1876 America's Cup series, and not only outsail the challenger Countess of Dufferin but almost match the speed of the defender Madeline, a performance which was commented on in newspaper editorials to prove that 25 years had not seen an improvement in yacht design. As if to justify the remarks in the press, in 1897, only four years short of a half century of sailing, America won her last trophy in the race for the Nash Cup against yet another America's Cup defender—the Burgess-designed schooner Puritan, which as a sloop in 1885 had defeated the Royal Yacht Squadron's challenger Genesta.

Laid up in Boston shortly after she won the Nash Cup, the America remained there until 1921 when she was towed to the Naval Academy at Annapolis and donated by the Eastern Yacht Club as a gift to the nation. She remained berthed behind the mole of the inner basin of Annapolis until 1948. Funds were not available during the war years for a necessary restoration of her hull, badly damaged on Palm Sunday 1942 under the weight of the greatest snowstorm in the history of Annapolis, and she had to be scrapped. But for the near century that had passed since W. H. Brown's original offer, the America remained afloat, outlasting all the yachts which had challenged or defended the Cup bearing her name. Even Vanderbilt's Ranger, the American defender in the last series for the Cup in 1937, was broken up before the America was towed down the Severn to her destruction—rounding off the circle of all that is identified with her to such perfection that artistically it seems almost improper that her Cup should be competed for again.

The early history of Ranger was, in its way, fully as interesting as the America's. A competition between two of the best-known yacht designers in America for the honor of designing the defender has given yachting a mystery and its best-kept secret. Extraordinary as it may seem, only a handful of yachtsmen—those connected most intimately with Ranger—know even today who designed her.

Of the rival designers, one was the late Starling Burgess, who had designed Vanderbilt's two former Cup defenders, Enterprise and Rainbow, and whose father before him had designed three successful Cup defenders. The other designer was Olin Stephens, of Sparkman and Stephens. The firm, then a relatively new one, had come to Vanderbilt's attention in 1931, when the Stephens-designed Dorade won the transatlantic race from Newport to Plymouth, England.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7