A Journey Through History

‘America’ representing the New York Yacht Club, the first ever Cup winner.

1. In the Beginning

In 1851 a radical looking schooner ghosted out of the afternoon mist and swiftly sailed past the Royal Yacht stationed in the Solent, between the Isle of Wight and the south coast of England, on an afternoon when Queen Victoria was watching a sailing race.

As the schooner, named 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, and how it represents the singular pursuit of excellence.

That day in August, 1851, the yacht America, representing the young New York Yacht Club, would go on to beat the best the British could offer and win the Royal Yacht Squadron’s 100 Pound Cup.

 This was more than a simple boat race however, as it symbolised a great victory for the new world over the old, a triumph that unseated Great Britain as the world’s undisputed maritime power.

The trophy would go to the young democracy of the United States and it would be well over 100 years before it was taken away from New York.

Shortly after America won the 100 Guinea Cup in 1851, New York Yacht Club Commodore John Cox Stevens and the rest of his ownership syndicate sold the celebrated schooner and returned home to New York as heroes. They donated the trophy to the New York Yacht Club under a Deed of Gift, which stated that the trophy was to be “a perpetual challenge cup for friendly competition between nations.”

Thus was born the America’s Cup, named after the winning schooner America, as opposed to the country.

The America’s Cup is without a doubt the most difficult trophy in sport to win. In the more than 150 years since that first race off England, only four nations have won what is often called the “oldest trophy in international sport.” For some perspective, consider that there had been nine contests for the America’s Cup before the first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens in 1896.

2. Early Challenges

The very first challenge would come from Englishman James Ashbury, who raced against a fleet from the New York Yacht Club just off Staten Island in 1870. After much dispute over the conditions for racing, Ashbury’s Cambria finished tenth in the 17-boat fleet, prompting a second challenge the following year.

The 1871 America’s Cup match was a precursor for many of the legal battles that would engulf the Cup over the next 100 years. After reportedly consulting his lawyers, Ashbury insisted on racing against just one boat, not an entire fleet and protested both the scoring of the races and the Race Committee who set the race course. In the end he limped home complaining bitterly about poor sportsmanship on the part of the Americans and insisting he had actually won the America’s Cup, to no avail.

The next two Challenges came from Canada, but the northerners were no match for the Americans and were soundly beaten.

3. Lipton Era

There were a further six challenges before the turn of the Century, including the first of what came to be called the Lipton era of the America’s Cup. Sir Thomas Lipton, the Irish/Scottish tea baron challenged five times between 1899 and 1930. He became the loveable loser; a man whose good-natured approach to the obstacles stacked against him turned him into a folk hero and promoted his business interests in America as well.

While Lipton didn’t win the America’s Cup, he became one of the first to introduce the idea of sports sponsorship, and he realised a financial windfall from it.

 Lipton’s final challenge in 1930 was the first in the new J-Class boats. This was a period of magnificent beauty afloat, as the towering masts carrying an improbable amount of sail powered through the chop off Newport, Rhode Island. Harold Vanderbilt was selected to defend for the New York Yacht Club that year and did so with ease.

4. Post War

The Second World War marked the end of the J-Class, and when America’s Cup racing began again in 1958, it signaled the beginning of the 12-Metre era. The Americans would successfully defend eight more times over the next 25-year period. Sadly, in 1939, all but three of the original ten J’s were used as scrap metal for the war effort. The three surviving J-Class yachts have been restored and still sail in regattas around the world.

5. Challenger Series

In 1970, more than one yacht club interested in challenging for the America’s Cup, so for the first time, a competition was staged to determine the single Challenger that would face the Defender, the New York Yacht Club.

The French malletier Louis Vuitton became involved with the America’s Cup in 1983, supporting the Challenger Selection Series that came to be known as the Louis Vuitton Cup. The idea was twofold; to develop and identify the strongest possible challenger for the America’s Cup and ensure that they were sufficiently battle-tested through tough competition to beat the Defender.

The defenders had been involved in this type of selection series for most of the century, but until recently, there had been but one Challenger.

6. The Cup Leaves America

Australia was one of the challenging countries in 1983, and the ‘Men from Down Under’ brought a secret weapon. Australia II sported a boxing Kangaroo flag in the rigging as she was towed out to sea, and under the water, a radically-designed winged keel that gave the 12-Metre Class boat superior speed under most conditions. The Australians kept the secret to themselves, draping large ‘modesty skirts’ from the deck to the ground when the boat was hauled from the water – keeping prying eyes away and all the time building speculation as to what could be under there.

Dennis Conner, ‘Mr. America’s Cup’, was charged with defending against the upstart Australians, who handily whipped through the challenger fleet and carried off the first Louis Vuitton Cup. That summer, in 1983, the America’s Cup had pride of place on every newscast, and front-page status in every paper. There was a sense of history about that season; that somehow, finally, the New York Yacht Club’s 132-year winning streak was going to come to an end. Equipment problems on the Australian boat allowed Conner to jump ahead early in the best of seven series, but Australian skipper John Bertrand battled back, eventually bringing the series to a score line of 3-3.

The seventh and final race was symbolic of the entire series, with Conner’s Liberty leading for most of the course in a light and shifty breeze. It was not until the final spinnaker run that Australia II was able to jump into the lead, and then hold on to it despite a ferocious, last-gasp assault over the last few minutes. For the first time in 132 years, the America’s Cup was leaving the New York Yacht Club.

Conner, then representing the San Diego Yacht Club, won the right to fight another day in 1987. Held in Fremantle, he won the Louis Vuitton Cup to become the Challenger and then delivered a shut-out victory of 4-0. This America’s Cup featured quite an on-the-water show, with the famous “Fremantle Doctor,” strong afternoon sea-breezes, blowing up incredible sailing conditions with giant white-capped seas, to challenge both the sailors and equipment.

7. Back to America

Dennis Conner, basking in presidential welcomes and ticker-tape parades through New York, was in no rush to settle the details of the next event, and New Zealand, exploiting a loophole in the century old Deed of Gift, demanded an immediate challenge in 1988.

What resulted was the first America’s Cup Finals where two different styles of boat raced each other, with the Kiwis in a giant 90-foot waterline boat against Conner in a much smaller but faster hard-winged catamaran. The best of three series went to the Americans and after numerous court challenges – the teams spent far more time battling in a courtroom than they did on the water – the result stood.

8. America’s Cup Class

A good thing to come of the entire 1988 fiasco was a new class of boat that featured a more modern design that could perform well in the lighter winds of San Diego; the America’s Cup Class, a type of boat built to a design rule.

Under the rule, all boats must look similar, although the designers had enough leeway to make an impact on boat speed  . Progress is always made from one generation to the next.

In 1992, two American teams sought the right to defend the United States through a Defender series, where Dennis Conner was beaten and lost the right to defend to American billionaire Bill Koch with his massive, four-boat America programme.

 On the challenger side, New Zealand met the Italian Il Moro de Venezia Challenge, eventually yielding to relentless pressure from the Italians and their skipper Paul Cayard. In the concluding battle for the 29th America’s Cup, Koch, occasionally steering the boat himself, and his skipper Buddy Melges, successfully defended the America’s Cup.

9. The Kiwis

1995 would be the year of the Kiwi. Led by the fierce determination of Sir Peter Blake and with the steady hand of Russell Coutts on the wheel, New Zealand’s Black Magic dominated the challengers in San Diego, and went on to make short work of the Dennis Conner / Paul Cayard defense partnership, taking the America’s Cup back to the Southern Hemisphere.

Sir Peter Blake’s crew declared there would be no defender selection series, and Team New Zealand focused on in-house training, taking advantage of a deep pool of young talent to push Coutts to the limit in training.

At the same time, the Louis Vuitton Cup in 2000 featured what has been described as perhaps the best two weeks of racing in the history of the America’s Cup. Italy’s Prada Challenge outlasted Paul Cayard’s AmericaOne, winning the best of nine series 5-4. Not only was the series close, but many of the races were sailed with the boats just metres apart, the lead changing hands over and over again.

But Prada’s Luna Rossa, although battle-hardened, was no match for Team New Zealand. Skipper Russell Coutts staked the Kiwis to a quick 4-0 lead – equaling the record for most consecutive America’s Cup wins set by Charlie Barr 100 years earlier – before handing the wheel to understudy Dean Barker who promptly became the youngest skipper at 26-years old to win the America’s Cup. Team New Zealand looked to be so far ahead of the challengers that the America’s Cup appeared to be secure in the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron for a long time to come.

But shortly after the win, Russell Coutts and many of his Team New Zealand stalwarts announced they were leaving to join a new team that had to be built from the ground up for Swiss Bio-Tech entrepreneur Ernesto Bertarelli.

Within months, in a scene reminiscent of an earlier era, many of the world’s most successful men announced they were coming to stake their claim on the Cup. Backed by Patrizio Bertelli of the Prada fashion house, the Italians would be back, as would three strong American challenges, including teams backed by Oracle software guru Larry Ellison, and a Pacific Northwest team led by Craig McCaw and Paul Allen. Joining them were teams from France, Italy, Sweden, and for the first time in 16 years, Great Britain, making another run at regaining that which they lost 151 years earlier.

After four months of Round Robin and elimination rounds, the Louis Vuitton Cup Challenger Series came down to a nine-race Final between Ernesto Bertarelli’s Team Alinghi and Larry Ellison’s BMW ORACLE Racing team. Both teams arrived at the Finals with impressive records in the previous rounds, and the racing showed these two teams were evenly matched. Although the record was a 5-1 series win for Alinghi, the numbers belied how close the racing actually was.

The battle to the win the Louis Vuitton Cup created a very strong Challenger, and set up a much-anticipated America’s Cup Match between Coutts and his old Team New Zealand understudy Dean Barker. Unfortunately for the Kiwis, Team New Zealand appeared ill prepared, and was no match for Alinghi. Serious equipment problems and some poor race tactics allowed Alinghi to sweep the Match 5-0, and take the America’s Cup to Europe for the first time.

10. To Europe

Shortly after winning the America’s Cup, the Société Nautique de Genève (SNG) accepted a challenge from the Golden Gate Yacht Club, putting the wheels in motion for the 32nd America’s Cup. A new Protocol was issued, detailing the plans for the next event and outlining some of the changes. 

It was immediately clear that the move to Europe would mean a sea change for the America’s Cup. Taking advantage of what some perceived to be a problem for the new Defender, the SNG announced that it would take its time to decide upon a venue, drafting up a selection criteria that would ensure reliable sailing conditions.

The nationality rules were abolished, freeing up teams to sign the best people regardless of their passport, and rules on the transfer of technology from prior syndicates were eased to enable new teams access to old information. Most importantly, a new organising authority, AC Management, was created and charged with the task of overseeing all aspects of the 32nd America’s Cup including the Challenger Selection Series. In short, a new era of the America’s Cup had dawned.

The 32nd America’s Cup in Valencia, Spain was a success on many levels. By bidding out the city, the organising authority was able to raise revenue on a scale previously unimagined. A four-year programme of racing took America’s Cup racing to other European venues, drumming up interest in the event. And teams from new territories, like South Africa and China, added to the international flavour of the racing.

Emirates Team New Zealand, rejuvenated behind the leadership of Grant Dalton, won the Louis Vuitton Cup to set up a rematch against Alinghi. But although the Kiwis won a couple of races and lost another by just one second, the Swiss Defender proved to be too strong and retained the title.

11. Multihull Battle

Shortly after successfully defending the Cup, SNG announced it had accepted a challenge from a newly formed yacht club, the Spanish CNEV, and released a Protocol for the 33rd America’s Cup.

Many in the America’s Cup community balked at the terms in the Protocol and BMW ORACLE Racing, with Larry Ellison leading the charge, challenged the validity of the new Spanish club. The courts agreed and GGYC became the challenger of record. When GGYC and SNG were unable to mutually consent on a new Protocol, the 33rd America’s Cup became a ‘Deed of Gift’ Match, as in 1988.

There were numerous court challenges, initiated by both sides. In the end, both teams having learned the lesson of 1988, built enormous multihulls. Then, just months before the race, BMW ORACLE Racing replaced its soft sail rig with a towering wing sail – the largest wing ever built.

When the boats finally lined up to race off Valencia in February 2010, the BMW ORACLE Racing trimaran with its powerful wing sail proved to be superior. Skipper James Spithill, just 30 years old, won with a record of 2-0. Once again, the America’s Cup would be defended by an American Team in the 34th edition.

A Rich Heritage

201033Valencia, SPAlinghiBMW Oracle0-2
200732Valencia, SPAlinghiEmirates TNZ5-2
200331Auckland, NZTeam New ZealandAlinghi0-5
200030Auckland, NZTeam New ZealandLuna Rossa5-0
199529San Diego, USYoung AmericaBlack Magic0-5
199228San Diego, USAmerica 3Il Moro di Venezia4-1
198827San Diego, USStars and StripesNew Zealand2-0
198726Fremantle, AUKookaburra IIIStars and Stripes0-4
198325Newport, USLibertyAustralia II3-4
198024Newport, USFreedomAustralia4-1
197723Newport, USCourageousAustralia4-0
197422Newport, USCourageousSouthern Cross4-0
197021Newport, USIntrepidGretel II4-1
196720Newport, USIntrepidDame Pattie4-0
196419Newport, USConstellationSovereign4-0
196218Newport, USWeatherlyGretel4-1
195817Newport, USColumbiaSceptre4-0
193716Newport, USRangerEndeavour II4-0
193415Newport, USRainbowEndeavour4-2
193014Newport, USEnterpriseShamrock V4-0
192013New York, USResoluteShamrock IV3-2
190312New York, USRelianceShamrock III3-0
190111New York, USColumbiaShamrock II3-0
189910New York, USColumbiaShamrock3-0
18959New York, USDefenderValkyrie III3-0
18938New York, USVigilantValkyrie II3-0
18877New York, USVolunteerThistle2-0
18866New York, USMayflowerGalatea2-0
18855New York, USPuritanGenesta2-0
18814New York, USMischiefAtalanta2-0
18763New York, USMadeleineCountess of Dufferin2-0
18712New York, USColumbiaLivonia4-1
18701New York, USMagicCambria1-0
1851-Isle of Wight, GBAuroraAmerica0-1
The Oldest Sporting Trophy

The America’s Cup is unique and iconic. 
It is sailing’s most prized trophy and transcends sport. 
It is the oldest trophy for international competition in any sport. 

Since 1851 sailors, business, entrepreneurs, designers, sailmakers, riggers boatbuilders have invested emotion, funds, dedication and dreams into winning it. Only six yacht clubs in the course of three centuries have managed this: New York Yacht Club, Royal Perth Yacht Club, San Diego Yacht Club, Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, Societe Nautiqe de Geneve and Golden Gate Yacht Club.

By way of comparison, the America’s Cup predates:

  • 1882: The Ashes (England v Australia cricket)
  • 1892: Stanley Cup (North America ice hockey)
  • 1896: Modern Olympics

The trophy was made by the London company, Garrard, the world’s oldest jeweler. It has been a royal jeweler since 1735. Garrard has served six successive Monarchs of the United Kingdom since 1843 from Queen Victoria onwards. It is also linked to some of the world’s most famous gemstones including the Koh-I-Noor, Star & Africa and Poltimore Tiara.

Garrard has a long association with great sporting events. It is responsible for the Webb Ellis trophy for Rugby’s World Cup, soccer’s Premier League Trophy, tennis’ US Open Trophy, horse-racing’s Dubai World Cup, the ICC Cricket World Cup.

Garrard itself was founded in 1735, though the company traces its origins back to 1722 when George Wickes first registered his Mark at Goldsmiths’ Hall, London. The Trophy is hallmarked Robert Garrard for R & S Garrard & Co. The date is London, 1848. Its original height was 27in (68cm) but has since had its base extended twice.

The First base was made in New York by Tiffany & Co, at the request of the New York Yacht Club to accommodate new engraving beginning during the 12-metre class era of the Cup in 1958. The Second base was made at the request of RNZYS by Garrard. The central spinnaker-like lobe carries this engraving:

“100 Guinea Cup Won August 22nd 1851 at Cowes England by Yacht America at the Royal Yacht Squadron Regatta”

“Open To All Nations”

The 1st Marquis of Anglesey presented the Cup to the Royal Yacht Squadron as a racing trophy and it was put up as the prize when Commodore C. Stevens and his syndicate (Edwin Stevens, George L Schuyler, Col. A Hamilton, J.Beekman Findley& Hamilton Wilkes) from the New York Yacht Club came to race in England in 1851 with their George Steers-designed yacht America.

Triggering the Americans’ interest to race in Britain was the first international exhibition at Crystal Palace (erected in Hyde Park) in 1851. Garrard’s own description of the trophy reads thus:

“The America’s Cup, silver, in the form of a ewer, round spread foot, the stem decorated with a bead band and geometric strapwork, the lower body chased with pellet and further architectural strapwork enclosing burnished panels, the upper body lobe fluted, each lobe engraved with an inscription and separated by masks and strapwork, the baluster neck stippled and chased with foliate scrolls and anthemion motifs above a band of pellets centre with flowerheads on a background of horizontal lines, similarly chased rim to the spout, bead decorated flying scroll and baluster handle.”

The 1st Marquis of Angelsey is famous for three things. First, he had an affair with Henry Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington’s brother. Second, after divorce and remarriage, he was admitted to Wellington’s trusted inner circle, given command of the combined Cavalry and Horse Artillery and served with him at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 at which Napoleon was defeated. Leading a cavalry charge he was hit in the leg by canon fire in one of the last actions of the battle and the limb was amputated. The Marquis informed the Duke of his misfortune: By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!” — to which Wellington replied, “By God, sir, so you have!”

The third claim to fame occurred before and after the famous race around the Isle of Wight on August 22nd, 1851. On seeing America arrive in British waters, Anglesey’s tutored eye recognized the threat posed by the New York cutter. “If she is right, then we are all wrong,” he famously declared. And on going aboard, the day after the race, Commodore Stevens saved Anglesey’s dignity when he leant so far over the transom (looking for a propeller, it is said) by grabbing his false leg as he has about to plunge head-first into the Solent.

After winning the “100 Guineas Cup” in 1851, the yacht America was sold in England, and her syndicate of owners returned to New York with the trophy. The trophy went to the home of the principal syndicate member, Commodore John Cox Stevens. Stevens’ syndicate considered melting the Cup down to make themselves medallions until the Deed of Gift was drawn up (the first Deed is dated July 8th, 1857) and the trophy presented for “perpetual challenge trophy to promote friendly competition among nations.”

Until 1983, the Cup resided nearly all of its life in an alcove at the NYYC’s magnificent club house at 57 West 44th Street. When Alan Bond’s Australia 11 won that year, the trophy was transported by Brinks armoured vehicle to the Marble House, Newport, where Dyer Jones led a dignified presentation to mark the end of the longest winning streak in sports history.

The Cup’s low point was in March 1997 when Benjamin Peri Nathan smashed the Cup with a sledgehammer inside the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron’s clubhouse at Westhaven, Auckland. It was returned to Garrard & Co for extensive re-building and repair. This process took three months.

“Rather than having been simply dropped, it had been maliciously damaged,” said Rod Hingston, the silversmith who carried out the repair. “Very rare, that I had to cut it into several pieces so I could get at it. It’s sort of like [repairing] car paneling. You have to push out where it was punched in. I had to forget all about the engraving [of the winners' names on the cup], because some of it was going to have to be re-cut.”

Garrard made other silver ewers in the same size and style in the years immediately before and after the Cup was made. The Queen’s Cup, presented at Ascot in 1861 is one some such trophy clearly modeled on the America’s Cup, and past Cup winners have ordered replicas as commemorative mementoes. None has the patina of aged Sterling Silver, the allure of the famous hands through which has passed or the compelling fascination which has drawn the world’s finest sailing to their attempt to win it.