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HISTORY OF AMERICA'S CUP RACING
By Halsey C. Herreshoff
The 150-year history of the America's Cup, the oldest and most distinguished prize in world sport, is summarized from the author's vantage point of belonging to a family of boat designers and builders who contributed to the dominance of American yachts from the beginning into the 1980s. Particulars and performances of the most important designs are described from AMERICA to the current International America's Cup Class.
The America's Cup is the Holy Grail of yacht racing. It is much more. This Cup, in competition for a period of 150 years, is the oldest and most distinguished trophy in all sport, outdating the World Cup, Davis Cup, Stanley Cup, Walker Cup, and all others of significance. Excepting the lavish excesses of big time modern professional sport, more talent, effort, and money have been devoted to the America's Cup than for any other sport competitions. From the standpoint of naval architecture, America's Cup intensity has inspired countless design breakthroughs, fallout from which benefit all yachts today to an extent generally unrealized by those who sail. Here, a highly focused pursuit of excellence has provided quality, boldness, and dedication to be the best. The most elegant hull lines, most efficient construction, best sails, and most skillful sailing techniques have evolved from America's Cup competition.
For 132 years (1851 to 1983), the United States enjoyed the longest winning streak in all sport. There were close calls but always the U.S. won the series and most of the individual races. Through that time, American yachts were generally, though not always, the fastest; thus, it may be fairly stated that victories followed very much from technical prowess.
As with any ship design, a sailing yacht embodies many necessary elements, which must dovetail to accomplish its mission. What is nice about America's Cup design is that the only mission is speed, maneuverability and reliability to best a single match race rival around a closed course. Size, weight, wetted surface, hull form, light but strong construction, efficient rigs with good sails, sea kindliness and maneuverability are necessary. In general the successful boats embody acceptable or superior selections in the above categories. Bold innovation has been rewarded, but nearly always, extremes have failed. In a series of yacht races encompassing generally a variety of wind and sea conditions, an overall good boat wins.
It is appropriate to divide America's Cup history into seven logical chronological divisions. The outstanding or most interesting yacht of each period will be addressed herewith. Listed below are the America's Cup competitions by era with the names of the winning and defeated yachts respectively. In each case the focus yacht is in boldface type.
There was no real yachting in the middle of the last century. Thus, it is only logical that the first event of what came to be known as the America's Cup stemmed from other considerations. In the London of 1851 there was organized an Industrial World's Fair that came to be known as "Prince Albert's Great Exhibition". The intention was to promote development by offering the "civilized" countries opportunity to exhibit their best products. Since naval architect John Scott Russell was one of the organizers, it was evident that ships and boats would be included. Lord Wilton, Commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron, invited Americans to send over a yacht to race - thus, history was made. The New York Yacht Club had been founded only a few years prior. Its commodore, John Cox Stevens, and a founding member, George L. Schuyler, were intrigued by the suggestion. Naval architect George Steers modeled a handsome, refined version of the fishing schooners then extant. She was constructed at the New York shipyard of William H. Brown.
Modern shipbuilding entrepreneurs will be interested in the conditions of the contract. The designer and builder were to be paid the sum of $30,000 for the 100-ft-long schooner if the vessel could beat all competitors in a series of trials; otherwise they were to get nothing - certainly the extreme of any naval architectural contract! (As it turned out, there was insufficient time for the trial races so Steers and Brown settled for $20,000.)
The race started from anchor in Cowes over a course round the Isle of Wight – some 53 miles. It must have been a great race with periods of strong breezes combined with lighter winds and the habitually tricky currents of the Solent. By no means ahead all the way, AMERICA finally took charge and handsomely beat her English rivals (eight cutters and six schooners). When informed of her victory, Queen Victoria inquired who was second. The reply: "Your Majesty, there was no second." Also that day, the America's Cup tradition of dispute was also begun when it was contended that AMERICA did not round all the marks of the course. The Race Committee sportingly ruled that the instructions were vague and AMERICA's captain had not been properly informed. The Squadron Commodore, the Earl of Wilton, presented the Hundred Pound Cup to John Cox Stevens, Commodore of the New York Yacht Club.
It is difficult for naval architects of today to judge the special merits of AMERICA. She was clearly born of practical evolution of working schooners whose respective merits under sail were of immediate significance to those in the fishing trade. Doubtless the importance of AMERICA's owners and of her racing mission inspired the talented Steers to special application of his skills in design.
First defenses: 1870-1887
Commodore Stevens and the other AMERICA syndicate members deeded the Cup to the New York Yacht Club in 1857 as a "Perpetual Challenge Cup for friendly competition between foreign countries" (actually between yacht clubs). The magnanimous and straightforward deed of gift and its subsequent revisions has been the foundation for the finest yacht-racing event in the world but also of bitter dispute, some of which has been sacrilege to the deed's lofty intent.
Not until 1870 was there another race for the America's Cup. Again it was a fleet race: the English CAMBRIA against the New York Yacht Club fleet, predominantly schooners. The American 81-ft-waterline schooner MAGIC was the winner. Subsequent to that, the match race format, obviously much fairer, has been used. There was active racing during the next decade and a half-always in New York and always won by the Americans.
Distinctly different vessel types had evolved on the opposite sides of the Atlantic. Driven by the Thames Tonnage Rules that taxed commercial vessel in proportion to a power of their beam, the English sailed narrow deep craft. Not until 1887 did Dixon Kemp introduce an improved measurement rule in England that abandoned the excessive penalty for beam. Thus, English yachts of the time tended to be a poor type of boat-deep and too narrow to carry sail well. The American boats, in contrast, were wide and shallow, reflecting the practical commercial needs of our waters. We had the better of the extremes. Of course, design gravitated to the mean on both sides of the Atlantic. It is ironic that finally one year the English challenger was wider than the American defender.
In the 1870s Edward Burgess of Boston evolved as the designer of the America's Cup defenders. For the years 1885, 1886, and 1887 respectively, he designed PURITAN, MAYFLOWER, and VOLUNTEER, all successful large sloops. The last of these, VOLUNTEER, is the focus yacht of this interesting period.
Despite secrecy on both sides of the Atlantic the challenger and defender of 1887 were remarkably similar. Both George L. Watson's THISTLE and Edward (Ned) Burgess's VOLUNTEER were clipper-bowed sloops having large low sail plans. Even their hull lines were strikingly similar, though VOLUNTEER had a larger beam/draft ratio in keeping with the aforementioned national practices. A substantial difference was that VOLUNTEER was fitted with a centerboard that greatly enhanced her pointing ability to windward.
Yachts still had all ballast within the hull and construction of the boats was heavy enough to preclude a very high ratio of ballast to displacement. VOLUNTEER's lines are particularly natural and pleasing. This triumph of Edward Burgess decisively beat her predecessor yachts PURITAN and MAYFLOWER and was named the Cup Defender after an abbreviated set of trials. She then decisively won the 1887 Cup Races.
This match could be said to complete an evolutionary phase of the Cup involving great variety in size and type of boat. VOLUNTEER was a fine climax to that period. Afterward, except for the absurd match of 1988, challenger and defender would always be more closely matched in size and general character of design. Edward Burgess died soon after, cutting short a brilliant career of great activity over just a few years. His son, W. Starling Burgess, went on also to design three Cup Defenders in the decade 50 years later.
The great 90-Footers: 1893-1903
Ninety feet waterline length-these were the largest and most impressive of all the America's Cup yachts. Author John Rousmaniere calls this time the "Herreshoff era" as all the defenders were designed by Captain Nathanael Greene Herreshoff and were constructed at the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company in Bristol, Rhode Island. Following the untimely death of his contemporary friend Edward Burgess, Herreshoff was the natural heir to the privilege of designing America's defenders. This followed from his demonstrable success in the early sloop SHADOW in Massachusetts Bay competition and the breakthrough designs of two 46-ft-class yachts GLORIANA and WASP that revolutionized the conventions of sailing yacht design during the seasons of 1891 and 1892.
M.I.T. trained and the first to apply real engineering methods to the art of yacht design, Nat Herreshoff possessed an uncanny instinct for rapid execution of revolutionary innovation in his chosen field. Interestingly enough, he might very well never have become a designer of sailing yachts given his early fascination and genius for design of lightweight steam machinery. Fortunately, Nat's older brother John was a highly ambitious businessman determined to build the world's best yachts; the brothers made a remarkable partnership: one running the business and the other doing all the designing, engineering and construction supervision.
VIGILANT (1893), DEFENDER (1895), and COLUMBIA (1899 and 1901) were all Herreshoff creations. RELIANCE followed on the heels of their success, forming a classic example of the fact that in most yacht development classes the successful boats get progressively bigger, heavier and more powerful (also true of the yachts of the 1870s and 80s, of the J Class, but not of the 12-Meter class.)
RELIANCE was a powerful giant of a yacht with innumerable innovations of considerable interest (she appears on the back of the new Rhode Island State Quarter and serves as the Museum logo.) She completely outclassed all comers and won the Cup decisively. RELIANCE was a magnificent climax to that outstanding era of 90-Footers; however, she also exemplified the trend to ever more extreme, costly and even dangerous yachts developing under the pressure to exploit the rating rule to the limit. Thus followed a more modest and saner type of boat under the Universal Rule developed by N. G. Herreshoff, RELIANCE's designer.
Arguably the greatest and most interesting of all Cup yachts, RELIANCE had a short career, being broken up soon after she so demonstrably fulfilled her mission of defending the Cup. What a great pity she was not preserved for our direct admiration today.
Universal Rule & J boats: 1920-1937
Following the intense activity in Cup racing from 1893 through 1903, there followed a long hiatus. This was not for lack of interest but rather because of opinions and events of the first 20 years of this century.
Even before the splendid triumph of RELIANCE, the powers of the New York Yacht Club and others felt that the huge extreme scow-type yachts such as INDEPENDENCE and RELIANCE were too expensive, complicated and potentially dangerous. They turned to Captain Nat. Herreshoff to devise a new rule to provide good competitive racing with reasonable freedom of design but with more "normal" boats. Actually, Mr. Herreshoff had been analyzing the problem for nearly a decade previously.
His solution was the "Universal Rule". One appeal of this rule was its simple physical validity: length and sail area in the numerator are speed-giving elements while displacement in the denominator is a retarding quantity. Also the rule is dimensionally correct in that length times the square root of sail area divided by the cube root of displacement is a linear measurement as "rating" should be.
Mr. Herreshoff's invention of "quarter beam length" as an element of the measured length taken at two heights assessed more properly the sailing length of the yacht than did just a set of lengths taken on center. The Universal Rule was indeed about universally accepted. But for the change of the overall coefficient and addition of detailed controls, this rule was used for the rest of the big boat America's Cup racing.
Sir Thomas Lipton, who had cheerfully financed challenge after challenge, felt that the boats should be smaller. It was he who first proposed a challenge in smaller yachts built to the Universal Rule; in 1912 he formalized the proposal for 75 ft waterline boats rather than the 90-Footers of the previous era. The NYYC first refused, and then accepted this practical challenge by Lipton.
Contrary to frequent statement, SHAMROCK IV and RESOLUTE were not J boats. Rather these two vessels, built for the 1914 season, were raced under time allowance following from their respective measurements entered into the Universal Rule. It was not until 1930 that a modified Universal Rule with a set rating of 76 ft established the J class for the next America's Cup races.
World War I delayed the contest until 1920. SHAMROCK IV, described by her designer Charles E. Nicholson as "the ugly duckling," was nevertheless an able fast boat. She had snubbed ends, tumblehome, outboard chain plates and a rectangular centerboard and was fast.
On the American side, a number of interesting designs were devised for the new class. William Gardner's VANITIE and DEFIANCE by Professor George Owen were fine boats. Captain Nat. Herreshoff produced the yacht RESOLUTE of moderate proportions with his characteristic elegance of line and finesse of detail.
In the final trials of 1920 RESOLUTE won seven races to VANITIE's four. As always it was a contest involving a wide combination of attributes, including the design, sails, and the skill of Charles Francis Adams, the first nonprofessional skipper of an America's Cup yacht.
Through an error of sail handling, RESOLUTE broke down and so lost the first race; then, she lost race 2 by nearly two and a half minutes; it looked like the Cup would finally be lost. Designer Nat. Herreshoff, then 72, was rushed down to New York overnight on a naval destroyer. He and Adams adjusted RESOLUTE and her rig and went on to win the next three races, each by substantial margins to save the Cup for America.
The J boat era of 1930 could be called the Vanderbilt era. Harold S. Vanderbilt was skipper in 1930, 1934 and 1937. He was also the principal backer of the magnificent Js, ENTERPRISE, RAINBOW, and RANGER, financing the latter entirely himself. In 1934, the Cup was again nearly lost. It is generally believed that RAINBOW was not as fast as the challenger ENDEAVOR and that the RAINBOW won through the acumen of Vanderbilt and C. Sherman Hoyt of his afterguard.
RANGER is nearly always described as the "super J" and that accolade seems to have been totally deserved. Here was a clear demonstration of the axiom "build big within the rule." Except for L. Francis Herreshoff's WHIRLWIND, no boat had previously approached the maximum size practical for a rating of 76 under the modified Universal Rule; RANGER did.
Additionally, RANGER was the first America's Cup yacht developed through model testing in a towing tank. Co-designer Olin Stephens, II had developed great confidence in the procedures developed by Kenneth Davidson of the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken. Tank tests were used to evaluate alternative designs for RANGER and evidently the results gave Stephens and Starling Burgess the confidence to depart sharply from conventional J boat practice. It was not divulged for several decades which designer modeled RANGER's hull. Olin Stephens says it was Burgess, but one can be sure that the boldness of the design is much attributable to Olin Stephens.
RANGER was the first Cup Defender in fifty years not built at the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company in Bristol. On her delivery trip from the Bath Iron Works, disaster struck; new type rigging turnbuckles unscrewed at sea, leaving the beautiful long spar unsupported. Frightening deflections in the rolling seaway culminated in failure of the spar. A temporary spar fitted from an old boat in Bristol provided for early practice until RANGER could be fitted with a spar of new design and construction. She totally dominated the trials and Cup Races of 1937. She was longer, more powerful, had a bigger rig, was sailed better and was more refined in nearly every respect. Her afterguard under the seasoned and canny Vanderbilt benefited hugely from the presence of Olin Stephens and his brother Rod, probably the finest racing seaman who ever crewed on a yacht. Sail trimmer was Arthur Knapp, who later won thousands of races in all sorts of boats, and the navigator was Zenas Bliss of Brown University. Mrs. Vanderbilt, an able sailor herself, was always a participant.
The 12-Metre era: 1958-1987
Following World War II, the conventional wisdom on both sides of the Atlantic was that the America's Cup was done. The world was rebuilding and there seemed little prospect of funding further J boats given their assumed greatly accelerated cost. The Cup itself remained the pride of the New York Yacht Club, continually on display in the trophy room of the 44th Street Club House. Most of us expected it to just remain there for a long time, perhaps never to be raced for again.
Enter Commodores Henry Sears and Henry Morgan of the New York Yacht Club. By petitioning the Supreme Court of the State of New York, they modified the Deed of Gift to allow smaller yachts without the previous demand that challengers must cross the ocean on their own bottoms. It was agreed to compete in the International 12-Metre Class, which had provided excellent racing for several years before the war. Designed to the rather tight specifications of the International Rule, these boats did not really fit the grand traditions of the Cup but nevertheless provided nearly three decades of some of the finest match racing ever.
I can write more knowledgeably about the 12-Metre era than any other, as I was an active participant for 25 years and an observer for the full 29 years. Through acquaintance with Harry Sears, I was excused from other duties as a naval officer to sail aboard COLUMBIA, the 1958 Cup Defender, as bowman. Sailing aboard the 12's in most of their seasons, I participated in four America's Cup series, a total of 20 races; it was all about the greatest fun I've ever had.
The International Rule is an inelegant arbitrary formula that controls and restricts the design of these boats within narrow limits. There is a minimum length, maximum draft, maximum rig heights, and a set relation between length and displacement. Scantlings first in wood and later in aluminum are tightly controlled by specifics of the rule, Nevertheless, innovation in design particularly by Olin Stephens brought about nearly continual improvement of the boats, and the design edge of the United States long seemed to assure retention of the Cup as it did over many matches through 1980.
Curiously, some of the finest racing of all was in the finals of the first selection trials between COLUMBIA, sailed by Briggs Cunningham and designed by Sparkman & Stephens against Stephens prewar 12-Metre VIM. These were great tactical battles with racing margins of a few seconds in many races. The Cup race itself that year was a walk; SCEPTRE was a quite inferior design that had never faced competition before the match. As had happened a few times before, WEATHERLY, a weak American boat, won in 1962 by the brilliance of Bus Mobacher, her skipper. That was the first year of an Australian challenger and GRETEL won a race demonstrating the aggressive posture of Australian sailors.
Another S&S yacht, CONSTELLATION won in 1964. She was a quite elegant all-round boat, which was selected as Cup Defender over the large and powerful AMERICAN EAGLE, which was only superior in heavy weather. This should have been a tip off to the future but the true significance of having to design the smallest possible 12-Metre for Newport conditions was not generally appreciated until Australia II lifted the Cup in 1983. The reason 12-Metres form an exception to the axiom "design big" is the idiosyncrasy of the rule, particularly the prescription of increased displacement with length.
Olin Stephens' INTREPID of 1967 was a breakthrough yacht. Wetted surface was drastically reduced with a shorter keel and separate rudder and the boat had numerous refinements. With outstanding management and the skill of Mosbacher again as skipper, INTREPID was unbeatable. The quest for further breakthroughs led to some peculiar and unsuccessful designs over the next two seasons.
The 1970 match was saved by repeat defense of INTREPID. In 1974, Olin Stephens designed another very fine boat, COURAGEOUS. Built of aluminum under new scantling rules, COURAGEOUS was powerful and superior in a breeze but did not easily defeat INTREPID, striving for a third defense. The selection trials reduced to a memorable sudden-death race in a 30-knot northeast breeze that COURAGEOUS won through both superior speed and better sailing. While I personally believe that Stephens's 1977 boat, ENTERPRISE, was a further improvement in the same direction, Ted Turner sailing COURAGEOUS beat her out for the defense. Though not of demonstrably different dimensions, FREEDOM of 1980 seemed very superior. One difference was lower freeboard – providing a lower center of gravity and less hull windage. The new ingredient was a brilliant program of development of sails, gear and crew established by skipper Dennis Conner over a two-year program. The success of the program altered America's Cup procedures from then on. Even with that, FREEDOM did lose one of the races of the match principally owing to a light-air advantage of Australia employing a rule-beating mainsail that gave her superior windward speed in light air.
Then, in 1983, the unthinkable happened in Newport when AUSTRALIA II beat LIBERTY in "The Race of the Century," the sudden-death seventh race of that match. AUSTRALIA II was the best 12-Metre yacht to sail in the 25-year history of competition at Newport. Her extraordinary and controversial winged keel was, of course, the conspicuous feature. The ballyhoo about that masked the significant facts that AUSTRALIA II was the first boat to go to minimum 12-Metre length and displacement and that she had significantly less wetted surface than any other Twelve; this latter fact won the Cup! Less wetted surface followed naturally from a smaller boat but also from a keel of radically small planform. Where that had failed 13 years earlier in VALIANT with a conventional keel, it succeeded in spades on AUSTRALIA II because the winged keel provided sufficient hydrodynamic lift (side force) without the conventional large area. Because 12's have draft limited by a function of length, they crave more draft or the equivalent effect. The lift-enhancing action of the "end plate" wings provided that very effectively.
While the racing ended at Newport in 1983 with the victory by the wonderful AUSTRALIA II, the subsequent events are equally interesting. Dennis Conner took charge again and with a brilliantly conceived and executed plan won back the Cup the first time sailing Twelves in the challenging waters of western Australia. The final STARS & STRIPES was a one-weather boat, big and powerful for the consistent "Doctor" (strong winds) of Freemantle. Others did not have the strength of their convictions to go with such a big and powerful boat. Dennis's crew and tactics were admirable in this most wonderful challenge at a spectacular sailing locale.
The one-weather quality of STARS & STRIPES was abundantly clear from her total failure to win light-weather 12-Metre races in European waters later in 1987. An AUSTRALIA II type boat was needed there or would have been for continued 12-Metre races in Newport or San Diego.
The mismatch – 1988
In 1988, for the first time in history, the Challenger and Defender clubs could not agree on a mutually satisfactory boat size, type and rating rule. Thus, it was necessary to sail under an as yet untried provision of the Deed of Gift framed for just such a contingency. The result was a fiasco that was not without skill in design and excitement in sailing. On the whole, this year was a disgrace to the noble tradition of the Cup. The match was between a large challenger sloop and a sophisticated large catamaran. The Americans developed the latter over an amazingly short time period. Obviously such a mismatch would be won big by one boat or the other - quite naturally the catamaran was the winner, even when sailed very conservatively. The perpetrator of the mismatch was Michael Fay of New Zealand. While openly discussing a conventional 12-Metre challenge, Fay had secretly commissioned the design and had commenced construction of a large sloop. Then, when he felt he had an insurmountable time lead on the defender, Fay issued a challenge specifying his type of boat and a time period too short for the defender to reasonably develop a boat of the same type.
The San Diego Yacht Club refused, and then tried to reason with Fay. This was to no avail. Then, the lawyers got into the act. As is increasingly frequent in our litigious society, the role of competing lawyers and judges was to ensnare the Cup in a miserable, expensive dispute.
In fairness, the American response being boxed into a corner was not always admirable either. America won, and did so through great technology and clever development of a quite wonderful catamaran STARS & STRIPES. But even now one wonders if the whole fiasco might not have been avoided by more negotiation appealing to the common sense of all.
The challenger, NEW ZEALAND, was a yacht of approximately 90 ft waterline length, making her the largest racing sloop constructed since the J boats. While developed using modern composite construction, NEW ZEALAND was a peculiar boat. We have no sure way to judge her prowess, as she was the only such boat on the water. Light of weight with an extreme (model boat type) keel and wide "wings" for crew hiking, she was interesting. The sail plan and sails were equally interesting. Of course, it really made no difference whether NEW ZEALAND was good or bad, because a good catamaran was sure to beat her every time except in such light-air conditions that neither boat would make the time limit.
The International America's Cup Class (IACC)
A totally new rule was established after 1988. This has produced three fine matches in 1992, 1995 and 2000. All anticipate equally fine racing in Auckland in 2003. Boats of the IACC class are larger than 12-Metre yachts with much finer and lighter hulls utilizing composite construction. The ballast to displacement ratio of these boats is remarkably high with a deep lead bulb of about 44,000 pounds supported by a slim steel strut.
New classes require several cycles for an optimum boat type to emerge. In the case of the IACC, the process was rapid principally because of the brilliant and aggressive R&D program devised by American Bill Koch for his America3 syndicate. Building four boats with much experimentation led Koch to the optimum proportions including a progressive narrowing of beam, a trend followed by his successors. Bill Koch and his relief helmsman Buddy Melges won the 1992 America's Cup match in decisive style against Italy.
The New Zealand BLACK MAGIC syndicate led by Peter Blake and helmsman Russell Coutes brilliantly executed the next two matches. Not only did they win in superb fashion in San Diego in 1995, the New Zealanders showed admirable finesse in concept, organization, details and sailing skill in the 2000 defense at Auckland.
The Alinghi team, led by Ernesto Bertarelli,
with Russell Coutts as skipper and Brad Butterworth as
tactician, employed brilliant sailing skills and a fine overall
program to wrest the Cup from the Kiwis in 2003, and bring it,
for the first time ever, to Europe.
Everyone who follows the America’s Cup expects exciting racing in future years as the tradition continues.
THE HISTORY OF THE J CLASS
“The greyhounds of the seas”
View video clip - Velsheda racing against Ranger 2005 (2.5mb)
1851 to 1928
The J Class has its roots in the oldest sporting race in the world, The America's Cup. This International Event was born from an annual race around the Isle of Wight, hosted by the Royal Yacht Squadron and called the 100 Guinea Cup. In 1851, an overseas yacht was allowed to participate for the first time. The yacht "America" was built that year to an innovative new design and had sailed to the Solent in search of racing. Initially excluded from racing against British yachts, she was finally allowed to enter the Round The Island Race for the '100 Guinea Cup'.
With the complex tides and shallow areas of the Solent it was natural for 'America' to hire the services of a Pilot and in due course Robert Underwood was employed to guide them through the very tricky waters off the Island. Although the race programme was advertised as rounding the Nab Buoy and then the Isle of Wight, leaving all to Starboard, this was not what was printed by the RYS on the instruction cards and whilst the four leaders tacked away to round the Nab lightship, Underwood directed "America's" Skipper to press on through the shallow area, missing the Nab Buoy and saving a very considerable distance. Naturally "America" took the lead and held it to win the race, although the nearest British boat closed to just a few minutes behind ‘America’ at the finish.
The Trophy became known as the "America's Cup" and was taken back to the USA. Yachts were able to challenge to win back the cup and a series of larger and larger yachts were designed to compete.
Pre-war J Class yachts signified the most opulent stage of maritime racing history, where the towering rigs of the Big Boat Class such as ‘Lulworth’ and ‘Britannia’ dwarfed all other yachts. The late 1920s and 1930s also heralded the beginning of an age when yachts from both sides of the Atlantic were being raced under the same rule - the American Universal Rule.
1929 to 1939
Previously, British yachts had raced under the International Rule, a rule that gave an advantage to bermudan rigged yachts, but which was restrictive for boats bigger than 48ft. The Americans wanted to race bigger boats and so introduced the Universal Rule in 1930. Within this rule the size of a yacht was determined (by waterline length) and this was shown as an alphabetical list . "J" signified yachts with a waterline length of between 75 to 87 feet. With the addition of the new design Bermuda mast, rigging and sail plan, nothing so large and 'awesome' had been built previously.
The rule was based on ideas proposed by Nat Herreshoff allowing waterline length to be increased without sail area being restricted, as it had been under the International Rule. This was compensated by a larger displacement and so draught was limited to 15ft. The J-Class were the foremost designs under this rule which defined the size with a new formula:
Waterline: 79' - 87'
Overall length: 120' plus
Displacement: up to 160 Tons
Several existing large British yachts, ‘Astra’, ‘Candida’, ‘White Heather II’ and ‘Britannia’, were converted to comply with the rule and raced alongside the J's. Of the true J-Class, only ten were ever built (4 in the UK and 6 in USA) and these raced together for just eight seasons from 1930 to 1937.
Sir Thomas Lipton was the owner of the English grocery chain Liptons, and famous for his import of Lipton Tea from India. He challenged on each occasion as a member of the Royal Ulster Yacht Club in Northern Ireland. RUYC are still involved with The Cup - presenting the Royal Ulster Cup to the Club of the winning challenger. www.ruyc.co.uk
In 1929 Sir Thomas Lipton issued a challenge to the Americans for the America's Cup. It was his fifth challenge and signified a whole new era in design evolution and racing. The Americans had a distinct advantage over Britain in the 1930 America's Cup. They had the money to build four J's over Britain's one, yet the British yacht Shamrock V was a hot contender. She was designed by Nicholson and built at the family yard in 1930, and before she crossed the Atlantic to attend the Cup she had notched up more than 700 sea miles (1,296km), won 15 out of the 22 races she had entered and had been tweaked and tested to a high degree.
In answer to Lipton's challenge of 1929 the Americans designed four J-Class yachts as possible defenders. Enterprise, Whirlwind, Yankee and Weetamoe were launched within a month of each other; Weetamoe and Enterprise from the Herreshoff yard and Yankee and Whirlwind from Lawley & Son's yard in Bristol.
Whirlwind, the second J launched 16 days later, was the most revolutionary of the four. Francis L Herreshoff had moved away from conventional yachts and designed a boat which took the new rule to its extreme. Whirlwind combined many new ideas and Herreshoff experimented with hull shape and rig. She was the longest of the early J's at 86ft on the waterline and remained so until Ranger and Endeavour II were built in 1937. She was built of semi-composite construction (the other three American Js were built out of the highly expensive tobin bronze), was double-ended and had a permanent backstay. Uffa Fox described her profile as: "Very pleasing to the eye, the stem sweeping down to the keel in a very sweet line, and to a man who, like myself, believes that a pointed stern is a logical ending for all vessels, her stern is a joy to behold." He predicted "If the Yacht Racing Rules govern well and wisely, we shall see Whirlwind racing 50 years hence. If they do not she will probably be cruising then." But Whirlwind met an early demise. Her building was delayed as she didn't meet Lloyd's A1 scantling rules and she wasn't chosen to be the 1930s defender. She was often out-performed when close hauled, her steering gear making her difficult to steer. She was eventually scrapped along with Enterprise in 1935. However, her unusual double headsail rig was later adopted by the rest of the J's.
The third American J, Yankee, was the best all-rounder. At 84ft on the waterline and 125ft length overall, she was solidly made of tobin bronze and was extremely well balanced. Designed by Frank Paine, Yankee had an almost straight sheerline and easy lines. She was a powerful contender for defender, but not fine tuned enough to succeed. She did, however, take part in the 1934 America's Cup trials and with alterations to her rig, to carry more sail, and bow, which was lengthened and made more of a V-shape, she then proved more successful, especially in light winds.
The fourth of the American J's was Weetamoe, which was designed by Clinton Crane and was the narrowest of the early four. Despite claims that Yankee was the best all-rounder, Weetamoe is said to have been the closest rival to Enterprise to be the Cup defender. Charles Nedwick, in Ian Dear's book Enterprise to Endeavour, describes Weetamoe as having a profile "that is practically a triangle, with a straight line from the after end of the waterline to the bottom of the keel and thence a line which is slightly convex, and then slightly concave to the forward end of the waterline." In an attempt to better performance and make her less tender, her profile below the water was radically altered in 1934 with a new contour and bulb keel. The alterations failed and not long afterwards were reversed. In common with the other J's, she had about 43ft of overhang and her hull, Nicholson opined, "was the best of all the US Js".
When Shamrock V and Enterprise eventually met off Newport, Rhode Island, later that year, the two J's were well matched in hull profile, but differed significantly in rig. Enterprise's rigging was lighter, she had the Park Avenue boom, which was so advantageous to windward, and had lots of winches on board. Shamrock V meanwhile, was under-winched and hard work to sail. She has since, however, proved her success in that she is still sailing today.
The sixth J-Class to be built, and the second built on British soil was Velsheda. She was the only J not built as a contender for the America-s Cup. Her owner, WL Stephenson, who previously owned White Heather II, the 23-Metre converted to rate as a J-Class in 1930, had Velsheda built in steel in 1933 at the C&N yard. Velsheda was a great success. In 1935 she was significantly altered, her bow was snubbed around the waterline and her stern improved. The following season she won the King's Cup at Cowes Week.
In 1934, Sopwith challenged for the America's Cup. His challenger was Endeavour. She was Charles Nicholson's third J-Class design and he said of her "She will have quite a normal hull... because I have thought it right to suppress possible experimental form, which would be most interesting to try out, but which I have to leave to American designers." He did, however, produce the most beautiful J-Class and her rig was innovative.
Sopwith experimented with new running backstay strain gauges which controlled the trim of the mast and used electronic windspeed and direction indicators. It has since been suggested that part of the reason for her failure in the Cup was due to all the gadgets on board. She was matched 83ft 3in on the waterline against Rainbow's 82ft. However, despite being thought to be the best challenger Britain has ever built, she did not win the Cup. Rainbow, which was considered the inferior boat, beat her by four races to two.
Rainbow was designed by W Starling Burgess and launched in 1934 from the Herreshoff yard where she was built in just 100 days. The J stepped a pear-shaped duralumin mast, designed to take the strain of the double-headed jib - first used on Whirlwind - and she was originally rigged with a Park Avenue boom. This was later removed because it was considered too heavy.
1937 saw the building of the last two J's on both sides of the Atlantic. Both Ranger and Endeavour II took the waterline length to its extreme, measuring 87ft LWL. Ranger, the American boat, was built at Bath Ironworks in Maine and designed jointly by W Starling Burgess and Olin Stephens. It was a design combination which produced the greatest J of the fleet - the 'super J' as she was later known. She was built, for the cost of the materials only, of flush rivetted steel plating. and soon after launching had an accident. The upper parts of her rod rigging which stayed her duralumin mast shook loose and her mast snapped "with a report like a cannon".
Ranger's success on the water was widespread. Of 37 starts she won 35. Owner-skipper Harold Vanderbilt described her as being "slower to turn and to pick up speed, but (she) held her way longer, and was perfectly balanced on the wind." The challenger, Endeavour II, was designed by Nicholson again and built at the C&N yard. She too was steel, but flush-plated above and below the waterline. Sopwith towed her and Endeavour, plus an entourage of 100, to America where he worked on tuning her rig. Sadly, Ranger saw off the competition, easily winning four races, and dashing British hopes.
Although they became recognised the most beautiful yacht design in the World, only 10 J Class yachts were ever built - 6 in the USA and 4 in the UK. Most of these competed in trials for the America's Cup, or competed in the Cup itself. Other yachts (pre J Class) were converted to meet the rule requirements. These include the Kings yacht "Britannia", "Candida" and "Astra".
Handling the J Class Yachts in the 1930’s
The Skippers had to be experienced in racing and their skill on the race circuit became a matter of pride. These mighty craft had no engines and they had to be handled with great precision to get into and out of ports. Often their experience came from sailing all types of small craft, including fishing boats, during the winter months, when the J Class yachts were laid up. Sailing small boats in often inhospitable waters gave them the skills to manage their J Class yachts. The same is true today. Skippers have to deliver their yachts across Oceans, and compete around the race course, using their skills and all the technical advantages that are available today.
By 1935 the UK Class was all but finished, with the scuttling of the Kings yacht "Britannia" off the South of the Isle of Wight, in accordance with his will. 1937 marked the end of an era - it was the last America's Cup contest for 21 years and marked the end of Big Class racing. Of the American Js, Yankee was the only one to sail in British waters when she was bought by Gerald Lambert and crossed the Atlantic in 1935. She was scrapped in 1941.
By 1946 all the US yachts were laid up, and then scrapped for their metal. None survived. Endeavour and Velsheda were houseboats on the river Hamble. This is where they stayed for more than 30 years, protected by the mud berth which they had sunk into. Only Shamrock V was still sailing.
Another J Class Yacht - But Not Finished?
It is now clear that there was another J Class Yacht under development in 1937. Swedish naval architect Tore Holm fell under the spell of the magical J Class yachts. Several years ago, drawings for a J-Class boat by Tore Holm were discovered by Fred Meyer, (Société Nautique de Genève – the Defender of the 32nd America's Cup).
Now known as the Holm Project, this was to be a Swedish yacht with an innovative design. Many of the hull plates were made - and exist to this day. The project was put on hold prior to the outbreak of War in 1939 and was forgotten for more than 60 years!
In 1937, after the victory of Ranger over Endeavour II, Vanderbilt wondered whether the boat was so much faster than the competition that it might kill the class. History would show this was not the case as analysis of the Holm design shows that it would likely have been faster than Ranger.
In recent years each of the three remaining yachts have undergone comprehensive reconstruction to keep them in full racing order.
Endeavour - 1988 & 2001
Velsheda - 1997 & 2001
Shamrock V - 2000-2001
Ranger - NEW Replica Rebuild in 2004
All of these magnificent craft are again racing together and can be seen at specialist YACHTING venues around the World.
The most common adjective that is used by those who have sailed on the existing J's is the word 'awesome'. The immense sail area and sheer power cannot easily be described. Also the speed, slicing effortlessly like a knife through butter and their ability to turn almost in their own length. They were the Greyhounds of the seas then - and still are today.
About The Original Owners
SHAMROCK V - JK3
Sir Thomas Lipton was the owner of the English grocery chain LIPTON, and famous for his import of Lipton Tea from India. Sir Thomas made all five of his challenges as a member of Royal Ulster Yacht Club, a club which continues to this day to have a strong involvement with The Cup.
ENDEAVOUR - JK4
Sir T.O.M. Sopwith designed and built aeroplanes during the first World War and was known for the Sopwith Camel, one of the most successful fighting aircraft of its time. He went on to create a vast Aero industry, and used many technical developments and skills from the aircraft industry in the design of his J's.
VELSHEDA - JK7
W.L.Stephenson owned a chain of general stores throughout the UK called Woolworth. Previously he has owned and enjoyed 'White Heather' but when the J Class Yachts came into being, he ordered a new J to offer competition within the British fleet. Stephenson never planned to compete for the America's Cup. Velsheda was named from his three daughters Velma, Daphne and Shelia.
BRITANNIA - K1
King George V loved his yacht Britannia and won many races with her. On his death the yacht was taken by the Royal Navy to the south of the Isle of Wight and scuttled, in accordance with his Will.
RANGER - J5
Owner-skipper Harold Vanderbilt (1884-1970), was born to extreme wealth and used it wisely, investing in J-boats for the defence of the America's Cup. A Harvard Law graduate, he successfully defended the America’s Cup three times with Enterprise (1930), Rainbow (1934), and the mighty Ranger (1937), last of the J-Class. A good sailor and tactician, Vanderbilt, helmed for all three defenses, with tactician Sherman Hoyt. One of his greatest successes was against Endeavour in 1934, where he came back from a 2:0 start to win the next three races, defeating one of the strongest challenges to the Cup up to that point.
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