On August 22, 1851, the U.S.-built schooner America bests a fleet of Britain’s finest ships in a race around England’s Isle of Wight. The ornate silver trophy won by the America was later donated to the New York Yacht Club on condition that it be forever placed in international competition. Today, the “America’s Cup” is the world’s oldest continually contested sporting trophy and represents the pinnacle of international sailing yacht competition.
The history of the yacht America began with five members of the New York Yacht Club, who decided to build a state-of-the-art schooner to compete against British ships in conjunction with England’s Great Exposition of 1851. Designed by George Steers, the 100-foot, black-hulled America had a sharp bow, a V bottom, and tall masts, making it strikingly different from the traditional yachts of the day. In June 1851, the America set sail from its shipyard on New York City’s East River, bound for England. Manned by Captain William H. Brown and a crew of 12, the America raced and overtook numerous ships during the Atlantic crossing.
After being outfitted and repainted in France, the America sailed to Cowes on the Isle of Wight to challenge the best British sailboats in their own waters. At Cowes, America welcomed all comers for a match race, but no English yacht accepted the challenge. Finally, on August 22, the America joined 14 British ships for a regatta around the Isle of Wight. The prize was the Hundred Guinea Cup, a 2-foot-high silver jug put up by the Royal Yacht Squadron.
In the 53-mile race, the America trounced the competition, beating the cutter Aurora by 22 minutes and finishing nearly an hour ahead of the third boat, the schooner Bacchante. Queen Victoria watched the race from her royal yacht, and at one point asked, “What is second?” after seeing the America come over the horizon. Her attendant reportedly replied, “Your Majesty, there is no second.”
A few weeks after its victory, the America was sold to an Irish lord for about $25,000, giving its owners a slim profit over what they paid for it. It later went through a series of other owners, one of whom changed the America‘s name to Camilla. As the CSS Memphis, it served briefly as a Confederate blockade runner during the Civil War. The Confederate navy sunk it in Florida to keep it from falling into Union hands, but it was found, raised, and rebuilt by the U.S. Navy, which renamed it the America and used it as a Union blockade ship.
Meanwhile, the first owners of the America deeded the Hundred Guinea Cup to the New York Yacht Club in 1857 to be put up as the prize in a perpetual international challenge competition. The first race for the trophy, renamed the America’s Cup, was not held until August 1870, when the British ship Cambria competed against 14 American yachts in Lower New York Bay. The Cambria finished 10th. The schooner Magic won the race, and the America, refitted by the navy for the occasion, finished fourth. After service as a navy training ship, the America fell into disrepair under private owners. Today, it exists only in fragments.
From 1870 until the late 20th century, New York Yacht Club-sponsored U.S. yachts successfully defended the America’s Cup 24 times in races generally spaced a few years apart. Since the 1920s, the America’s Cup race has been between one defending vessel and one challenging vessel, both of which are determined by separate elimination trials. In 1983, the United States lost the trophy for the first time in 132 years when Australia II defeated Liberty off Newport, Rhode Island. The San Diego Yacht Club’s Stars & Stripes returned the America’s Cup to America in 1987, but in 1995 Black Magic took the trophy home to New Zealand. Team New Zealand successfully defended its claim in 2000, defeating an Italian challenger in the first America’s Cup final for which the U.S. did not qualify.