Today the great quest begins in waters off Auckland, New Zealand, as a miniarmada of multimillion-dollar sailboats launches a challenge for an ornate piece of Victorian silver bearing the name of the most famous yacht ever to ply the seas: the America.
Fifteen teams of challengers from 10 countries -- including five entrants from the United States -- take to the waves in a round-robin series to win the right to challenge the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron in February for the America's Cup.
No matter how colorful or controversial, the competition can only be a faint echo of the extraordinary career of the remarkable craft in whose wake the sailboats of today follow. The America was a precedent-setting vessel whose design once was deemed "a violation of naval architecture," and whose exploits included service on both sides of the Civil War.
George Steers, a 31-year-old, Washington-born shipwright with no more than a grammar school education, and New York shipyard owner William H. Brown built the America on a commission from the New York Yacht Club, which paid $20,000 for it and hired Capt. Richard "Old Dick" Brown, a veteran pilot, to pit it against 14 of Britain's Royal Yacht Squadron's schooners and cutters in a race around the Isle of Wight off the south coast of England on Aug. 22, 1851.
Made of oak, locust, cedar, pine, chestnut and mahogany, the America was 95 feet long, 23 feet wide amidships and had an 80-foot keel. It displaced 170 tons and drew 11 feet of water in sailing trim.
Russ Bowler, vice president of Farr Yacht Design in Annapolis, says models of the America show it to be a "fairly sleek piece of work," with a far more hydrodynamically sophisticated hull than other yachts of that era. And it annihilated its competition.
Queen Victoria watched that fabled Royal Yacht Squadron Regatta at Cowes. The race began at 9: 55 a.m., and by 5: 40 p.m. the America was at least 7 1/2 miles ahead of its nearest competitor, skimming across the water at 13 knots.
As the America appeared alone on the horizon toward the end of the race, legend has it that the queen asked: "Who is first?" Told it was the America, she inquired: "Who is second?" The reply: "There is no second."
In a highly unusual show of sportsmanship (and curiosity), the queen and her consort, Prince Albert, visited the America the day after the race. Other Britons were equally intrigued by the ship, and within a month, it was purchased by one of them -- Capt. John Blaquiere of the British Army.
He used it to sail around the Mediterranean and to compete in other yacht races. It was sold in 1853 to another Englishman, Lord Henry Montagu Upton, who in 1858 sold it to British shipbuilder Henry S. Pitcher.
The America was next purchased by its most mysterious owner, a man who frequently went by the name of Henry Edward Decie, but whose true identity has never been determined. He changed the America's name to Camilla, outfitted it as a blockade runner, sailed it to Savannah and sold it to the Confederate Navy in 1861.
It was used to ferry Confederate agents to England, but when it appeared that it might fall into Union hands, it was scuttled near Jacksonville, Fla., to prevent its seizure in March 1862. A few months later, Union forces found and raised her, refitted and armed it as a dispatch boat, restored its original name, and used it successfully to capture blockade runners. In April 1863, it was sent to the U.S. Naval Academy (then temporarily removed to Newport, R.I.), where it doubled as a training ship and pursuit vessel until the end of the war.
In 1870, still officially a U.S. Navy craft, the America took part in the first challenge race for the America's Cup. Against 16 competitors, it was said to have been hampered by its naval rigging but nonetheless finished fourth -- and ahead of the only foreign yacht, a British challenger.
The Navy's ownership of the America was contested in 1873, and to quell the dispute, it was put up for sale. The sole bid of $5,000 was made by a front man for Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, the buffoonish but canny lawyer-soldier-politician who allegedly stole silver spoons from the citizenry while he was military commander of New Orleans during the Civil War. Butler, who became governor of Massachusetts, raced it for 20 years.
After his death in 1893, his grandson, Butler Ames, not only raced the America but lent it back to the Navy to use as a cruise ship for military convalescents during the Spanish-American War.
From 1901 to 1917, the once-grand schooner lay unused in Boston and came close to being sold as a lowly trading vessel before Charles Francis Adams, scion of the famed Massachusetts clan (and later secretary of the Navy), formed the America Restoration Committee to buy and refurbish her.
By 1921, it was deemed seaworthy enough to be towed from Boston to Annapolis. Hailed in Newport, New York and Philadelphia as it made its way south, it was "sold" to the Naval Academy for $1, but lay largely unused at Annapolis for 20 years.
When Adams became Navy secretary in 1929, he ordered that the America be sent to the Norfolk Navy Yard for inspection and an estimate of repair costs -- which turned out to be a staggering $80,000, an impossible sum during the Depression. Back to Annapolis it was towed, unrepaired, to slowly rot in the Severn.
By 1941, it was in serious danger of keeling over and sinking, so the Navy hauled it out of the water for repairs. It was taken to the Annapolis Dock Yard and placed in a specially built shed. Its wheel, binnacle, skylight, companion hatchway, circular cockpit seat, and other woodwork and metal fixtures were carefully removed.
Then came the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and all thought of fixing the America was forgotten as the dockyard concentrated solely on war work.
On March 29, 1942 -- Palm Sunday -- a huge snowstorm hit Maryland. Under the weight of the heavy snow, the shed in which the America sat collapsed, taking with it what was left of the ship.
A 36-inch model of the America, carved from one of its timbers, was placed on display in the Naval Academy Museum, along with its wheel and binnacle. Other artifacts went to the Mariners Museum, Newport News, Va., and the Mystic, Conn., Seaport Museum. In 1947, the Naval Academy announced that "souvenir pieces from the old schooner" could be obtained simply "by writing to the academy."
It is said that if every piece of wood in Annapolis now claimed to have been part of the America were authentic, there would be enough lumber to build an ocean liner.