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Yacht that launched the America's Cup

Baltimore Sun

Where did she come from? New York town.

Who was her skipper? Old Dick Brown.

Because of the snow and the chaos it exacted over the past week, you might have missed a short item in Monday's Baltimore Sun sports section reporting that, after a long drought, the America's Cup, the oldest trophy in international sports, will return to the U.S. after it had been in European hands for the past 15 years.

The trophy made its trans-Atlantic return after USA 17, owned by software tycoon Larry Ellison, swept by Switzerland's two-time defender Alinghi in waters off Valencia, Spain, last Sunday in the 33rd America's Cup competition.

Since 1851, wealthy yachtsmen, grandees and other assorted magnificoes have spent fortunes attempting to win or hold onto a Victorian-style, bottomless ewer that cost $510 when it was new.

The cup, often called the "Old Mug," is named for the first vessel to win the seagoing challenge in a race around England's Isle of Wight on Aug. 22, 1851, that saw the American schooner yacht America triumph over 14 of Britain's Royal Yacht Squadron's schooners and cutters.

Oddly enough, the story of the America has a Maryland connection - and not a particularly happy one - and a few old-timers might remember when it lay in the Severn River during the 1920s and 1930s at the Naval Academy.

Commissioned by the New York Yacht Club, the America was built by George Steers, a noted shipwright and designer, and William H. Brown, owner of a New York shipyard.

The America that was commissioned by the New York Yacht Club and budgeted at $20,000 was built in the Williamsburgh yard of Hawthorne & Steers, across the East River from New York City.

The vessel, which was 95 feet long, 23 feet wide amidships, was built of white oak, locust, cedar, chestnut and mahogany; its frame was supported by diagonal iron braces.

The America's keel was 80 feet long and its bottom was sheathed in copper that rose six inches above the water line. It displaced 170 tons and drew 11 feet of water.

"From stem to amidships the curve is scarcely perceptible, her gunwales being nearly straight lines and forming with each other an angle of about 25 degrees," reported The Spirit of the Times in an 1851 article.

The America was delivered to its owners on June 17, 1851, and three days later set sail for Le Havre, France, with a crew of 13.

The America was under the command of Commodore J. B. Stevens, who upon its arrival at Cowes, England, wired the following challenge to the Earl of Wilton:

"The New York Yacht Club, in order to test the different models of schooners of the old and new world, proposes through Commodore Stevens to the Royal Yacht Squadron, to run the yacht America against any number of schooners belonging to any of the yacht racing squadrons of the Kingdom."

Stevens heard nothing for a week and then sweetened his challenge. He would sail the America against "any cutter, schooner or vessel of any other rig of the Royal Yacht Squadron."

Britain finally agreed to the race.

At the helm of the America during the race was a veteran sea dog, Capt. Richard "Old Dick" Brown. The 81-mile race commenced at 9:55 a.m. on Aug. 22, 1851.

Gypsy Queen took the lead at the start, with America far back. Within 15 minutes, only three boats led the New York challenger, and it finally pulled ahead of the Aurora, its only serious competition.

Among the spectators that morning were Queen Victoria and Prince Albert aboard the royal yacht Victoria and Albert.

At 5:40 p.m., the America was rolling across the English Channel at a brisk 13 knots and 7¿ miles ahead of its nearest competitor. When it was beating its way home to the final buoy, it is said that Queen Victoria asked: "Who is first?"

She was quietly told that it was the America.

"Who is second?" she asked.

"There is no second," came the reply.

At 6 p.m., the America was declared the winner, with the Aurora coming in some 24 minutes later.

The race generated such good feeling that Victoria and Albert paid a visit to the America three days after the contest.

Prince Albert became flustered when Brown requested that he wipe his feet before entering the America's cockpit.

"I know who you are," stammered Brown, "but you'll have to wipe your feet."

After the historic race, the America was launched on a nomadic career that would come to an end in the Severn River.

It was purchased by Capt. John Blaquiere, an Indian army officer, who sailed the vessel in the Mediterranean, and after 1853, it went into a period of "obscurity and neglect," John Scott Hughes, yachting editor of The London Times, wrote in a 1958 article.

The America lay in the mud at Cowes until being sold to Lord Henry Montagu Upton, who in turn sold it in 1858 to Henry S. Pitcher, an English shipbuilder.

A year later, the vessel ended up in the hands of Henry Edward Decie, who renamed it Camilla. Taken to the West Indies, it was outfitted as a blockade runner and sold to the Confederate navy at Savannah, Ga., in 1861.

The vessel took on a third name as the Memphis, a dispatch boat. Found by the Union gunboat Ottawa in 1862, the Memphis was scuttled in the St. Johns River near Jacksonville, Fla., where it lay until being raised by Union forces and refitted.

Restored to its original name, the America was part of the Union fleet off Charleston, S.C., and later was sent to Newport, R.I., then the temporary home of the Naval Academy, as a training vessel.

In 1870, when England attempted to regain the cup, the America was one of 23 vessels seeking the prestigious prize; however, it came in fourth behind newer and larger boats.

The America was purchased in 1873 for $5,000 by former Union Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, who had been in charge briefly of the occupation of Baltimore in 1861.

Butler raced the America for two decades, and after his death, his grandson continued its racing career. During the Spanish-American War, he lent it back to the Navy.

In 1917, the Butler family sold the America to Charles H. W. Foster, who in turn sold it to Charles Francis Adams III, one of the country's most notable yachtsman; he became secretary of the Navy in 1929. He turned the America over to the Naval Academy for $1 on Oct. 1, 1921, where it served as a training ship until World War II.

In 1929, Adams sent the vessel to the Navy yard in Norfolk, Va., where the vessel was surveyed. An estimated $80,000 would be needed to repair the aged vessel.

The America was towed back to Annapolis and tied to the sea wall, where it seemed it would spend its final days.

It was later moved to an Annapolis shipyard, where it was hauled out of the water and placed in a shed.

A heavy 22-inch snowstorm that has become known as the Palm Sunday snowstorm of March 29, 1942, spelled doom for the America, as the shed came crashing down and destroyed the vessel.

Beyond hope, the America was broken up, with souvenir pieces of its mainmast and other slivers of its timbers making their way into collections of yacht clubs, maritime museums and yachtsmen.

A 36-inch model of the America, made from the wood of the original, can be seen in the Naval Academy Museum, along with its wheel and binnacle.

In 1967, a Brooklyn, N.Y., brewing company built a replica of the America for $550,000. Robert H. Burgess, a noted maritime historian who had been curator of the Mariners Museum in Newport News, Va., wrote: "Before too long, this modern version of the America will probably furrow the waters of the Chesapeake, which cradled her namesake for so many years."

In 1967, the new America made a call on Annapolis, where it was greeted with much curiosity and interest.

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