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America’s Cup History

The America’s Cup is a symbol of yachting supremacy. Winning the America’s Cup is one of the most difficult sporting accomplishments possible, and it took 132 years before the trophy was wrestled from the New York Yacht Club in 1983.

The Cup itself was made in 1848 by Garrards of London who were, at the time, the Royal Jewellers. The Cup was one of several identical cups made at the time. It languished at Garrards, unsold, for several years until it was purchased by the Royal Yacht Squadron as a trophy for a special race held in the year of the Great Exhibition of 1851 held in London. Now, it is a priceless sporting treasure.

A syndicate of 5 members of the New York Yacht Club built and sailed a schooner they called America to Britain where it entered the Royal Yacht Squadron’s race which was open to all nations but in fact was only raced by America and other yachts of the Royal Yacht Squadron. America convincingly won the race and took the Cup home to New York amongst great acclaim.

Several years later, the syndicate gifted the Cup to the New York Yacht Club as a trophy for friendly competition between yacht clubs of foreign countries and the Club then invited the eminent yacht clubs of Europe to compete. In time, the Cup became known as the “America’s Cup”.

The advent of the Crimean War involving several European nations including Britain, and later the American Civil War, was largely responsible for a lack of challengers.

In 1870, after narrowly beating an American yacht in a race across the Atlantic, James Ashbury, the owner of Cambria, challenged for the America’s Cup. The New York Yacht Club forced him to race against its entire fleet which he unsurprisingly lost. Ashbury challenged again in 1871 and was successful in forcing the New York Yacht Club to meet his challenge with one vessel rather than its fleet. However, Ashbury again lost his challenge amongst much controversy and mutual accusations of unsporting behaviour. It would be 14 years before a British challenger would make another attempt.

In the interim, the New York Yacht Club defeated two challenges organised by Alexander Cuthbert, a Canadian boat builder of limited means. Such was the failure of his challenge that the New York Yacht Club amended the Deed of Gift to prevent any further challenges from the Canadian Great Lakes.

British yacht designer J. Beavor-Webb was instrumental in organising two challenges by yachts he designed, Genesta and Galatea in 1885 and 1886, which set a rare high point in America’s Cup sportsmanship when Sir Richard Sutton declined to race Genesta when the Defender Puritan was disabled in 1885. Galatea’s challenge of 1886 is notable as the first time a woman, William Henn’s wife, was on board.

The only challenge to come from Scotland for the America’s Cup in Thistle in 1887 was instrumental in the New York Yacht Club again changing the Deed of Gift after finding itself under time pressure to construct a defender capable of meeting a challenger. Thistle was designed by the legendary Scottish designer, G L Watson but was defeated decisively by the Defender, Volunteer.

Lord Dunraven challenged for the America’s Cup in 1893 and 1895 in Valkyrie II and Valkyrie III and was equally unsuccessful. His last challenge ended in considerable acrimony after he had imputed the Defender had cheated, but which the New York Yacht Club rejected after a major enquiry. Dunraven’s failure to apologise caused him to be expelled as an honorary member of the New York Yacht Club.

The next 5 challenges for the America’s Cup were made by Thomas Lipton through the Royal Ulster Yacht Club in his yachts Shamrock to Shamrock V, all of which were unsuccessful, although he came closest in 1920 in a match that had been delayed by the outbreak of the First World War. When he was 2 races up in a best of 5 race series and needed only one more race to win, he proceeded to lose the next 3 races to Resolute. It was the first time a challenger had won a race since Ashbury’s second challenge of 1871.

Following the death of Lipton, T. O. M. Sopwith challenged in 1934 and 1937 in Endeavour and Endeavour II. The New York Yacht Club narrowly avoided defeat when again the challenger had won the first 2 races in a best of 5 race series and lost the vital third race on the final beat by the superior handling of Rainbow’s skipper, Harold Vanderbilt. The defeat so devastated Sopwith and his crew that they were unable to win any of the remaining 3 races. The third race became controversial after the New York Yacht Club refused to hear a protest because Endeavour had failed to hoist a protest flag at the time of the foul, as required by US rules but not British rules.

Racing for the America’s Cup was interrupted by the outbreak of the second World War and was not resumed until 1958 after the Deed of Gift had been amended by the New York Courts to allow racing in smaller and more economical 12 Metre Class yachts. A British challenge from the Royal Yacht Squadron was easily defeated in 1958, as was the first Australian challenge in 1962. The last British challenge for the America’s Cup was defeated in 1964, although it did participate, unsuccessfully, in later Challenger Selection Series.

In 1967, 1970, 1974, 1977 and 1980, various Australian yacht clubs unsuccessfully challenged for the America’s Cup.

The history making challenge of Alan Bond representing the Royal Perth Yacht Club of Western Australia in Australia II was ultimately the first challenger to win the America’s Cup in 1983 after defeating the Dennis Connor helmed Liberty in a 4-3 final race victory, using an innovative wing keel that was the cause of much controversy and which continues in some quarters to this day.

Royal Perth Yacht Club of Western Australia failed to defend the trophy in 1987 when Dennis Connor in Stars & Stripes representing the San Diego Yacht Club successfully defeated Kookaburra III, an event which saw New Zealand’s first participation in the America’s Cup, losing the Challenger Selection Final to Dennis Connor. Unknown at the time, this was to be the spectacular swan song of the 12 Metre Class in America’s Cup racing.

The 27th Match for the America’s Cup was the America’s Cup’s most controversial following a surprise challenge from a tiny, unknown New Zealand yacht club, Mercury Bay Boating Club, represented by a large boat inspired by the J-Class yacht. The Defender’s defence in a catamaran resulted in Court action over the terms of the Deed of Gift, which was finally resolved in the Defender’s favour in 1990 after hearings in the New York Supreme Court and two New York Appellate Courts. Following the turbulent Big Boat/catamaran mismatch, a new class of yacht was created for use in America’s Cup competition, which became known as the America’s Cup Class. Bill Koch in America3 successfully defeated Il Moro di Venezia in 1992.

San Diego Yacht Club’s tenure as trustee of the America’s Cup was terminated in 1995 by the challenge headed by Peter Blake and skippered by Russell Coutts representing Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron in New Zealand in a decisive 5-0 victory over Dennis Connor helmed Young America.

Russell Coutts and his close team, including Brad Butterworth, Murray Jones, Warwick Fleury, Simon Daubney and Dean Phipps defeated Luna Rossa in New Zealand and successfully defended the America’s Cup for the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron in 2000.

History was again made when Alinghi representing Société Nautique de Genève became the first European challenger to win the America’s Cup on 2 March 2003 by defeating the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron’s representative, New Zealand.

The Cup is now held by Société Nautique de Genève, the fifth holder of the America’s Cup in twenty years, who is represented again by Alinghi to defend the Cup in Valencia, Spain in 2007, against challengers from all over the world, keen to become the sixth holder of the America’s Cup.

Hamish Ross

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