On August 22, 1851, the U. S.-built schooner America defeated 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 in the world. Older than the modern Olympics by 45 years. And it 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. The 100-foot, black-hulled America was low to the water and narrow in the front, 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 8, the America crossed the Atlantic in three weeks.
After being outfitted with new machine made cotton sails and repainted in France, the America sailed to Cowes on the Isle of Wight to challenge the best British sailboats in their own waters. The Americans wanted to have some fun wagering the Brits. 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 out of a jeweler’s catalogue, 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.”
Within 10 days after its victory, the America was sold to an Irish lord for about $25,000, giving its owners a $5,000 profit over what they paid for it.
The winners (a small syndicate of 4) shared the trophy amongst themselves for 6 years. Finally in 1857 the head of the syndicate, who was the first commodore of New York Yacht Club had a “Deed of Gift” written up in the New York courts. The trophy was put into a trust, New York Yacht Club became the trustee. The trophy was to be put up as the prize in a perpetual international challenge competition. The trophy cup was engraved, “The Yacht America”. America’s Cup named for a yacht, not the United States of America.
The first race for 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. 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. Liberty was skippered by Dennis Conner of San Diego. After twice defending the America’s Cup — in 1974 as the tactician and starting helmsman on Courageous and again in 1980 as skipper of Freedom — Conner’s Liberty lost the America’s Cup in 1983 to the wing-keeled Australia II in the decisive seventh race off Newport, R.I. Stars & Stripes tactician Tom Whidden recalled later. “Australia II was a far superior boat. Dennis Conner won three races and led in the last race. He was phenomenal with an inferior weapon.”
When Dennis Conner asked New York Yacht Club to let him skipper their boat in the 1986-87 challenge, his offer was rejected. So, in the fall of 1984, Conner stood before a small crowd on the back lawn of San Diego Yacht Club and announced his plan to challenge for the Cup out of his hometown. Close friend and adviser Malin Burnham would lead the Sail America for International Understanding Foundation to fund and run the challenge.
Conner and Burnham then put together perhaps the most comprehensive effort in America’s Cup history.
Next America’s Cup race was held in Fremantle, Australia 1987. The most ever 12 meter yachts were built, 25 yachts in all. Now the Cup was finally up for grabs. Dennis Conner, who now represented San Diego Yacht Club was determined to win back the Cup. He built 4 boats, named all four boats Stars & Stripes, first time he ever named a boat Stars & Stripes. After practicing in San Diego, Conner took all 4 boats to Hawaii to practice in heavy seas, heavy wind, similar to what he might find in Australia, known as the strong “Fremantle Doctor” winds off the Indian Ocean.
Then he chose 2 Stars & Stripes, a crew of over 100 (only 11 onboard while racing) and headed to Fremantle Australia, where they were not the favorites among the 13 challengers.
The elimination races began. Conner engaged New Zealand and Kiwi skipper Chris Dickson in psychological warfare — challenging the legality of the Kiwi fiberglass hull at every opportunity.
Then it came together for Stars & Stripes, Conner and his crew.
In the semifinals of the Louis Vuitton Cup challenger trials, Stars & Stripes narrowly defeated Blackaller’s USA.
Conner routed New Zealand 4-1 in the best-of-seven challenger finals in a series that included the highlight minutes of the entire campaign.
After stunning the sailing world with a one-sided victory in the series opener, Stars & Stripes jumped out ahead of the Kiwis in the second race. But the issue was still in doubt when the jib on Stars & Stripes blew out on the penultimate weather leg of the second race.
New Zealand was close enough to take the lead and even the series at 1-1. But as Stars & Stripes’ crew feverishly worked to clear the torn jib, get a new sail on deck and rig it, Conner expertly sailed Stars & Stripes with the mainsail alone and crossed in front of the startled Kiwis to protect the lead. On the next tack, the new jib snapped into perfect position. Said Conner: “That was the most dramatic moment. But we had practiced and practiced for situations like that.”
The America’s Cup was no contest. Stars & Stripes won four straight races by the margins of one minute and 41 seconds, 70 seconds, 1:46 and 1:59. Aussie defender Kookaburra III never led.
“It was the boat,” said Conner. “We had good sails and a good boat and we were ready as a crew. It wasn’t a flip of the switch. It was a lot of work, a lot of preparation.
The America’s Cup now came to San Diego.
The 1988 America’s Cup race was the first hostile Deed of Gift challenge. Dennis Conner successfully defended the Cup, representing San Diego Yacht Club. Challenger was Michael Fay of New Zealand, whose unconventional challenge was met with an unconventional response. The yacht he challenged with, KZ-1 was 90’ waterline length, 132’ overall. Beam was 26’ narrowing down to 14’. The boat looked like a small aircraft carrier. Dennis Conner responded with a 60’ catamaran, crew of 9. Conner wins, court battle ensued, court final decision favored Dennis Conner, the America’s Cup stayed at San Diego Yacht Club.
1992 America’s Cup Races – The 12 meter class became history. Next era of America’s Cup yachts was known as the International America’s Cup Class or IACC. The new yachts were no higher than 115’ off the water, draft of 13’, fin keel with heavy bulb of lead up to 20 tons.
28 sail numbers were registered, and 27 yachts built. Number 13 was not issued. Five of these yachts sailed in the Citizen Cup and 8 raced in the Louis Vuitton Cup. The remaining 14 yachts were trial horses or not even used.
Before the actual competition a World Championship was organized and held in 1991 as a fleet race regattas. It gave teams the chance to try out their first designs or to test their boats in regattas. The Italian yacht IL Moro, ITA-15 won.
Elimination races began mid January to April 1992. Stars & Stripes USA-11 sailed in 53 days of racing in the CITIZEN CUP against each of the 4 “America Cubed” yachts of Bill Koch, to clarify who would defend the America’s Cup officially. Dennis Conner lost finally in the semi-finals against USA-23 America3.
In the 1992 finals, the Italian challenger, IL Moro ITA-25 was defeated by America3 USA-23, allowing the cup to remain in San Diego.