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AM35: Let’s commit to being the greatest host

Nick Kempe, of the One Bermuda Alliance

I’d like to tell you a fascinating story about the birth of the America’s Cup Race in Britain in 1851. It was a dramatic, David and Goliath contest, pitting upstart American yachtsmen against their tradition-loving British counterparts.

It all began when the New York Yacht Club commissioned the construction of a new, radically designed yacht that could be taken to Britain as part of the Great Exhibition of 1851 at Crystal Palace.

The American exhibits at the Great Exhibition seemed to have been poorly chosen — they were criticised by the English. The London Times commented: “If the Americans do excite a smile, it is by their pretensions.”

When the new yacht, called America, arrived, they criticised that, too, calling it piratical, a violation of the rules of naval architecture.

America attracted a lot of attention in Britain. A story did the rounds that she had a concealed propeller. America’s crew teased those who came to look by confiding in them that: “In the stern sheets, under the gangway, there is a grating which the commodore does not allow any person to open.”

There was no propeller, of course. The reason for America’s advantage over English vessels was the shape of her hull. America was narrow forward, towards the bow. English yachts were beamy forward and narrow towards the stern. America had tall, raked masts. English vessels used shorter, upright masts. America was designed to carry no topsails, making her rig elegantly simple compared with the complex English rigs, which typically included multiple jibs, or headsails.

John Cox Stevens, the Commodore of the New York Yacht Club, and his crew saw in America a way of redeeming the battered reputation of the United States at the Great Exhibition, and thought he could beat the English in a race.

It was quite a gamble on their part. Even the celebrated American journalist, Horace Greeley, urged them not to try to beat the British, whose reputation for skill on the water was unmatched.

Mr Stevens’s opposite number at the Royal Yacht Squadron in Cowes made the New York sailors honorary members of the Squadron for the duration of their visit, but ignored their request to be given a chance to race America against English yachts. The Americans pressed their case, even offering to pay a winning English yacht a substantial purse.

Finally, on Friday, August 22, 1851, America sailed against 14 English cutters and schooners of various sizes: from the 47-tonne cutter Aurora to the 392-tonne Brilliant. America was in the middle at approximately 170 tonnes.

Races in those days began with the participants at anchor. When the start was given, at 10am, America got off to a bad start, being last to leave. You can imagine how the crew felt.

By the first mark, however, America was lying fifth. The next leg was a reach, and America took the lead. Against the wind, she was in her element, and showed the fleet her heels. The course was about 53 miles long.

Queen Victoria watched the end of the race from her new Royal Yacht, the Victoria and Albert II. As America passed, dipping her pennant in salute, Her Majesty asked her signal master who was second. “Ah, your Majesty,” there is no second,” was the reply.

His remark was undoubtedly prompted by America’s wide lead — she won over her nearest rival, Aurora, by eight minutes, according to one source, by 18 according to another, and 22 minutes according to the History Channel.

Whatever the true margin, those four words, “there is no second”, have ever since been taken to signify the uncompromising, all-or-nothing attitude of America’s Cup designers and sailors. The first America’s Cup was a victory for the new world against the old; the upstart Americans against the greatest maritime power in the world. What did it for them then was the time they invested in thinking about the design of their yacht’s hull. That spirit of innovation never seems to have stopped.

It is worth recalling that Bermuda also has a bit of a reputation in yacht design — our Bermuda sloops, which like America were light, stiff and deep-hulled in construction, were about the fastest things afloat in the 17th Century, highly prized by sailors on both sides of the Atlantic. It was, for example, a Bermuda sloop, HMS Pickle, built in Bermuda in 1799 and acquired by the Royal Navy, which took the news of Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar to Britain.

The design of America undoubtedly owed something to the design of Bermuda sloops.

“There is no second.” That should be our watchword for this America’s Cup. We have much to do to succeed, and we are taking on the challenge of hosting an event that has been the preserve of much bigger and better-equipped countries. But I am excited and confident that we are going to do just great. Let’s commit right now to the idea that we will do this so well that the countries of the world will say of us as hosts: “There is no second.”