It is documented prominently in The Lawson History of the America’s Cup that: “Continuance of racing for the America’s Cup has been due primarily to the fact that Englishmen find in defeat only a spur to further efforts, without applying always those lessons drawn from experience which might shorten the way to victory.
However, no sooner had the Genesta and Galatea been dispatched by the Boston flyers, than a challenge from the Royal Clyde Yacht Club was issued. The Scottish Challenge was put together by a syndicate of backers after George L. Watson, widely regarded as one of the finest designers of the day, had spent the autumn of 1886 ‘taking notes’ on the best of the American fleet. Circumstances colluded in the decision to challenge as, in 1887, the English tax on tonnage measured by beam was scrapped and thus allowed the British to build ever wider boats.
The result of Watson’s observations was the Thistle, a wide beamed vessel with a cutter’s depth and a clipper bow that was built at Partick on the Clyde by Messrs. D&W Henderson and launched in April 1887. Interestingly, at launch, Thistle was shrouded from view such was the interest in her lines and although subterfuge had been employed already in the America’s Cup particularly around rigging and sail cloth, it’s the first recorded shrouding of a hull – something that would become very much a feature at the end of the New York Yacht Club’s remarkable hold on the famous trophy, the longest winning sports streak in history. Thistle arrived in New York on August 16th, 1887, having requested a five-race series to be sailed. Three were granted by the holders and a date in September 1887 was agreed but this was set to be an America’s Cup of controversy.
The Americans, now very comfortable as holders of the Cup and sure in their Boston boat-building ability, left it late to start what would eventually turn out as the fastest boat built to date in the American fleet. Having waited for the precise dimensions of Thistle, the Volunteer as it became known, was built in a rush as a step-on from the all-conquering design of Mayflower. It is recorded in The Lawson that: “Compared with Mayflower, Volunteer had more dead-rise and less beam, and owing to the fact that ballast could be stowed two feet lower in her metal hull, she had greater stability because of the lower centre of gravity. In construction, she was very strong though her outside plating, owing to the haste with which she was built, was somewhat rough.”
General Paine again co-ordinated the build of the defender and installed Henry Clayton Haff, known as ‘Hank Haff’, a veteran boatman from Islip, Long Island, as sailing master and in trials she was sensational – faster by a distance than the Mayflower, Puritan, Priscilla and Atlantic. Volunteer won plenty that summer including the Goelet Cup, the Morgan Cup, the Boston Herald Cup and the Provident and Newport Citizens Cup. Meanwhile, Thistle was tuning up under the command of Captain John Barr of Gourock and was handily beating Genesta whilst also scoring significant wins against Irex, a cutter as fast, if not faster than Genesta. In fifteen races in England, she won 11 and there was firm belief that: “the Scotch Challengers had a yacht in Thistle, the likes of which had never been seen before in American waters.”
But things were about to turn dark and the consequences were to be far-reaching. On September 22nd 1887, both Thistle and Volunteer were measured at Eerie Basin and after much deliberation and re-checking, it was found that Thistle exceeded the load water-line length that had been given to the New York Yacht Club and a representation was made to the club’s Cup committee stating: “A great discrepancy was seen to exist between the load water-line length of Thistle as given by Mr Watson, her designer, namely 85 feet, and that of the measurer of the New York Yacht Club, namely 86.46, a difference of 1.46 feet.”
In response, George Watson replied that the discrepancy was merely an ‘overlook’ but this didn’t wash with the NYYC committee and the matter was referred to George L. Shuyler as referee. In a lengthy, yet concise response, it was decided that Mr George Bell, Vice Commodore of the Royal Clyde Yacht Club and managing owner of the boat: “could only rely upon the statement of his designer (when he challenged), he cannot, in this particular case, be held accountable for the remarkably inaccurate information received from him, and I therefore decide that the variation is not sufficient to disqualify him from starting the Thistle in the race agreed upon.”
Thistle and Volunteer met on 27th September 1887 amidst ‘an enormous fleet of steamers, yachts and miscellaneous craft that had come down the Narrows for the start and made manoeuvring hazardous for the racers.’ In a race that averaged just 8 knots of wind, Volunteer was a class apart, winning by some 19 minutes and 23 seconds to much cheer from the quite rowdy and expectant home supporters but it is recorded in The Lawson that “so disturbed were the owners of Thistle with the outcome of the race, that they caused the yacht’s bottom to be swept that night, to determine whether or not any foreign substance was attached to it.” There was none.
The second race of the series was started in a heavy swell and a consistent 12 knots with lashings of rain across the racecourse and on a twenty-mile opening beat to windward, both Thistle and Volunteer were sensationally bow to bow with the Americans pointing slightly higher as both boats carried their working topsails. After an hour and ten minutes on one long tack, Volunteer tacked across the bows of Thistle and from there on built a commanding and demoralising lead in conditions that were considered as ‘cutter weather.’ The tale of the tape records an 11-minute victory for Volunteer and the America’s Cup was secure, once again, in the New York Yacht Club. The Lawson states: “There was not the anticipated skirl of pipes for Thistle at the end of this race, and of the series. Her defeat was so decisive as to leave no comfort for her owners…”
Receptions were however duly held, and toasts were given both to celebrate the victory and to commiserate the Scottish who had acquitted themselves as gentlemen throughout that summer season before Thistle sailed home on October 14th, 1887. However, after the Cup races, a curious challenge emerged and notice served by Royal Clyde Yacht Club member Mr Charles Street, who also happened to be a member of the New York Yacht having joined owing to his residency in New York for business interests. In the challenge sent to the club on September 30th, 1887, Street tendered his resignation from the NYYC as: “the position of a Challenger may be considered antagonistic to the club holding the Cup.”
It is recorded that on receipt of the challenge, the very evening that it was written, the New York Yacht Club made immediate plans to change the Deed of Gift and at a subsequent meeting on October 3rd, 1887, a committee was appointed to prepare a new one. Once again, the Deed was conferred back to George L. Shuyler for consideration but with the explicit intention of tipping the balance of power, by mutual consent, to the most favourable terms between the NYYC’s America’s Cup Committee and Shuyler.
By October 27th 1887, the club committee, in session, was in receipt of an updated Deed of Gift – possibly one of the most controversial in the Cup’s history and a source of enormous angst by yachtsmen going forward. At the same meeting, a decision was taken not to accept Mr Sweet’s resignation and also voted to not accept his challenge either as it was, in their words: “for a boat not yet built, and not in accordance with the new Deed of Gift.” The new document was hurriedly sent to the Royal Clyde Yacht Club who subsequently withdrew the challenge on behalf of Mr Charles Street in a communication signed on November 16th, 1887.
So, what was so contentious in the new Deed of Gift from the previous two? The 1887 version had intended “to preclude any imputation of desire on their (the committee’s) part to amend the deed to secure unfair advantages to their club, yet the language of the resolution by which they were given their authority to act, unfortunately laid the club open to the charge of assuming powers not vested in trustees by common law or custom, in proposing changes in an instrument defining the conditions of their trust.”
The most significant change from the two former deeds was in the arrangement, intent and effect of the mutual agreement clause. In the old deeds, the clause providing for mutual agreement on all terms was the initial basis of a match for the America’s Cup. In the new deed it could not be, for the prime condition as laid down in the document was that first: “the challenging club shall give ten months’ notice in writing and accompanying the ten months’ notice there must be sent the names of the owner, and a certificate of the name, rig and the following dimensions of the challenging vessel namely: length on load water-line, beam at load water-line, and extreme beam; and draught of water, which dimensions shall not be exceeded; and a customs house registry of the vessel must be sent as soon as possible.”
Furthermore, eyeing the possibility that the Cup could be lost and sailed in waters such as the Solent with its sandbanks and tidal races, or the Clyde with its high headlands, additional clauses were inserted “that all races should be over ocean courses free from headlands, practicable in all parts for vessels of twenty-two feet draft.” And further that: “centre-board or sliding keel vessels should always be allowed to race for the Cup without restrictions.”
As to why such a demanding Deed of Gift was insisted upon remains a source of debate but the experience with the rushed build of Volunteer certainly influenced the decision for ten months’ notice. The insistence of centre-boarded vessels was widely flagged as being to ensure that the NYYC could challenge in boats that they deemed superior to keeled yachts and that the English clubs would never field in a Cup competition. The latter however, obliged future holders of the Cup to accept a challenge from the NYYC on terms of its own making and it was noted at the time in an influential English journal that: “no instrument set up in the world of sport has ever received more general condemnation than this Deed of Gift.”
English yachtsmen were apoplectic, arguing that the Americans were: “hedging the Cup about with so many conditions that no man could win it.” Even the well-regarded Forest and Stream Magazine, an American Journal noted for its reticence, at the time wrote a piece about the 1887 Deed of Gift with a title: “An Act to Prevent Yacht Racing.”
The New York Yacht Club however weathered the storms of protest from across the pond and within conceding only minor ground when asked for clarification and an interpretation on the Deed in 1888 by the Royal London Yacht Club and the Yacht Racing Association where the club agreed and stated: “That the terms under which the races between the Genesta and Puritan, Galatea and Mayflower, and Thistle and Volunteer were sailed are considered satisfactory to this club, and a challenge under these terms would be accepted, but with the positive understanding that if the Cup is won by the club challenging, it shall be held under, and subject to the full terms of the new Deed dated October 1887…”
It wasn’t until March 19th, 1889, when the Royal Yacht Squadron entered a challenge on behalf of the Earl of Dunraven that the Deed of Gift was challenged again, and most vociferously, in public.
Note: George L. Shuyler died from heart trouble aboard Commodore Elbridge T. Gerry’s yacht ‘Electra’ in New London Harbour on the night of July 31st, 1890.