Category: 1870 : CHALLENGE N°1

Cambria and Sappho in close quarters off the Isle of WightA long wait

Eighteen years were destined to pass between the winning of the cup by the America and the first challenge for it. The reasons for this lapse of time without a contest for the trophy may be easily discerned. English yachtsmen were digesting the food for thought the America had given them and profiting by the lesson, while during five years of war beginning with 1860, the United States had other things to think about than yachting.

The Great Ocean Yacht Race

The revival of the sport in this country was brilliant, and attracted the attention of the world. As the Yankees were the first to send a yacht across the Atlantic ocean, they were the first also to arrange an ocean race between yachts. Such a race was sailed in the winter of 1866, between the schooners Henrietta, owned by James Gordon Bennett, Commodore of the New York Yacht Club, the Fleetwing, owned by George and Franklin Osgood, and the Vesta, owned by Pierre Lorillard. This race is worthy of mention in connection with the America's cup because of its effect in England. Interest in American yachting, which had been crushed by the war, was revived by the race of these three clipper vessels.

Arrival of the American schooner Sappho in English

G.D. Dunlap - Americas Cup Defenders -- Sappho - 1871 Second Defense Painting Another event, following this race by a year and a half, which was to sustain the revival until something should come of it looking to an international match, was the arrival of the American schooner Sappho in English waters, in the summer of 1868. She had been built on a venture by C. & R. Poillon of Brooklyn. Her lines were very fine, and her dimensions were as follows: Length on deck 133 feet 9 inches; length on load water-line 120 feet, length on keel 108 feet, breadth of -beam 24 feet 9 inches, depth of hold 10 feet, draft 12 feet 6 inches. She was the largest yacht built up to that time in the United States, and great things were expected of her. Her first performance in English waters was not encouraging. In a race round the Isle of Wight, over the same course as that sailed by the America in 1851, she was beaten by four schooners, including Cambria, owned by Mr. James Ashbury.
James AshburyJames Ashbury was the son of a wheelwright, who invented a railway carriage, and thus laid the foundation of a fortune. He was a native of Manchester, but resided in London. Though possessed of great wealth his social standing was not high. His efforts to win the cup were in the nature of a bid for social and popular favor, though Mr. Ashbury was without question an aggressive sportsman. He died in London, Sept. 3d, 1895.

Sappho was in cruising rig, and had on board several tons of stone ballast she had carried across the ocean. She was not, therefore, at her best. Her performance, however, was a blessing in disguise to the sport of international racing, for it gave Mr. Ashbury the idea that he could easily defeat any American yacht, since this was the clipper of them all.

A first proposition of Mr. Ashbury

He therefore addressed a communication to the New York Yacht Club, October 3d, 1868, that was broad enough to show him to be, in his aspirations at least, considerable of a sportsman. While his communication was tentative rather than definite, it had the effect of a specific challenge.

Its conditions were:

  • First. I propose that during or before the season of 1869 the New York Yacht Club select their champion schooner of a tonnage not to exceed ten per cent, of the Thames measurement (l88 tons) of the Cambria.
  • Second. The vessel referred to I would desire to see arrive in England in ample time to take part in the matches of the Royal Yacht Squadron at Cowes, and the Royal Victoria Yacht Club at R3de, for which races she would, doubtless, be permitted to enter. These races take place early in August, six or eight or nine in number, round the island [53 nautical miles], the Victoria and Queen's courses [about sixty], and probably a run to Cherbourg and back. The prizes would be the annual Queen's cup presented to the Royal Yacht Squadron, two cups of one hundred pounds each from the towns of Cowes and Ryde, and several cups of 100 pounds and 50 pounds; and I may add that if the yacht could arrive about a month earlier she would be in time for some of the best ocean races of the Royal Thames Yacht Club. At these races your representative vessel would meet all the best and fastest English and Scotch yachts — among others, schooners — and would have a fair opportunity of testing her qualities during the height of the Isle of Wight yachting season, and with the temptation of many prizes, highly valued and much sought after, but not for their mere intrinsic value.
  • Third. On or about the 1st of September I would race your vessel from the Isle of Wight to New York for a cup or service of silver, value 250 pounds, no time allowance and no restrictions as to canvas or number of hands.
  • Fourth. I would at an early date race the said vessel round Long Island on the Royal Thames Yacht Club measurement and their time allowances; two races out of three over this course to decide as to the championship and the final possession of the America's Queen's cup of 1851. If I lost I would present the New York Yacht Club or the owner of the successful vessel with a cup, value 100 guineas, or I would race any other schooner of about my tonnage over the same course on the said conditions; the competing vessel to have been previously pronounced by the New York Yacht Club as the fastest vessel in America of her size and class, and providing the said vessel had not been built since the date of this communication and w as in all respects a seagoing vessel and not a mere shell or racing machine.

The New York Yacht Club did not accept Mr. Ashbury's invitation to participate in ocean races, but took up with his otter to sail for the America's cup, informing him that it "could only take cognizance of and respond to that portion of said communication having reference to the challenge cup won by the America," and calling his attention to the condition that a challenge for it must come through a regularly organized foreign yacht club.

A second proposition

James Lloyd AshburyMr. Ashbury responded, February 24th, 1869, that he would obtain consent from "one of the several Royal Yacht Clubs" to which he belonged, to sail Cambria as its champion vessel. On July 20th, 1869, he wrote that he hoped to sail under the colors of the Royal Thames Club, to which he would present the cup, if he won it, "to be held as a challenge cup, open to any royal or other first-class recognized yacht club to compete for; providing six months notice is given, and the course not less than 300 miles in the channel or any other ocean." In case all the conditions he named were approved Mr. Ashbury stated he was ready to sail for this country about August 27th.
The New York Yacht Club did not relish Mr. Ashbury's attempt to set aside the deed of gift, and make new conditions under which the cup should be sailed for, should he win it. Neither did it accept the condition that it should defend the cup with one vessel only. There is no record to show that it told Mr. Ashbury this in so many words, or at all, until he had cabled: " Will the Cambria be allowed to sail your champion schooner for the America's cup on basis of my letter of July 20th '? "

To this Mr. Ashbury received a reply not distinguished for its directness, though it conveyed the club's meaning that if Mr. Ashbury wished to sail for the America's cup he would have to sail against a fleet. The America had not sailed against a fleet, but as one of fifteen vessels, each trying for the cup. In this case it would be a fleet against one vessel. There was none of the gospel injunction, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," in this position. Conditions construed as unfair by Commodore Stevens were to be meted out in fact to the first challenger who appeared. Viewed in the light of sporting ethics of to-day, it appears that Mr. Ashbury had the broader view of the subject. The cup had ceased to be a squadron trophy, to go to the individual who won it, when it passed into the hands of the owners of the America. It had been given in trust into the keeping of the New York Yacht Club, to be sailed for as an international challenge cup, in races between clubs representing their respective nations. 

The assumption of Mr. Ashbury that it should be sailed for vessel against vessel, and not by a single vessel against a fleet, was sound and right, as later experience showed; for before the cup was sailed for a second time on this side of the water the New York Yacht Club was forced to recede from the position it took in the following note to Mr. Ashbury, in response to his cable quoted above:
"The necessary preliminaries having been complied with by you upon your arrival here, you have the right, provided no match can be agreed upon, to sail over the annual regatta course of the New York Yacht Club." Mr. Ashbury was assured he would be “heartily welcomed," and that he would find the club prepared to "maintain their claim according to the conditions upon which they accepted the cup." It will appear later that the club could not uphold the view that one of these conditions was that a challenger should sail against a fleet with a single vessel.

Nothing came of Mr. Ashbury's challenge, as he regretted he could not race that season, his reason being that he could not contest for the cup on the basis of his challenge.

It will be observed that in this, the first correspondence looking to a race for the cup as a challenge trophy, both parties fell into error; the New York Yacht Club in its lack of sportsmanlike spirit as shown by its interpretation of the deed of gift, and Mr. Ashbury in attempting to dictate terms. Both sides were feeling their way, according to their lights, and the time was not ripe for the broad and satisfactory contests for the cup that were to come in after years.

The third proposition

Dauntless Leading CambriaMr. Ashbury, with a tenacity worthy of the cause, returned to the business of challenging for the cup in November of 1869. He had arranged an ocean race with Dauntless, James Gordon Bennett owner, to be sailed in September, 1869, but the arrangements fell through, as Dauntless could not be got ready on time. On November 14th, 1869, Mr. Ashbury wrote the New York Yacht Club that in the event of his racing Dauntless across the ocean in March, 1870, he would sail for the cup on May 16th, 1870, over a triangular course "from Staten Island, forty miles out to sea and back." Just how he expected to lay a triangular course from Staten Island out to sea and back he did not explain. His letter also contained these lines, which, in view of his contention that conditions which prevailed in the race of 1851 no longer held good — which diey did not — appears somewhat sophistical:
"The cup having been won at Cowes, under the rules of the R.Y.S., it thereby follows that no centre-board vessel can compete against the Cambria in this particular race."
To this argument the New York Yacht Club replied that it had no power to deviate from the terms of the deed of gift, and called attention to the condition that "in case of disagreement " the match is "to be sailed according to the rules and sailing regulations of the club in possession". The club stated that it could not therefore entertain a proposal to exclude from the race any yacht duly qualified to sail under the rules and regulations of the New York Yacht Club.

Notwithstanding his dissatisfaction with the terms offered, Mr. Ashbury came to this country with his schooner. He had sailed Cambria in three races against Sappho before leaving England, and lost two, defaulting one, because the course to Cherbourg and back did not on the day set afford a race to windward and leeward as agreed. Sappho the year before had been "hipped" (made wider amidships) by Capt. "Bob" Fish of Bayonne, N. J., and was then sailing very fast, entirely outclassing Cambria.

To add to the interest of the arrival of the first challenger in this country, Cambria sailed an ocean race against Dauntless from Daunt's Rock to Sandy Hook, starting July 4th, 1870. Dauntless was a fast keel schooner, 123 feet 10 inches overall, 26 feet 7 inches beam, and 12 feet 6 inches draft. She was manned for the race with Cambria by a crack crew. Her sailing-master was Martin Lyons, a smart Sandy Hook pilot, with whom was associated Capt. Samuel Samuels, a noted blue-water skipper, and “Old Dick" Brown of America fame. Some friends of the owner also sailed on the vessel. Cambria, though the slower sailer, won the race, sailing 2917 miles in 23 days 5 hours and 17 minutes, by the narrow margin of 1 hour and 43 minutes. She came by the northern course. Dauntless came by the middle course, and sailed 2963 miles, or 46 miles more than the Cambria, in 23 days and 7 hours. Her sailing-master, speaking of this race in 1901, said “there was too much amateur talent aboard."