Countess of DufferinFirst Canadian challenger for America's Cup 1876

Countess of Dufferin, was the last of the challenging schooners. Major Charles Gifford, vice commodore of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club of Toronto, who was the head of a syndicate or stock company with John Bell, Murray Geddes and brothers Fred and Allan Lucas, formed to build the Countess of Dufferin.

Capt. Alexander Cuthbert, of Cobourg, Ontario, a member of the syndicate, was designer and builder of the challenger, which was in frame at Cobourg when the challenge was sent. Capt. Cuthbert had turned out several models that showed speed, and the Canadians had faith in his ability to produce a vessel fast enough to compete with some show of success for the America's cup.

Model of the Canadian schooner Countess of DufferinThe challenger left Lake Ontario in June. Her mainsail was made and bent at Kingston, but was found too large for her mainmast, and at Quebec a new spar was stepped. The yacht left Quebec June 28th, proceeding down the St. Lawrence and around the coast of Nova Scotia under her own sail, arriving in New York July 18th. Flattering notices of her speed were telegraphed from points in the provinces in the course of her passage.

While the shortcomings of the vessel might be attributed in some degree to the natural difference between fresh-water and saltwater style of build, there is little doubt the Countess of Dufferin suffered from hasty construction and fitting out and lack of tuning up. A full summer's work off New York would have been little enough to bring out what was in the vessel. Here was a schooner built in a hurry, on limited means, rigged and fitted out in a rush, and brought from fresh water to salt, which was expected by the men of the coast to present as good an appearance as the perfectly finished craft owned by millionaire club men, manned by experienced sailors, and tried, re-modeled, and fixed over until they were absolutely as good as they could be made. These facts do not change the conditions under which Capt. Cuthbert labored, but they are mitigating circumstances which should have lightened somewhat the weight of ridicule under which he labored from his first appearance on this coast with his challenging vessel. He was an earnest man, and attempted flights which he would not have essayed had he soberly counted the cost.

A line on the Countess of Dufferin's speed was obtained before the cup races by her performance in the race started July 27th, 1876, for the Brenton Reef cup, an international challenge trophy presented in 1871 to the New York Yacht Club by Commodore James Gordon Bennett. The course was from Sandy Hook light-vessel to Brenton Reef, off Newport, and back. The America, Idler, Tidal Wave and Wanderer entered, and the Canadian yacht went over the course with them, though not entered for competition for the prize. The wind at the start was fresh south-southwest. In the run to Brenton Reef the Countess of Dufferin beat the America by 8 m. 35 s.

"How she managed to do this," wrote a sarcastic yachting critic of the time, "is a darksome mystery of the deep." She was 30 m. 35 s. behind the Tidal Wave, which was in the lead at the turn. On the start home, a thresh to windward, the Countess "kept sagging side wise," to quote an account of the race, showing herself weak in windward work. She finished several hours after the Idler, the winner.

After this race Major Gifford asked a postponement of the cup races until the 14th and 15th, in order to give him time to get an entire set of new "balloons," and a new foresail. The request could not be granted, as the club cruise began on the 14th.

In preparation for the races the Countess of Dufferin was hauled out at Port Richmond, Staten Island, and men were set to work planning and otherwise smoothing her underbody, after which she was given a coat of pot lead and grease. All her sails, except her jibs, were either made or recut in New York. Several New York yacht sailors were shipped to augment her crew, and Capt. "Joe" Elsworth, of Bayonne, N. J., a skilful and experienced New York Bay skipper, was engaged as pilot.


Madeline versus Countess of Dufferin by Tim ThompsonAmerica's Cup races

August 11th & 12nd, 1876, New York
Best two out of three races. Countess of Dufferin vs. Madeleine

One race should be sailed over the Block Island-Newport course (inside course) and one twenty miles to windward and return (outside course), the course of this race to be determined by lot.

Races: two sailed.
Countess of Dufferin was beaten by Madeleine two wins to nil.

- Friday, August 11th, 1st race, Inside Course, Moderate breeze from southerly: Madeleine beat Countess of Dufferin by 9 minutes 58 sec in corrected time.

- Saturday, August 12th, 2nd race, 40 miles, Outside Course: Madeleine beat Countess of Dufferin by 27 minutes 14 sec in corrected time.


Capt. Cuthbert consoled himself with the thought, which he expressed in words, that he had made as good a showing as Livonia, anyway. He was in a measure right. With Mr. Ashbury's means he might have done better.

Not all Capt.Cuthbert's critics were captious, and at the conclusion of the races it was conceded by many that the speed in the challenger was not wholly brought out by her trials here. "Though not successful as far as the cup was concerned," said a writer in Forest and Stream, "the Canadians may congratulate themselves on having produced a remarkably fast yacht, one which, in her first attempt, has done herself no discredit." The same writer also pointed out that throughout the races, as well as in the preliminary negotiations, the bearing of the challengers was marked by "straightforwardness and courtesy."

Countess of DufferinFinancial difficulties followed the unsuccessful challenger. She was invited to sail in the New York Yacht Club cruise, but did not, being laid up at the Seawanhaka Basin, Staten Island. It developed that there were differences between her owners, while Capt. Cuthbert entertained hopes of further support from Canadian sportsmen if he could secure complete control of the boat. It was his purpose to make various changes in her, among others to rebuild her stern, reducing the overhang, to restep her masts, and then to challenge for a series of cup races with her the following year.

These plans were set awry by the course of events. Various creditors appeared with claims against the vessel. The schooner was sold at auction and then back on Lake Ontario in September where she impresses with its very fast reachings over 14 knots, in certain competitions which it participates.

Later in 1879, it will be sold for $ 5000 and will serve for charter. At the same time, people are invited to go onboard for 25 cents.

In the same year, Captain Pine, who later became the Commodore of Chicago Yacht Club, bought the boat for almost nothing. The boat then takes part in competitions on Lake Michigan before being converted to floating clubhouse.

The schooner was in Chicago for the World Expo in 1893. At the end of that summer, the ship is towed out of the breakwater and sank. Sad end!

Ambition was not stifled in Capt. Cuthbert's breast by his misfortunes of 1876. Five years later he was heard from again, this time as a challenger, with the sloop Atalanta, of his own design and build, sailing under the flag of the Bay of Quinte Yacht Club, of Belleville, Ontario.


Hello … I found your website today regarding the America's Cup. I am the Great Great Great Grandson of Major Charles Gifford, owner of Countess of Dufferin, the first Canadian challenger for the America's Cup. As part of my work on recording our family's genealogy, I have been doing considerable research on the history of the yacht and Major Gifford. Your piece on the yacht is very good. I do have some additional photos of the Countess if you are interested. Very few exist.
Thanks for your efforts to document the history.
Regards …
Walter Gifford (Ottawa)
"Very big emotion for me and encouragement to continue my work" - Yves Gary