Did the Americans cheat to win the America's Cup in 1851?

Most people know that the America’s Cup is named for its first winner, the Schooner America, and not for the country from which she came. But not so many know that the Auld Mug could still be named the 100 Guineas Cup – and that would mean that the British would actually have won the thing.

The 101ft America was commissioned specifically to compete against the British for money and the Commodore of the New York Yacht Club, John C. Stevens, travelled to Europe with a bag of gold coins which he intended to wager on the yacht and recover the $45,000 it had cost his syndicate to build her.

However, his plans went awry when America was approaching the Isle of Wight, the headquarters of British yacht racing, and was met as a courtesy by a fast British cutter named Laverock.

It’s often said that when two boats occupy the same piece of water there will be a yacht race. Commodore Stevens couldn’t help himself and ordered ‘Old Dick Brown’ the skipper to show the Brits what American boatbuilding was made of. America thrashed Laverock and Stevens couldn’t get anyone to take his bet when a race was finally organised against local boats.

The Royal Yacht Squadron wouldn’t put up any money but they did offer a silver cup worth 100 Guineas that would be awarded to the winner of a race around the Isle of Wight. This was no match race. The British fronted with 14 boats to take on the ‘colonials’ and keep the cup in England.

When the gun went America was hanging back but she quickly moved through the fleet until there were just four boats in front of her. But she was being jostled by the pack and Brown decided to head for clear air and sailed her inside the Nab light vessel that marked the eastern end of the course, thus giving himself the lead.

Volante and Freak tried using local knowledge to bridge the gap and sailed close to the cliffs – too close in fact and they collided with each other and were out of the race. When one of the other two pursuers, Arrow, went aground and Alarm stood by to give assistance, America had the race to herself and there was no other boat in sight when she crossed the finish line. The race had taken seven-and-a-half hours.

The next day the owner of Brilliant formally protested America for going the wrong side of the mark. However the Commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron, the Earl of Winton, explained that ‘by mistake’ America had been given two sets of sailing instructions and anyway there had been an observer from the Squadron on board. The protest was diplomatically withdrawn and the Cup was awarded to the New York Yacht Club.

The simple fact was that the American boat was a better and faster design and was assisted by a bit of incompetence from the organising committee – two themes that would be repeated pretty much for the next 162 years.

- Roger McMillan

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