Cleopatra's barge

In the beginning, what we now call “yachting,” or sailing for pleasure, was practiced solely by a wealthy elite. Indeed, the first leisure craft were owned by monarchs and were profligate in their construction and appointments. Ptolemy IV of Egypt, we are told, lolled about the Nile aboard an immense 300-foot catamaran whose hull stood 60 feet high and was propelled by thousands of galley slaves. Cleopatra is said to have bewitched Mark Antony aboard a luxurious barge that had silver oars, purple sails, and a gold-encrusted hull.

As Shakespeare described it in Antony and Cleopatra: “The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne/Burned on the water.”

Even centuries later, when the industrious and more egalitarian Dutch took up pleasure sailing in the shallow waters of the Netherlands aboard their sturdy all-purpose jaght schips, the ancestors of what we now properly call “yachts,” they could not resist lavishing their vessels with ornamentation.

Appropriately, the Dutch concept of the jaght was transplanted to English waters (and thence into the English language) by a royal personage. When Charles II, in exile for many years after his father was executed by Parliament, returned to England and ascended to the throne in 1660, he brought with him a 52-foot jaght, which he called Mary, that had been presented to him by the burgomaster of Amsterdam.

Charles loved sailing and the sea, and he loved luxury, and was nothing if not energetic. By the time he died 25 years later he had built another 26 or more lavishly appointed yachts. With help from Samuel Pepys, he also greatly expanded the English navy and merchant marine, though Pepys routinely had to resist requests that Admiralty funds be used to man and furnish the ever-growing fleet of royal pleasure craft.

Charles particularly enjoyed racing his yachts against those of his brother, James, the Duke of York, who shared Charles’ passion for the sea. What is described as the first recorded yacht race in history was conducted in May 1661 between the 49-foot Catherine, owned by Charles, and the 52-foot Anne, owned by James, to settle a wager of 100 pounds, which Charles won. The Dutch, meanwhile, in addition to racing their jaghts informally, especially liked to sail large numbers of them (sometimes as many as 400 at a time) in formation and would often stage elaborate mock battles between opposing flotillas.

The first true American yacht was not built until 1816. What is significant about her for our purposes is that she was conceived and constructed expressly for cruising. Not that she was a humble vessel. Her name, tellingly, was Cleopatra’s Barge, and her owner, George Crowninshield, Jr., the flamboyant eldest son of a wealthy merchant mariner from Salem, Massachusetts, seemed determined that she should live up to it.

George Crowninshield, Jr.
George Crowninshield, Jr.

The design and construction of this vessel were not particularly unusual. A conventional hermaphrodite schooner of the era, carrying square sails on her foremast and a fore-and-aft gaff spanker on her after mast, Cleopatra’s Barge was 83 feet long on deck, just over 100 feet long overall (with bowsprit), and 23 feet wide. She drew 12 feet of water, displaced 192 tons, and–superficially at least–looked like many trading vessels that might be found in Salem Harbor at the time. Her shape was also ordinary, with bluff, very full bow sections tapering to a narrow underwater run aft. This classic “cod’s head and mackerel’s tail” configuration represented the early 19th century’s most current thinking in naval architecture. The theory, unsupported by any scientific evidence, was that a vessel’s underbody must operate most efficiently when shaped like a fish.

Cleopatra's Barge

What was unusual about Cleopatra’s Barge was the garish and extravagant manner in which she was decorated and furnished. Down below she was the acme of sumptuousness. Her cabins featured exotic inlaid paneling and floors, gilded deck beams, velvet grab-ropes, fireplaces, chandeliers, and sideboards and secret cupboards crammed full of the finest silver, porcelain, and glassware. Her furniture, inspired by Crowninshield’s admiration of the recently deposed French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, was in the Empire style, decorated with imperial eagles. The chairs had lyre-shaped backs and velvet tassels hanging from their seats. Her appearance topsides, meanwhile, was deliberately eccentric. Her starboard side was painted with bright, multicolored stripes, while her port side was painted in an elaborate herringbone pattern. Her deck, sporting 12 cannon that had no ostensible purpose, was laced with more velvet grab-ropes and featured a life-size wooden Indian that was nailed in place and seemed to have silent command of the entire vessel.

Cleopatra's Barge interior
Mock-up of the interior of Cleopatra’s Barge at the Peabody Essex Museum

Crowninshield reportedly paid $50,000 to have this great plaything built, then blew another $50,000 furnishing it, spending in all some $2 million in today’s currency, or nearly ten times what a conventional vessel of similar size cost at the time. When he was done, he embarked on what one Salem newspaper described as a “voyage of amusement and travels.”

Departing Salem in March 1817, Crowninshield struck out across the North Atlantic, stopped in the Azores and Madeira, then carried on to the Mediterranean, where he engaged in a whirlwind tour of the North African, Spanish, French, and Italian coasts. In each port where she appeared, the public was invited aboard to inspect Cleopatra’s Barge, which they did in great numbers. In Barcelona alone, where she stopped for five days, an estimated 20,000 people toured the vessel.

Cleopatra's Barge
Cleopatra’s Barge on her great cruise/Painting by George Ropes (1818)

Crowninshield returned to Salem in October of that year amid swirling rumors that the real purpose of his journey had been to organize a rescue of Napoleon Bonaparte from his lonely exile on the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic. Sadly, Crowninshield died just six weeks after his return. His famous yacht was stripped of her finery and sold, serving for a time as a packet on the U.S. East Coast. Sold again in 1821, she was sent out to Hawaii, where, appropriately, she was purchased in turn by King Kamehameha II, who renamed her Ha’aheo o Hawaii (or Pride of Hawaii) and made her his royal flagship. Unfortunately, she was lost in April 1824–just eight years after she was launched–when her drunken crew ran her aground at Hanalei Bay on the island of Kauai.

Cleopatra’s Barge is often touted as the first pleasure vessel to cross the Atlantic, but this is not strictly true. More than 30 years earlier, in 1784, an Englishman named Shuttleworth crossed the Atlantic in a “ten-gun” yacht called Lively, then cruised the East Coast from Florida into northernmost Canada.

Cleopatra’s Barge was not even, strictly speaking, the first American yacht, as there is strong evidence that some small vessels were sailed purely for pleasure in New York Harbor as early as 1717. But she was the first American vessel opulent enough to be described as a true yacht by the European standards that then prevailed. She may also have been the first vessel built anywhere expressly for an extended pleasure voyage. It therefore does not seem too big a stretch to say that she was the world’s first purpose-built cruising vessel, and that the evolution of cruising boat design can be reasonably measured and recounted from her conception onward.



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