Early yacht race

We’ll recall that the advent in the early 19th century of what might be called the first purpose-built cruising boat, Cleopatra’s Barge, was nurtured by the vast personal wealth of one individual, George Crowninshield. And as the 19th century progressed, yachting, not surprisingly, continued to be the domain of the wealthy. The vessels and the egos behind them only grew larger and more extravagant.

Yachting was very much about social status, and this led to the formation of exclusive clubs. The two most prominent were the Royal Yacht Squadron (RYS), formed in England in 1815, and the New York Yacht Club (NYYC), founded in 1844. Neither, however, was the first of its kind in its respective continent. The Water Club, formed in Cork, Ireland, circa 1720, is believed to have been the first yacht club in Europe, while the Boston Boat Club, circa 1830, was the first in North America. The activities of these clubs centered on racing and wagering, and the racing could be quite vicious. Competitors in early RYS events, for example, would effectively wage combat against each other, wielding weapons of various sorts in efforts to cut away their opponents’ rigs. Like their Dutch predecessors, RYS members also staged mock naval reviews in which large groups of yachts sailed in formation.

Cruising, it should be noted, was not unheard of. Members of the RYS often cruised in company across the English Channel on wine-buying expeditions along the French coast. Likewise, the first thing members of the NYYC did upon forming their club was to cruise in company up Long Island Sound to Newport, Rhode Island, staging various “trials of speed” along the way. To this day the NYYC Annual Cruise with its competitive squadron runs is religiously observed.

Over time, yacht racing became more formal and less violent, though the wagering continued unabated. The designing of yachts also became a specialized practice. Originally, as was the case with Cleopatra’s Barge, a gentleman’s “yacht” was essentially a working vessel dressed in finery. Its construction might be specially commissioned and executed, but its design was based on common working craft. Over time, however, yachts became unique vessels in every respect. Eventually it became possible for men to earn a living by specializing in the creation of these pleasure craft.

Cutters Versus Sloops

As the design of yachts evolved, two fundamental paradigms asserted themselves. In Great Britain, where racing handicaps were based on government tonnage rules for taxing commercial vessels that penalized beam, yachts tended to be narrow and deep. These so-called “cutters”–the term in those days referred to a vessel’s hull form rather than its rig–depended for their stability on a great deal of ballast fixed as low in the keel as possible. In the United States, meanwhile, where beam was not penalized and there was a considerable amount of shoal water along the coast, yachts tended to be wide and shallow. Vessels like this, described as “sloops” (again, the reference is to the hull, not the rig) and sometimes as “skimming dishes,” depended on their wide hulls for stability (though some ballast was carried loose in their bilges) and on centerboards to minimize leeway. The centerboard, an American innovation first patented in New Jersey in 1811, was directly descended from the leeboards used by the Dutch aboard their wide, shallow jaghts.

Radical British cutter

A radical example of a British cutter with a deep keel and a very narrow hull

Lines of Gracie

American centerboard sloops like Gracie, shown here, were quite wide and shallow

Inevitably, these divergent design paradigms were forced to converge. The first equalizing event came in 1851, when the famous yacht America, owned by John Cox Stevens, a founding member of the NYYC, crossed the Atlantic and trounced a fleet of British yachts in a race around the Isle of Wight. America‘s hull was not radically shallow, nor did she carry a centerboard, as she had been designed expressly to cross the Atlantic and was based more on New York pilot schooners than on cutting-edge racing yachts. But she was wider than the British yachts she competed against and, more importantly, carried much of her beam aft and had a hollow bow with a fine entry forward. This was the exact opposite of the crude “cod’s head and mackerel’s tail” shape (a wide entry forward with a narrow run aft) that still prevailed in Britain.

As a result of America‘s success, though British yachts did not immediately become significantly wider overall, their proportions started shifting. Bows became more hollow and concave, and the point of maximum beam moved farther aft. This was exactly in keeping with the first scientific theory of naval architecture–called the Wave Line Theory–which had been developed and promulgated by a Scotsman, John Scott Russell, nearly a quarter of a century earlier, but had until then been ignored in Britain.

Yacht America

Besides winning her famous cup for the New York Yacht Club, the yacht America was an early example of a “scientifically” designed sailboat

Lines of America

Lines of America

The next significant equalizing event came in 1876, when the American centerboard schooner Mohawk capsized and sank in a sudden but relatively moderate squall off Staten Island in New York Harbor. The boat’s owner, Will Garner, his wife, and a party of guests were killed in the incident.

Mohawk, an extreme example of the skimming-dish type, was intended by Garner to be the largest, fastest, most opulent yacht in the NYYC fleet. She was 141 feet long, 30 feet wide, and had a draft of just 6 feet that increased to 30 feet when she dropped her massive 7-ton centerboard. She flew an amazing 32,000 square feet of sail area. The fact that she could not stand up to all her sail in spite of her great beam helped fuel arguments that the wide, shallow yachts favored in the United States were fundamentally unsafe. It did not help either, of course, that Mohawk was slower than Garner had hoped and proved a dud on the race course.

Schooner Mohawk

Schooner Mohawk under sail. She proved both slow and unstable

A narrow British cutter named Madge crossed the Atlantic and raced successfully against several U.S. yachts in 1881, and then another large centerboard schooner, Grayling, capsized on her maiden sail in 1883. As a result a vociferous group of “cutter cranks,” who called the skimming dishes “death traps” and favored British designs instead, became prominent in American yachting circles. This led to the development of “compromise” designs pioneered by Edward Burgess of Boston, Massachusetts, an entomologist turned yacht designer who was heavily influenced by British cutters he had observed during a summer spent on the Isle of Wight.

These compromise boats, like the British cutters, had heavy ballast keels, but they were not nearly as narrow or deep relative to their length. Also, like the American boats, they carried centerboards. The litmus test came in 1885, when the Burgess-designed Puritan defeated an American skimming dish, Priscilla, for the right to defend the America’s Cup, then beat a British cutter, Genesta, in the Cup finals.

Lines of Puritan

Lines of Puritan. A successful compromise design that bridged the gap between narrow British cutters and wide American sloops

Racing Rule Development

The final factor that helped to unite the opposing camps of yacht design was the development of empirically based handicap rules for racing. As noted, handicaps originally were based on commercial measurements devised for tax purposes. Over time, however, it became clear that these formulas had little to do with a vessel’s actual performance.

Performance, it was noticed, depended most directly on waterline length–i.e., more waterline equals more speed. In 1883, the first handicap rule based on measurements of waterline length and sail area, the Seawanhaka Rule, developed by New York’s Seawanhaka Corinthian Yacht Club, was adopted in the United States. Soon afterward, in 1888, a similar rule came into use in Great Britain. The result, ultimately, was a universal trend favoring boats with overhanging ends whose waterlines increased as they heeled to the wind.

One of the most important yachts to exploit this little rule-beating trick was Gloriana, a 70-foot sloop designed and built by Nathanael Herreshoff for E.D. Morgan in 1891. Gloriana, thanks at least in part to her overhanging spoon-shaped bow, was undefeated the one season Morgan raced her and instantly secured Herreshoff’s reputation as a yacht designer. Described by some as the first “scientifically contructed” yacht, she was also very stable and could carry a great press of sail, as weight above her waterline was greatly reduced and was instead concentrated as ballast in her keel.

Yacht Gloriana

E.D. Morgan’s Gloriana under sail. She was undefeated the one season he raced her

Lines of Gloriana

Lines of Gloriana

In the decade that followed, the continued development of these features, plus a tendency to cut away as much keel as possible to reduce surface area below the water, produced increasingly radical boats. This evolution culminated in a 1901 Bowdoin Crowninshield design, Independence, that was lightly built with immensely long overhangs, a tiny keel, and a gigantic sailplan. Independence leaked badly, however, and handled, as her skipper put it, like “an ice wagon.” Nat Herreshoff managed to perfect the concept in his equally radical Reliance, which defended the America’s Cup in 1903. Termed a “monster” by many at the time, Reliance measured 144 feet long on deck (and a little over 200 feet overall if you measured from the end of her boom to her bowsprit), and had a waterline length of just 90 feet, with over 16,000 square feet of sail area flying from a single mast that was 200 feet tall.

Lines of Independence

Lines of Independence

Reliance under sail

Reliance running off with maximum sail set

Profligacy in the Gilded Age

In all ways, the general trend in yacht construction in the latter half of the 19th century was increasingly grandiose. This was particularly true in the United States, where the enormous expansion of the national economy in the years following the Civil War—the Gilded Age, as Mark Twain termed it—allowed for the accumulation of private wealth on a scale never before imagined. Picking up where George Crowninshield had left off with Cleopatra’s Barge, the American “robber barons” competed with each other in creating ever more extravagant vessels.

Originally, these 19th century super-yachts could function both as cruising and racing vessels. Will Garner’s Mohawk, for example, though intended to excel on the race course, also featured fabulous creature comforts, including gas lighting, hot and cold freshwater plumbing, and a steam-heat system, not to mention a grand piano and other lavish, heavy furnishings. Even America’s Cup contenders were tricked out in this manner and were often cruised between campaigns. By the end of the century, however, the superwealthy tended not to cruise in the sailing vessels they raced, as these were becoming ever more extreme. Instead, they cruised for pleasure aboard enormous steam yachts that were even larger than their sailboats.

The trend toward profligacy, and toward steam, was reflected in the changing composition of the NYYC’s squadron of members’ vessels. In 1870 the squadron consisted of only 49 vessels, four of which were steam yachts. The largest vessel was a 145-foot schooner displacing 275 tons, owned by William Douglas. Within just 30 years, the squadron mushroomed to 402 vessels, 207 of which were steam yachts. The queen of the fleet was Lysistrata, a 314-foot steamer displacing 2,682 tons that belonged to newspaper magnate James Gordon Bennett.

The nearly tenfold increase in the size of the squadron was not really a function of yachting’s growing popularity as a sport. Instead it reflected yachting’s growing importance as a venue for public displays of status and wealth–a fact, of course, that was also reflected in the growing size of the yachts themselves. Many of the “yachtsmen” who owned these vessels, unlike George Crowninshield, who made his fortune at sea aboard trading vessels, had little interest in nautical matters. Even those who owned and campaigned racing yachts were often happy just to write checks (and make wagers) and never sailed their boats themselves.

As for cruising, the tycoons of the late 19th century did indeed wander far and wide in their floating palaces. One of these was an Englishman, Sir Thomas Brassey, who circled the globe in 1876-77 in his 170-foot steam auxiliary schooner Sunbeam. His wife, Lady Anna Brassey, published an account of the voyage (it was, in fact, the first circumnavigation ever made by a yacht) that became a bestseller both in Britain and the United States.

Yacht Corsair

J.P. Morgan’s Corsair. By the end of the century rich yachtsmen most often cruised in large steam vessels and only raced under sail

The Brasseys were followed by many others, particularly Americans who, like Crowninshield before them, yearned to cruise the Mediterranean, where they could purchase art and perhaps hobnob with European royalty. J.P. Morgan, for example, bought his first yacht—Corsair, a 185-foot steamer—in 1881 and at once took off on an art-buying cruise to Palestine. His third Corsair, built in 1899, which he often cruised to Europe, was 304 feet long. James Gordon Bennett, meanwhile, spent almost 20 years living aboard his steam yachts, meandering ceaselessly back and forth across the North Atlantic. Lysistrata, his last and largest vessel, had more than 100 paid crew, a stable for a milking cow, and three separate owner’s staterooms.

Needless to say, cruising on this scale never trickled down to the lower strata of society. But upper-middle-class and middle-class sailors were finding ways to get afloat, and in the end the cruises they undertook turned out to be much more influential.

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