John Crampton recounts tales of the nautical side of Sir
First the Cup, then Sopwith. In 1851 the
Commodore of the New York Yacht Club (NYYC), John Cox Stevens, wrote to
the Commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron, the Earle of Wilton, saying
they had a mind to send a yacht called 'America' to England for a
little competitive sailing. 'America' was not a NYYC boat but one built
by a syndicate within the Club who were intent on winning everything
The way to do that was to build a fast sailing
boat along the lines of the pilot schooners which sailed out of New
York to meet incoming ships on the basis that the first alongside got
the job of piloting the vessel into New York. This was a remarkably
lucrative trade and the fastest vessels got the job.
Eventually on the morning of July 30th 1851
'America' arrived off Cowes, and not long afterwards Stevens approached
Lord Wilton with an offer to race any vessel he cared to nominate for
the astonishing sum of $50,000. The result was, to say the least,
The Americ's Cup
"Say, Earl. whaddya say to a head-to-head game fer fifty big ones?"
"Ah, hum, we'll see, Mister Er...?" Some say the behaviour of the
British at the time was either cautious or cowardly, but actually the
British simply had no idea what the Americans were talking about.
In the trophy room at the Royal Yacht
Squadron (RYS) was a perfectly hideous cup resembling an ornate water
pitcher. Members of the Squadron gave shudders of revulsion every time
they set their eyes on the silvery excrescence. Here at last was a
chance to get rid of the awful thing.
A race round the Isle of Wight was
arranged for August 22nd 1851. The prize was to be the One Hundred
Guinea Cup (for that was what the ghastly object was called). 'America'
took off like a scalded cat whizzing round the fifty-three mile course
in ten hours and fifty-three minutes beating the first of the fourteen
RYS competitors by eighteen minutes.
Thus the trophy became known as the
'America's Cup' and was taken back to New York where it was stowed away
for twenty years in Commodore Stevens's house, well out of sight of
those of a nervous disposition. Time came for the 'America' syndicate
to make their wills, leaving the vessel to the NYYC.
The Club studied the Deed of Gift and
found that the Cup was up for grabs to any foreign yachtsman
representing a recognised club. The challenger had to sail to the
defender's waters as 'America' had sailed to England in the first place.
The first serious challenger was James
Ashbury representing the Royal Thames Yacht Club who failed to bring
the Cup back to the UK in August 1870, and thus set a trend. Space
prohibits me from detailing the twenty-nine challenges for the Cup at
three or four year intervals that have taken place since those far off
days, except to say that America won the first twenty-four of them.
In 1983 America lost to the Australians
and so great were the celebrations down under that their Prime Minister
went on nation-wide TV to say that "...any boss who sacked an employee
for turning up late for work today is a bum."
And today? Surprise, surprise, the Swiss
have it! In the challenge before last the Kiwis won it. I think, but
don't quote me, the Swiss sent a team out to New Zealand and chartered
a Kiwi boat for the last challenge; got the help of one or two New
Zealanders too. So where will the next, 2007, challenge be held? I
think you can quote me on this; Valencia, two hundred miles down from
Barcelona on Spain's sunny east coast.
Now, Sopwith. Always a keen and good
yachtsman, he won England's 12-metre Championship in 1927,
1928, 1929 and 1930 and was invited to join the RYS (you do not apply
for membership). Early in 1934 he asked Charlie Nicholson of Camper
Nicholson, builders of fine boats at Gosport, to build him a J Class
yacht, the 'Endeavour', and got the RYS to support his challenge for
the 'America's' Cup that year.
The new J Class boats were big,
seriously big. For instance, the top of the mast was one hundred and
sixty feet above the water. One day they had a problem up there and
sent a young member of the crew up in a bosun's chair. When ten feet
from the top the weight of the halyard bearing the weight of the chair
and its occupant weighed more than the chair and its crew member. The
load was therefore taken gently to the top of the mast by the halyard's
weight without any effort required from the deck crew.
So there was the young gent marooned at
the mast head! How to get him down? Fortunately there was an external
signal halyard within reach of the young gentleman who was instructed
to grab it and pull himself down ten feet when the deck crew below
started to take the strain.
On another occasion they got on board
'Endeavour' while it lay to its mooring at the top of Southampton Water
on a day when there was no surface wind. Not a whisper. Even a candle
flame would not have moved had one been lit in the cockpit. And yet the
flag atop the mast was fluttering quite happily in what looked like a
ten knot westerly breeze. Sopwith asked for the mainsail, weighing a
ton, to be raised. They cast off and the big boat sailed happily
southwards down Southampton Water with the top one third of the sail
full and the lower two thirds flapping in what appeared to be a ten
Sometime in the 1980s, could have been
the early 1990s, Jo and I were sailing happily up Southampton Water at
five knots in our 30 ft Westerly 'Renown' auxiliary ketch. Lovely day.
Wind Force 4 from the west. Suddenly there was an awesome noise;
roaring, flapping, swishing sound. Quite frightening for a moment or
two. Nothing ahead nor to port or starboard. I looked over my right
shoulder, and there it was - 'Valsheda'. A J Class yacht from the 1930s
once owned by a gent with three pretty daughters so he joined their
names together; Valery, Sheila and Daphne and made up Valsheda.
Beautiful thing, roaring up to
overtake us at about twenty-five knots. The roaring and the flapping
was the wind in the sails and the rigging, and the swishing was the
movement of the hull through the water. I looked up and the top of its
mast was directly over us when she passed. Breathtaking..!! Some lads
had got hold of her and done a good rebuild. She was on charter for
about eight hundred quid a day - per person..!! Ooooooh , how I longed
to have a go, but t'weren't to be. You had to be very careful when
sailing a thing like that in the crowded waters of the Solent. Some
people do silly things. I once saw a horrible photo of a J Class yacht
sailing OVER a smaller boat which had crossed the big boat's path
without warning. Yes, casualties and fatalities. The little boat went
to the bottom.
'Endeavour' proved to be a great success
with good handling and won several trial races. All preparations had
been made for departure for America when disaster struck; the crew
asked for more money. Sopwith wouldn't agree so the crew walked off!
Sopwith collected a scratch crew of twenty-seven and they departed on
Great beginnings! Sopwith won the first
two races (out of five) and then things went seriously wrong. During
one of the subsequent races Sopwith was being overtaken by the defender
and so quite legitimately tried to 'luff' the American boat. They were
beating to windward and naturally the Americans steered a course upwind
of Sopwith to try to put his sails in their shadow. Sopwith gently
steered his vessel into the American's course to make the defender
point a little higher into wind so hopefully reduce its speed.
There is a golden rule in racing -
Overtaking Boat Keeps Clear. The defender should have altered its
course to keep clear of Sopwith, but it did not. There was the
immediate risk of collision. Sopwith eased back and let the American go
ahead. "I did not go all that way to drown people", he said later. By
not altering course to keep clear of Sopwith the Americans were in
breach of the rules. This gave rise to an English newspaper headline,
"America waives the rules." But Sopwith made an error; he should have
flown his protest flag, but didn't because they were well out of sight
of the Committee Boat and there was little point in flying the flag
unless the Committee Boat could see it.
There's another little wrinkle to the
story; once the overtaking boat's bow is in line with the slower
vessel's mast it can proceed on its course. The exact position of the
overtaking boat's bow in such circumstances is always a matter of
spirited argument at later hearings. It took a while for the NYYC to
agree to hear Sopwith's protest and when it did Sopwith lost his appeal.
Sopwith never liked telling the above
story but when he did he normally followed it by the one about the
occasion when just before the start of another race he had a big
problem with his mainsail; it would not go up. The Committee Boat saw
his difficulty and signalled to both yachts, "Start postponed twenty
minutes." Sopwith signalled back, "Thank you. They would not have done
that on the Solent!" The delay gave Sopwith time to overcome the fault
and arrive on the start line in time. But he lost the last three races
and America's Cup stayed in the NYYC.
Then Sopwith asked Camper Nicholson to
build two more boats. Another faster J Class to be called 'Endeavour 2'
and a motor yacht of magnificent proportions, 'Philante', named after
his wife Phylis and his son Thomas Edward.
An interesting vignette can go in here.
Sopwith asked Frank Murdoch, a member of Hawkers and his long time
sailing friend, to go to Germany and select two suitable diesel engines
from the M.A.N. Company for 'Philante'.
While in Germany Murdoch was shown round
a number of their aircraft factories and aircraft engine plants. He was
very impressed with what he saw and reported it to Sopwith on his
return to the UK.
Sopwith reckoned that there would be a
war with Germany and so arranged for the Hurricane to be put into
quantity production immediately, without waiting for a Government
order. Remember, this was about 1935/36 and the prototype Hurricane
flew in 1935. And so with plenty of Hurricanes on hand five years later
we won the Battle of Britain.
Sopwith returned to America
with 'Endeavour 2' in 1937, but by then the Americans had 'Ranger', the
fastest J Class boat ever. Sopwith was tremendously impressed by it and
by the way its crew sailed it. "Unbeatable", he said, "Absolutely
unbeatable!" The defender won all five races and so again the Cup
stayed in the New York Yacht Club.