Saturday, January 6, 2024

The America's Cup

New York City,

The most entertaining thing for the average person attending an America’s Cup race is perhaps the food and drink. Once in a while, one of the sailboats comes into view on 
the horizon line, only to disappear again. Between these sporadic sightings, the day-trippers bob up and down on the open sea, wondering what’s for lunch. It was different in the nineteenth century when spectators were allowed so close as to possibly interfere with the action. The most controversial America’s Cup took place in 1895 when the sloop Defender, owned by three members of the New York Yacht Club (NYYC), was pitted against Valkyrie III from the Royal Yacht Squadron. Much has been written about this contest that later descended into acrimony. A menu reveals what was served to eat on one of the observation ships, and sheds light on why onlookers are now kept at a distance.

Early menus related to the NYYC are scarce. The one below comes from a dinner party in 1872 hosted by whiskey-manufacturer George W. Kidd for fellow members of the NYYC. The young man in the illustration is inscribed “Com. Bennett,” meaning Commodore James Gordon Bennett, Jr., the 31-year-old yachtsman and owner of the New York Herald, and with the name of his schooner, Dauntless. The notations transform the saccharine illustration into an amusing scene that depicts the playboy publisher showing off his sailboat to two women.1  Six years earlier, Bennett won the first trans-oceanic yacht race, boosting the circulation of his newspaper and leading to his election as the Club’s Commodore, the youngest in its history.

The 1895 America’s Cup was held in Lower New York Bay, off Sandy Hook. The 
best-of-five regatta was the ninth challenge since the British-American rivalry began in 1851. The match captured the public imagination, fueled in part by the vast population of Irish-Americans in New York who wanted the English challenger to be defeated. Gotham’s fifteen or so daily newspapers were as competitive as the sports event they were covering. The New York Herald used homing pigeons to deliver timely dispatches from the competition.2

Defender won the first race on September 7. Three days later, during the pre-start maneuvers of the second race, Valkyrie’s boom struck and severed Defender’s starboard spreader. Although Valkyrie led throughout the day, the officials awarded the race to Defender, ruling it had right of way at the time of collision. The course that day was lined with tugboats, ferry boats and big passenger steamships packed to the rails, such as the Hudson of the Cromwell Line that normally operated between New York and New Orleans. The meal on board the Hudson was catered by Pompeo Maresi.

After losing the second race, Lord Dunraven of the Valkyrie notified the NYYC that he wanted “the ensuing race to be declared void if the vessels were interfered with by steamers.” It was to no avail, even though large steamships were sometimes positioned in the path of the sailboats. The crowded course conditions can be observed in this photograph taken at the end of the second race. Defender can be seen on the left, with Valkyrie far ahead in the middle distance.

Valkyrie withdrew after crossing the starting line in the third race, claiming the officials could not guarantee a course free of observation craft. Defender finished the race and retained the trophy for the NYYC. Afterward, Lord Dunraven alleged cheating by the American crew. While the accusation caused a furor, it did nothing to dimmish the joy of the victorious New York yachtsmen. The colorful brochure below was made for the fireworks show at Bar Harbor during their annual cruise in August of 1897. Defender is one of the yachts named on the front cover; an illustration on the back features the coveted trophy, a silver ewer called the “Auld Mug.” The eleventh fireworks display listed in the program was a blazing depiction of the trophy with the slogan, “1851-1897, and still with us.”3

There had been major advances in communications by the time the next America’s Cup took place in 1899. Instead of using pigeons, the New York Herald employed wireless telegraphy to send reports from the water; and Thomas Edison sent a motion-picture crew out on a boat to film the event. Racing conditions also improved, thanks to the U. S. Navy which deployed patrol boats to manage the marine traffic. In that contest, financier J.  P. Morgan, Jr.’s Columbia from the NYYC won three straight against Shamrock, owned by tea merchant Thomas J. Lipton of the Royal Ulster Yacht Club.

1. The notations were presumably made by a yachtsman who left the menu behind after the dinner. It was saved by Antonio Sivori, proprietor of St. Mark’s restaurant at 27th Street and Broadway.
2. The pigeons, which were released in pairs, returned to their cote on the roof of the New York Herald Building that occupied the trapezoidal block from 35th to 36th Streets between Sixth Avenue and Broadway.
3. The brochure was discovered in a small trove of menus in the papers of Lewis Cass Ledyard, a Wall Street lawyer who served as the Commodore of the New York Yacht Club in 1901-1902.


Jan Whitaker said...

I like the annotated card and the idea of the pigeons carrying the news.

Tak for mad said...

I got a kick out of the pseudo-French for "artichokes" on the 1872 party menu.