Article

 March 17, 2016   Michael Collins

Ocean Race between the “Henrietta,” “Fleetwing” and “Vesta” – The start.
Drawing courtesy of “Scribner’s Monthly” an illustrated magazine for the people, from May 1872 to Oct. 1872


From the January 2001 issue of 48° North

by Hewitt R. Jackson

The first Trans Atlantic Yacht Race was sailed during the rugged winter months of 1866 from Sandy Hook in New York Harbor across the Atlantic Ocean to Cowes, England. It can well be regarded as the beginning of the sport, that is with some reasonable doubt and reservations.

The Civil War was recently over and America was seeking to pick up the pieces and return to normal. For the general public it was one thing, for the elite of the dawning “gilded age” and the robber barons it was altogether something else. As in later conflagrations, serviceable ocean going yachts had been taken up for naval and related service. Some of the owners had been honored for their social or political status and received commissions that allowed them a not unpleasant way to ride out the hostilities. Sea service had made seasoned and capable seamen out of some of them and the urge for action and adventure remained.

Bennett

James Gordon Bennett, Commodore New York Yacht Club. Drawing courtesy of “Scribner’s Monthly.”

The key person in this emerging drama was James Bennett, Jr., the son of the publisher of the New York Herald. The senior Bennett was an overbearing autocrat that ran his paper with an iron fist and scant attention to business and social niceties. As a result, he was genuinely disliked by much of the general public. Openly hostilities were expressed towards him on the streets of New York and created a situation that led to Junior and his mother moving to Paris for a more pleasant and normal existence. It was there that the boy was apparently involved in a Model Yacht Club and learned to “sail” upon the fountains and ponds of friendly France.

When the young man returned to New York he was an aristocrat by virtue of wealth and position, but far from it by inclination and practice. Escapades and indulgence might have been the expected privilege of the tyrannical scion of the elite, but his exalted regard of his personal rights seemed to limit him to the company of his ilk. In spite of these short-comings, he became an effective and highly successful publisher and the Herald continued the earlier policy of featuring maritime and yacht news. Beyond this the younger Bennett also sponsored explorers, searches and other newsworthy events – profitable for the paper, captivating for the public.

At the New York Yacht Club, Bennett and his cronies fell to boasting about the merits of their yachts and their prowess as seamen. In the natural course of events things waxed hot and heavy and Bennett issued a challenge for others to put their money and yachts where their mouths were and engage in a manly test of men and ships.

Small wagers were countered by bolder ones, and it was not long before the bets far exceeded the value of the vessels involved. It is to be presumed that some of the less well heeled, timid or just plain sensible dropped out early in the game before the stakes reached a staggering $60,000 – a great fortune in those days! The bold and vociferous proceedings lead to the New York Yacht Club to distance itself from the distasteful undertaking, but the Commodore of the Club came around in time and was destined to be the official judge of the contest. His objections to the hot headed affair and the commercial overtones implied could not hold out against the young man with the greatest individual income in America at the time.

The field was soon narrowed to just three schooners and the men who had the means and inclination to stay in the game. The very best of the captains were hired and the crews signed on. The list of particulars follow.

Bennett had his Henrietta, to be captained by Samuel “Bully” Samuels, holder of the Atlantic record in the famed packet Dreadnought, and acquired for the astonishing fee of $7,500. Bennett was the only owner to sail in the race.

Franklin Osgood entered the deep and narrow Fleetwing. Captain Dick Brown, who had skippered the America during her famous race was hired, but quit in a huff for personal reasons. He was hurriedly replaced by the navigator, Albert Thomas.

Pierre Lorillard sent forth his new centerboard schooner, Vesta. Her captain was George Dayton, listed as cautious and experienced, probably a “packet” skipper. The only qualifying thing beyond that that I can find is that he was the proud father of seventeen. The owner’s younger brother, George was along for the ride and to observe Captain Dayton

Each ship signed on a crew of 23 paid career seamen. So far I have not been able to determine if the winning crew was to receive prize money for their efforts, or if there were any “sportsmen” among them. They seem lost to history.

The race got underway in the early afternoon of December 11, 1866 before a strong westerly. A painting of the departure shows a fine day, broken clouds and a building sea with whitecaps, a full sail breeze. Henrietta sailed with a hastily recruited new crew as “Bully” Samuels had lived up to his reputation and the first bunch had gone over the side in active protest. It was to be a winter passage with the unheard of stakes of $60,000 and the prospects of some hard driving and seagoing misery. It could hardly have been considered even slightly sensible by practical and prudent men.

The first week out was marked by a bitter and rising gale with two hundred mile days logged by all vessels. By the 18th, the gale had grown to a full fledged storm that was to try the capabilities of both men and ships. The Henrietta took a beating and the nervous carpenter “went adrift.” It was only the steady calm of Captain Samuels and the owner Bennett that averted panic and possible disaster.

The Fleetwing, under Captain Brown, took the brunt of the storm with tragic results. She suffered a near fatal knockdown and the watch on deck was swept from the scant shelter of the cockpit. Six went overboard and were lost, but two others hung up in the rigging and survived. Superb seamanship and heroic work got the schooner on her feet and under way again.

Captain Drayton apparently did not have unlimited faith in the shallow draft and centerboard of the Vesta, and ran off before it under staysail and reefed foresail. Unknowingly he passed close astern of Henrietta during that foul night.

Before dawn on Christmas morning, after fourteen days out and three thousand miles of sailing, the three schooners were less than seven hours apart as they neared the finish line. As Henrietta picked up an amazed pilot they learned that they were the winner. When they swept by the Needles before a small gale, they covered 3,106 miles in 13 days, 21 hours and five minutes. This winter passage to the eastward was remarkable time for any vessel, let alone a small yacht. The statistics work out to a best day’s run of 280 miles, an average of 223 miles and a speed of 9.2 knots. Well done by any man’s standards.

James Gordon Bennett was honored, received by Queen Victoria and achieved some political success. All of this was fine for one of the emerging American upper class, but one is inclined to wonder if “Bully” Samuels managed to be a guest at the Clubhouse or in any other polite society. There is a slight chance that Henrietta’s crew got a bit of prize money, but their liberty was the likely lot of any deep water foremast hand ashore.

Jan2001CoverTime and published history tend to lend respect and romance to events of all sorts. In the case of this particular ocean race the self laudatory accounts of James Gordon Bennett in his New York Herald and those of his peers at the Yacht Club reflected the indulgent attitudes of the “Gilded Age.” Much of this was reflected in the reaction of the general public on the day as they back in awe and wonder at the antics and actions of their “betters.”–

 

Read about the 2015 New York Yacht Club Trans-Atlantic Race