Thursday, May 19, 2016

Benjamin Butler and Yacht America, Part Two

After my last posting a reader expressed curiosity about how yacht America succeeded in intimidating rivals gathered for the 1851 racing season in England. Whether or not the intimidation was intentional it did not encourage her owners' goal of winning high-stakes prize money from the aristocrats assembled.

Great Britain pulsed with pride over Prince Albert's concurrent Great Exhibition and its centerpiece, the Crystal Palace. His Majesty invited yachtsmen from all over the world to admire the works of the Industrial Age, and to join in friendly sport off England's southern  coast.
The British cutters and schooners assembled for the international race featured complex rigs, huge loose-footed mainsails and two or more jibs.1
A syndicate of New York Yacht Club members commissioned their entry to the contest. They christened her America to magnify the challenge. After crossing the Atlantic America put into port at Le Havre, France for final refitting before joining the regatta at the Isle of Wight. As she breezed by local yachts word quickly spread across the Channel that the Yankees had arrived in a fast, dangerous-looking craft of radical design.

Her steeply raked masts, simple rigging, and low black silhouette prompted wary observers to the conclusion that yacht America looked piratical.2
New York shipwrights had incorporated hull and sail features that revolutionized yacht design. When America entered English waters and outran the cutter escorting her to the regatta, reticence to race against her increased. The Marquis of Anglesey, one of the greeting committee and a founder, in 1815, of the Royal Yacht Club after his pivotal role as cavalry commander in the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, took one look at the upstart and declared "If she is right, then all of us are wrong." Negotiations among the gentry over several weeks produced only one small purse, the Hundred Guinea Cup which, after her victory, became the America's Cup that continues as the premier international yachting trophy today.

General Butler3
General Benjamin Franklin Butler purchased the yacht in 1873. He relished her colorful Civil War history under sail in both the Union and Confederate navies. When he reviewed her 1851 triumph over England's  best for Harper's Magazine he included this anecdote.4

In the Illustrated London Journal, a few days after, appeared a cartoon which showed the interior of the cabin of a royal yacht, with the Queen at lunch, waiting the return off the Needles of the yachts. Her Majesty says, 'Signal-master, are the yachts in sight?'
    'Yes, may it please your Majesty.'
'Which is first?'
'The America.'
     'Which is second?'
     'Ah, your Majesty, there is no second.'
Though not a yachtsman Benjamin Butler invested lavishly to restore America to her winning ways. In 1875 he retained Donald McKay, the great builder of clipper ships, to supervise alterations making her more competitive among a new generation of yachts. McKay modified her rig, added two cabins, and replaced the tiller with a steering wheel.
Donald McKay's rendition of 18755
In his next decade of ownership General Butler, also Congressional Representative from Gloucester, commissioned three more substantial alterations of the yacht while pursuing quixotic racing titles, but mainly the splendid satisfaction of cruising aboard a beautiful legend.

The Burgess rendition of 18856
The most remarkable overhaul came at the hand of naval architect Edward Burgess. He reset her masts slightly forward of plumb, lengthened the deck to fore and aft, and enlarged the keel so she could carry more sail. Within a couple more years Butler had her repainted white.

America, August 18917
When America rounded Halibut Point out into Massachusetts Bay she sailed as a glamorous projection of her owner as well as a fancy maritime self-portrait of Cape Ann.

1. John Rousmaniere, The Low Black Schooner: Yacht America 1851-1945, 1986. "YACHTING/Scene Off Cowes, Isle of Wight." Colored lithograph, "Fores Marine Sketches Plate 1" published in London 1851. Courtesy of New York Yacht Club.
2. Rousmaniere, ibid. "America Approaching the Castle at Cowes,” A. Fowles, 1852.
3. Photograph courtesy of Paul St. Germain, Cape Ann Granite, 2015.
4. General Benjamin F. Butler, "The Story of the America,"  Harpers Magazine July 1885.
5. Rousmaniere, ibid. Edwin Hale Lincoln photo c. 1884, courtesy of Mystic Seaport Museum.
6. Rousmaniere, ibid. "Schooner yacht America at anchor c. 1886," Mystic Seaport Museum.
7. United States Library of Congress, Detroit Photographic company collection.


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