Bookmark and Share Email this page Email Print this page Print Feed Feed

Schooner America's varied history

Jan 1, 2003

When New York Yacht Club Commodore John Stevens ordered the building of America, he could hardly have imagined the remarkable legacy his dream racer would have.

In 1851 Stevens asked designer George Steers for a schooner of about 170 tons that could win a 60-mile race )bout the Isle of Wight. Steers designed a very clean two-masted schooner with an LOA of 94 feet, a beam of 22.5 feet, and a draft of 11.5 feet.

The stoical old salts of the Royal Yacht Squadron must have needed extra starch for those famous stiff upper lips as they painfully watched Stevens' "colonial" schooner, the only American entry, glide to a first-place victory ahead of 14 of Britain's finest craft. Even worse, Queen Victoria witnessed the humiliating finish! When the Queen asked who was in second place, a dismayed lordling in her retinue replied, "Your Majesty, there is no second." The cup presented to the victorious American crew became the America's Cup in honor of the little schooner.

America remained in Britain for seven years after the race until she was purchased by Lord Templeton and renamed Camilla. When the American Civil War began, Camilla was back across the Atlantic at the port of Savannah, Ga. Templeton, seeing a chance to make a buck (or, rather, a quid), sold her to the Confederate government, which quickly fitted her out with deck guns in preparation for employing the speedy little racer as a blockade runner. It was during a blockade run for the South that she was pursued by U.S. gunboats up into the St. John's River in Florida, where she became trapped. Her desperate crew, fearing she would be captured and used against the Confederacy, quickly scuttled her.

Enterprising Federal forces, ironically led by another Stevens (Lt. Thomas Stevens), successfully raised Camilla and commissioned her into the United States Navy, where she carried out a number of naval duties and participated in the blockade of Charleston Harbor. But in 1863 she was relieved of war duty, renamed America, and sailed to Newport, R.I., to become a training vessel for the United States Naval Academy.

In 1870, America resigned her teaching position at the Naval Academy to once again cross the Atlantic, as a defender in the first America's Cup race. She finished a very respectable fourth among the 23 defenders and beat the British challenger, Cambria, by 13 minutes.

In 1873 Benjamin Butler bought America to use as his personal yacht, and as late as 1901 America was still racing. But now began a long period of decline. Her keel was scavenged to make bullets for the United States' entry into World War I. Then, in 1921, with her glory days at an end and riddled with rotten timber, America was presented to Marblehead's Eastern Yacht Club, which in turn returned her to the Naval Academy for preservation.

America ended her career in a circumstance as strange as her eclectic life. In 1942 she was crushed beyond repair when the snow-covered roof of the shed in which she was being stored collapsed, and the proud schooner was reduced to little more than firewood, after a life spanning almost 100 years