The first transatlantic yacht race

This post originally appeared on Classic Boat

Gordon Bennett’s own yacht Henrietta, winner of the first ever transat

The story of the first ever transatlantic yacht race, in 1867

It was late October 1866 and the streets of New York were littered with leaves which scuttled and swirled around in the autumn air. On Park Avenue the wind fairly howled down its wide walkway and as darkness fell, a passer-by would have perceived three figures dashing across the street and plunging into the Union Club, one of the oldest in the USA. The men were three of the richest and most influential in America: Pierre Lorillard, a tobacco merchant; George Osgood, a successful financier; and John Gordon Bennett Junior, whose father owned the New York Herald, the most successful newspaper in America at that time.

King of high jinx, Gordon BennettKing of high jinx, Gordon Bennett

The trio made a beeline for the roaring fire at the heart of the club and, making themselves comfortable in the wing-backed leather chairs surrounding it, they took to drinking, smoking cigars and bragging. The Union Club may have been utterly hidebound, but there was still room for merrymaking and the trio pickling themselves by the fire were probably the rowdiest of all. Their ringleader was unquestionably Gordon Bennett Jr. Bennett was 25 at the time and just getting in to his stride as a playboy and hellraiser. In later years he was to become famed for his high jinks, which included regularly driving a coach and horses around his New York neighbourhood naked. He was also notorious for perpetrating one of the biggest high society faux pas of all time when, after getting engaged to socialite Caroline May, he turned up at one of his future parents in law’s parties blind drunk and proceeded to urinate into the fire in front of all of the guests – including the in-laws and his fiancée. It was this kind of behaviour that led to the phrase ‘Gordon Bennett!’ being coined around this time.

These exploits were all before him, but the trio of drinkers took their lead from Bennett, and, once suitably squiffy, talk turned to yacht racing and the merits of the various vessels they owned. Lorillard had just purchased a brand new centreboard schooner, Vesta. He argued that this 106ft (32.3m) shallow draft, light displacement boat was far superior to Osgood’s Fleetwing or Bennett’s Henrietta. He stated that these heavier, narrower vessels would be no match for Vesta over a long course. The argument was further inflamed by an article in Bennett’s New York Herald, urging yachtsmen to be a little more adventurous, exhorting America’s “smooth water gentry” to “trip anchors and start out on a cruise on blue water. Get off your soundings, trust your sea legs for a while, reciprocate the visits of your English cousins, visit your own coast, go to South America, try Europe, call on the Sultan; or, if you have got the pluck, circumnavigate the world, then come home and write a book. It will perpetuate your memory, reflect lustre on your deeds, and resound to the honour of your country.”

As the evening wore on, the trio got more and more tiddled and their arguments became increasingly incoherent. It was at this point that a race across the Atlantic was proposed to decide the matter once and for all. The stakes were almost as high as the level of intoxication that fateful night, for the entrance fee was to be $30,000 per yacht, with a ‘winner takes all’ incentive. Thus, the final pot was $60,000, or about $10 million in today’s terms. If that was mad, then the start date of December 11 was borderline crazy. Yet when the respective men awoke with pounding heads the following day, they did not dismiss the scheme as drunken droolings, but headed up to the New York Yacht Club, of which they were all members, and formalised the race. After initially declining the proposal – probably on the grounds that it was barking mad – Commodore William McVickar grudgingly relented and the race was truly on. The three young men set about preparing their yachts for what was to be the first transatlantic yacht race. Thus offshore yacht racing was founded by the whim of three sozzled boors in a gentlemen’s club. The rest is history.

Yachts and Crew

If the premise of the race was borderline mad, the one merit of it was that each contestant owned a fine, seaworthy schooner. With her shallow draft, light displacement and centreboard, Vesta was probably the least suitable vessel to take on the North Atlantic in winter, but she was a new vessel with a massive 24ft (7.3m) beam. It is perhaps notable that her owner, so bold in betting on his vessel, opted to stay at home for the race. He left his yacht in the capable hands of her master, Captain Johnson. Confidence in his vessel was further boosted when she handed her rival, Henrietta, a thrashing during a warm up race between Sandy Hook and Cape May on 6 November.

Fleetwing was a different vessel. Built in 1864 with 106 LOA, she was deeper and narrower than the others and at a registered 212 tonnes, heavier, too. Although Henrietta was 107ft (32.6m), she registered six tonnes less. Again, her owner entrusted her, to Captain Thomas, and preferred to stay at home. 

Bennett’s Henrietta was a handsome 205-tonne schooner which had been built in 1861. At the time of her launch, the civil war was raging and Bennett promptly loaned his fleet little vessel – and himself as her commander – to the US Government to help with the war effort. For most of 1861 she patrolled New York harbour as a customs cutter, before seeing active service in assisting with the capture of Fernandina, Florida. All of this had turned Bennett into a consummate sailor and it was little surprise that the swashbuckling playboy opted to take part himself.

Yet he chose another man to command his yacht in the race, Captain Samuel Samuels, Bennett’s very own ace in the hole.

Samuel Samuels 

Captain ‘Bully’ Samuels was already something of a legend in 1866. He was an old school Clipper captain who had risen to fame as commander of the transatlantic packet Dreadnought. Owned by the ill-starred Red Cross Line, she was widely known by the nickname of ‘The wild boat of the Atlantic’.

She had made a name for herself in the 1850s for her phenomenal speed. With her tall spars, Clipper looks and huge red cross on her fore topsail, this yacht became an iconic symbol to Americans of their supremacy on the transatlantic run. Samuels had commanded her throughout these glory years, terrorising crew with a fist of iron and two levelled pistols when required. He was a captain of the old school, having come up ‘through the hawse hole’ as they put it, meaning that he had worked his way through the ranks from ship’s boy to commander. On the way, he had spent time in jail for desertion in Mobile, Alabama, flirted with a career treading the boards as part of a vaudeville act, and had more adventures in his 41 years than most manage in a lifetime. His most famed exploit was taking on a mutinous crew of ‘Packet Rats’, shipped in Liverpool who had ganged together in order to “clip the wings of the bloody old Dreadnought and send her skipper for a swim” as he picturesquely put it in his memoirs.
In plain terms they planned to murder him. The plan backfired and Samuels cowed the notorious gang with the help of two pistols, his faithful Newfoundland dog, Wallace and a group of German passengers armed with steel bars. He had only departed the Dreadnought after mangling his leg during a violent storm which also disabled the Clipper’s rudder. Unable to turn the Dreadnought to run before the wind to safety in the Azores, Samuels had instead sailed her backwards for 300 miles to Fayal. Here, he was forced to relinquish command due to his severe injuries.

This was the kind of consummate sailor that Bennett chose to command his schooner, and in doing so he ensured that the connection between Clipper ship racing and offshore yacht racing was stronger than anyone generally realises. Samuels, the last man to race a Clipper in earnest across the Atlantic, was the first to pick up the reins of offshore yacht racing. Indeed, the Fleetwing, Vesta and Henrietta were racing the Clipper ships in very real terms, for it was the records of these lordly merchant vessels they were out to smash.

FleetwingFleetwing

Samuels’ Dreadnought had done the passage in 13 days and 21 hours, but the record was held by the Clipper James Baines, which, in 1854 had made the run in 12 days and six hours, logging 22 knots at times. This was the benchmark which the three little schooners were racing against, not to mention that small matter of the $60,000 purse for the winner.

If Lorillard and Osgood were in this race for glory alone, Bennett had another reason to take part and it certainly wasn’t the money. Far more likely was that his father, Gordon Bennett Snr was still the proprietor of the New York Herald and this stern, cigar chomping, bellicose old patriarch viewed his son and the heir to his empire as an utter waste of space. The fact is that the race at last gave Bennett Jr the chance to prove to his father that he amounted to something.

In turn, Bennett Snr saw the possibility of generating yet more publicity for his beloved Herald. On learning of the Atlantic contest he summoned in one of his star reporters, Stephen Fiske, to cover the race, addressing him thus: “This race. Yachts. One of ’em’s me son’s. Cover it. No fooling about. Fall in the sea for all I care but get the news. Properly. Understood?”

Thus the quaking reporter left the office, doubtless with his bosses’ signature phrase “Never let a good story be ruined by over-verification” ringing in his ears. It says much for his fear of Bennett Snr that he willingly risked the North Atlantic in December in order to get the story.

So it was that on a chill December day in 1866, three yachts swung restlessly at their anchor chains in New York Harbour, awaiting the start of the first race across the Atlantic. A more unpromising scene could not be imagined; low clouds hurried before an icy breeze and occasionally the shore was blotted out altogether by snow flurries. Despite the conditions, a huge crowd had gathered to see them off. The race had captured the public imagination and huge wagers had been laid. Fleetwing was the favourite, followed by Vesta and Henrietta, but Samuels, prowling the deck in a huge greatcoat and barking out orders, never doubted his abilities. He knew the character of the foe, that old grey widow-maker the North Atlantic, better than anyone.

Chart of race New York NY Harpers Weekly 1866- 1868 - 0910 copy

The start and Gale

The start from anchor was slow but the three schooners piled on sail and were soon speeding away from the gleaming lights of New York into the gloom and unknown. Conditions were brisk, and soon the heavier displacement of Fleetwing seemed to pay dividends and, heading slightly to the south of the chasing pair, she started to build up a lead. Meanwhile, Henrietta and Vesta ran neck-and-neck for two days straight, reeling off the miles as they went and running 12 and 13 knots at a time. According to Samuels, the passage was largely a fair weather one, with a fine leading breeze meaning that Henrietta did not tack once throughout the entire race. What constituted ‘fair weather’ for Samuels may differ from most, however, for on day eight, the trio of yachts, still close to each other, ran into a SW gale and Henrietta hove to. “This is yachting in earnest!” Samuels bellowed to Bennett above the storm as the little schooner was brought to the wind. She remained hove-to for the next 13 hours. It proved a wise move, for, further south, Fleetwing opted to press on and the results were catastrophic.

In worsening seas, Captain Thomas felt that his ship was running away from him and ordered six men forward to shorten sail. As the men struggled into the screaming uncertainty of the foredeck, lashed with rain and spray that hit them with the force of buckshot, Fleetwing took a tremendous sea aboard which tore her two helmsmen from the wheel and hurled them forward with malignant glee. The schooner was very nearly overwhelmed, scooping tons of icy water down her fo’c’s’le while the crew battled manfully to bring the vessel head to sea, but when everything was finally straightened out, six men were gone. Stunned by the horrific accident, Fleetwing hove to and rode out the remainder of the storm in sombre mood. Meanwhile the lightweight centreboarder Vesta had not been able to heave to safely and had been compelled to run many miles north before the storm. This was to prove crucial as the race entered the home strait. Fleetwing never recovered fully from her misfortune and was always chasing right up to the Needles Channel and while Vesta harried Henrietta right to the finish line, she was ultimately defeated, Henrietta arriving in Cowes at 5.40pm on Christmas Day with an elapsed time of 13 days and 22 hours. Her maximum day’s run was an impressive 288nm and, by following a straighter course than her rivals, she had defeated them. None aboard knew for certain they had won until they arrived off Cowes and heard the cheering of well wishers on the waterfront. Samuels and Bennett had beaten the odds to win the race.

There was further drama to come, however. Vesta had dropped behind Henrietta as the pair passed the Scillies and in the meantime, Fleetwing had gained on her. Vesta was, however, still leading when she picked up a pilot in anticipation of threading the Needles Channel. Unfortunately, by the time she approached the Isle of Wight, it was pitch dark, and her pilot made a dreadful hash of things in poor visibility, mistaking St Catherine’s Point light for the Needles light and forcing the Vesta to double back on herself. During this time, Fleetwing ghosted past her and claimed second place, arriving in Cowes at 2am, eight hours behind Henrietta. Vesta with her infuriated crew was two hours further back.

Gordon Bennett's own yacht Henrietta, winner of the first ever transatGordon Bennett’s own yacht Henrietta, winner of the first ever transat

Record making

Thus ended the first ever transatlantic yacht race. Did the schooners beat the clipper ships? Not quite, and it wouldn’t be until 1905 that Charlie Barr and the Atlantic would better the James Baines’ time. As for Samuels, he returned to New York an exceedingly rich man and continued to dabble in offshore yacht racing, teaming up with Bennett again in the race between his new yacht, Dauntless and Cambria, the challenger for the America’s Cup in 1870.

Surprisingly, they lost this race but by then, the irascible Bennett was already Commodore of New York Yacht Club and he served in this position longer than any other man in the club’s illustrious history. During his tenure, he continued to shape the sport, phasing out the rather staid starts from anchor in favour of the flying starts yachtsmen know and love to this day. He also introduced boat on boat matches to the America’s Cup which superseded the less engaging fleet race of 1870.

The race was also to have a profoundly positive effect on Anglo-American relations which had been badly damaged by British collusion with the Confederates during the civil war – the British supplied the Confederate raider Alabama much to the disgust of the Union. On arrival in Cowes, Bennett and Samuels were invited to Osborne House to meet Queen Victoria. Quite what she made of the three is anyone’s guess, but the meeting signalled a thawing of relations between the two powers.

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Source: This story first appeared on Classic Boat

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