The Auld Mug - America's Cup history on our New Forest doorstep

The Auld Mug including Alarm from Lymington

Mark and Hugh tell the story of the intense competition for the America’s Cup, which began on our New Forest doorstep

Mark and Hugh signoff 600x400There are those who love to race big sailboats and others who prefer more sedate hobbies; like gardening. Taking a big sailboat to race against others is thought to be a similar experience to standing in a cold shower in your six hundred quid wet weather gear and tearing up twenty-pound notes. If horse racing is the sport of kings then big sailboat racing has to be the sport of Emperors. Read on below!

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And when you've read this article you might like to read also about the spectacular ocean adventures of solo sailor and the oldest person to sail around the world single-handed, non-stop and unassisted: Lymington's very own Jeanne Socrates

The Auld Mug, America’s Cup history on our doorstep.

If you were to ask the average person in the pub if he or she knew anything of international sailboat racing events, the response might be that they knew of the America’s Cup. This is a race that has managed to grab the attention of the public. There are many other exotic sailboat regattas around the globe, particularly in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean but nothing quite grips the public imagination quite like the America’s Cup. This is partly due to good marketing but primarily it is simply down to the intensely competitive nature of the event. Modern teaching methods eschew the principles of competition. School sports days are all about ‘inclusion’ or some such babble. Children are told that it’s not the winning or losing, it’s the taking part. Deep down they know that this is bogus, that there is inequality, that there is competition and that there are those who are gifted. They know who’s the fastest runner because they’ve already found out in the playground. Inclusion ends at the job interview, then the real race starts. The America’s Cup, the race for the Auld Mug, started in our own back yard. Yes, the yacht race with arguably the highest profile in the world first took place here, in a little-known backwater that we fondly refer to as the Solent.

I’ll bet mine’s faster than yours.

Boys never stop bragging; the boats just get bigger. In 1851 a certain Lord Wilton of Grosvenor Square London, who was Commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron, sent a letter to Commodore John Cox Stevens of The New York Yacht Club. The year was that of the Great Exhibition in London which was a showcase for British technology. Back then we were the workshop of the world; things have changed slightly since then. The challenge was a race around the Isle of Wight, something that today’s yachtsmen will be familiar with. Then it was run clockwise, these days its run anti-clockwise. I have simply no idea why. The hugely competitive Americans embarked on a design that was completely different; this was driven by an innate desire to win. It’s about taking a chance on being better and faster and not upon inclusion. The underwater hull shape was influenced by an English designer called John Scott Russell. He produced an innovative design with concave bows which was a complete change from the traditional convex design. In a similar vein the traditional idea of sail-making was torn up and despatched to the bin. The Americans weren’t ones to follow the leader, their intention was to be the leader. Out went the loose footed flax sails and in came machine woven cotton sails which could be trimmed flatter, allowing the yacht to sail much closer to the wind. The cup, which had been made from one hundred and thirty-four ounces of silver, was won by the Americans. The Auld Mug, as it was referred to, was off across the Atlantic where it was to stay for quite some time. One of the competitors was a famous schooner named Alarm. She was built at the Inman yard which is pretty much where the Royal Lymington Yacht Club now stands.

We are not amused.

It is said that Queen Victoria was watching from the Royal Yacht when she saw America take victory. Allegedly, she asked who took second and was told by a flunkey that there was no second. After the inaugural event the United States were somewhat reluctant to let go of the cup. In fact, they were so reluctant that the trophy remained in their hands for the next one hundred and thirty-two years. That’s quite a winning streak.

Innovation, the root of all success.

The science of yacht building never stands still. I remember reading about the wonderful Dame Ellen MacArthur who was commenting on the yacht design of her round the world racing days of 2005. She said that at the time races could be won or lost on the thickness of the rigging material. Chemists had invented a new strand called Dyneema which when compared with steel was stronger and thinner thus offering less wind resistance. This became a race winner and at the time, the only line to rig your boat with. Sailing from the 1850s to today is all about innovation. In the world of top flight yacht racing, if you’re standing still, you’re going backwards because the competition is forging ahead.

Incidentally if you like your sports to be tough, follow the French. No darts, snooker or footie here, try instead the Marathon des Sables, the Paris Dakar Rally or Dame Ellen’s choice, the Vend­ée Globe. There’s no theatrical rolling about trying to attract the attention of the referee, in these events you either get up and get on with the job in hand or there’s a very good chance you’ll die. So impressed were the French by Dame Ellen’s spirit that they gave her a nickname, Mademoiselle Britannia. I have also heard of her referred to as La Petite Anglaise. Whichever you prefer, they simply loved her. This wonderful northern lass has now settled in Cowes where she lives with her husband and runs her charity. She is truly a Great Briton.

Two hulls good, one hull bad.

Apologies to Eric Arthur Blair for the above but the era of the America’s Cup traditional monohull was ended in 1988 when the Americans again embraced new designs. When a boat is pushed over by the wind the sail becomes less effective gradually losing forward drive. Taken to the extreme a boat laid flat by the wind so that the very edge of the cockpit is touching the water will stop completely. I know because I’ve done it. The battle to keep the mast vertical is not a new one. Even in the inaugural America’s Cup race one of the boats had a crew of men below who shifted ballast to the windward side after each tack. Ellen’s boat had a canting keel as did many others of the day.

For the ultimate solution of keeping the mast vertical there can only be the multihull. These boats are potentially dangerous in that they are more stable inverted than they are the right way up. In gusty conditions these craft are regularly flipped over. These days it’s the multihulls that hold all the records and America’s Cup boats are now all of this design. But still the designers were not satisfied and they set about looking for a way to get the hull out of the water in order to reduce drag. Those who remember the old Shearwater hydrofoil fast ferries that operated between Southampton and Cowes in the eighties will be familiar with the idea of a foil. Essentially, it’s an angled blade which when driven through the water at speed imparts thrust. This thrust is capable of lifting the hull or hulls clear of the sticky water dramatically increasing the speed of the vessel. Today’s multihull foiling yachts bear no resemblance to those of the 1850s. Such is progress.

Get your new sails at the sales!

The only reminder, the one single thing that could visibly link a boat from the 1850s to a boat of the 2020s is the sails. Now even these were under threat. Hungry for even more speed, the ever-inventive designers looked at better ways of controlling these often-uncontrollable huge sheets of fabric. (Ever tried to douse a spinnaker in a force five? I have). What did they do? They emulated the aircraft wing. We all know that an aircraft wing produces force in one direction only and that direction is away from the stiff stuff and towards the fluffy stuff. A sail needs to produce force from either side depending on where the wind happens to be. The clever designers managed to produce a wing sail which produces more drive than the traditional type and from whichever side the drive was needed. Once again, the bar was raised. Once again designers had moved up another step onto a higher plane.

Get up close and personal.

The new foil yachts have a very shallow draft which means that these awesome boats can be sailed much closer to the shore than those with keels. They can attain speeds of close to forty-seven knots, that’s fifty-four miles per hour with no hydrocarbons required. The America’s Cup races are now run close enough to the beach that spectators can follow the races with the naked eye and they are thrilling to watch. Those with sharp eyes might even catch a sight of Sir Ben Ainslie, probably Britain’s most successful racing sailor. Perhaps keep an eye out for future events. I watched fast multihulls racing off Gurnard which is just to the west of Cowes. It really was quite a sight.


Durdle Door cartoon

More tales and cartoons for Lymington and the New Forest from Mark and Hugh

If you'd like to read previous articles on diverse subjects written by Mark and illustrated by Hugh's cartoons here they are, click the links embedded in the titles:

Seeds of success
Moonlit meeting with cetaceans 

Trees and what they tell us
Cartography and trig pillars

Pony drifts and pannage in the New Forest
A journey from the New Forest via Lymington
The brilliance - and persistence - of Marconi

Equality in the skies
Bees pollinators par excellence 
Cordless home entertainment

The joy of sheds

When the Isle of Wight was just Wight
Bucklers Hard

Salisbury Cathedral 
Pond Life in our Forests 
Bombs Away 
Baileys Hard 
Rufus Stone and Sir Walter Tyrrell
Graffiti through the ages
Freedom of the roads
Heath fires
Lymington Lido
Watch the birdie
Unstoppable momentum of nature
Socially distanced socialising
Calshot Spit, a curse for mariners...



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