In the late 17th Century Bermuda began its road to fame and fortune by collectively solving a complex problem of both mathematics and physics.
By the marriage of two triangles Bermudians created a rig that was considerably more efficient than any other design of sailing rig of the known time period. This would allow our work sloops to sail up and down the Bermuda coastline in half the time.
Simultaneously in 1681 The Somers Isles Company folded its tobacco plantation here and the Crown took over the rule of the island. This freed the colonists to become more adventurous and enterprising in their endeavours, pursuing a mercantile maritime-based economy which included the building of large vessels of superior hull shape using the then plentiful Bermuda cedar.
A wood that one could say was the carbon fibre of the 17th and 18th centuries. Bermudians became highly skilled mariners and ship builders who ventured as far away as India.
You might question what this has to do with the America’s Cup. The Bermuda Rig is still the principle rig used by modern racing yachts including the modern foiling catamarans. Secondly it was the Bermuda sloop that influenced the designs of the East Coast pilot schooners of the United States, which in turn heavily influenced the design of the schooner America, the first vessel to win the “Auld Mug”.
Bermuda had revolutionised the worlds of maritime commerce and eventually modern yacht racing. Now let’s fast forward to the early 20th Century.
Bermuda ship building had ended with the advent of steam driven vessels and the economy had shifted towards tourism. The first sports tourism that took place in the island was in sailing.
The wealthy East Coast yachtsman would ship their racing boats by steamer in the spring to race against the best Bermudians who were mostly members of the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club. This connected Bermuda to the power and wealth of America.
One of the American sailors who frequented the island was a man named Sherman Hoyt. He was to become a key figure in our road to the America’s Cup.
Hoyt was a member of a wealthy New York family with deep roots in yachting, and in the late summer of 1907 he took his racing boat to Jamestown, Virginia to sail in a regatta celebrating the tri-centenary of anglophile settlement in America.
A gold plated silver trophy was donated by King Edward VII as a one-off keeper which Hoyt won after a protest of the first place finisher who’s boat did not measure into the class rule under which the regatta was held.
Now let’s fast forward again to year 1934 and the second time the America’s Cup was being sailed in the “J” Class yachts. The American defender was Rainbow and the challenger was Endeavour owned by Thomas Sopwith, the chief executive of Sopwith Aviation. In a best of five series Endeavour went 2-0 up and the Americans turned to Hoyt to take the helm of Rainbow and save the Cup.
Hoyt was known as the best light air helmsman’s in the world at that time. He had raced Sopwith in the six metre class many times and had never lost to him. Hoyt won three straight races and the Cup stayed in America.
In 1937 Hoyt decided to donate The King Edward VII Trophy to the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club for match racing between the best US sailor and the best Bermudian sailor in the six meter class. This single act of donation was to prove to be a significant factor in how the island punched above its weight in the sailing world, and we will see in part two of this article the trophy becoming a drawing card for some of the greatest skippers in America’s Cup history.
The first winner was none other than the famed Briggs Cunningham an AC skipper of the “J” class era. The trophy was continuously raced for from after the Second World War until the mid-1980s under the original deed of gift, with many Bermudian sailors having their names engraved on the “Gold Mug”.
We will see next week how a change of the Gold Cup deed of gift and a modern format begins yet another twist of fate in Bermuda’s road to the America’s Cup”.
Paul Doughty is the archivist and historian of the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club. Information from Sherman Hoyt’s Memoirs (D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc.) and articles by Dr Edward Harris, executive director of the National Museum of Bermuda, were used in the writing of this article.