Schooner Atlantic Wins 1905 Transatlantic Race in Record 12 Days
The wealthiest owners in the sport of sailing are back in the news again as they and their teams of lawyers haggle over when, where and in what they will race for the America’s Cup. Unfortunately, years of non-stop legal wrangling over the most famous prize in yachting have permanently tarnished the “auld mug.” But it has always been marred in controversy of some kind.
Fortunately, there was another yachting tradition established in the 19th century that offered a real alternative and genuine bragging rights to the winner. It was the trans-Atlantic race for gentleman yachtsmen–the forerunner of all our modern ocean-racing events–from competitive “rallies” across the Atlantic to record -breaking sprints in giant multihulls.
The First Trans-Atlantic Race 1866
Late one evening in the fall of 1866, a group of young New York Yacht Club members were dining together when the subject of a recent editorial came up. The paper had exhorted “our 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 luster on your deeds, and redound to the honor of your country.”
The gentlemen pondered the merits of this challenge, then fell to boasting about the features of their own yachts. Pierre Lorillard had a new centerboard schooner, the 105-foot Vesta and Charles Osgood had his deep and narrow 106-foot Fleetwing. As the evening wore on and the wine flowed, the tone changed. These two young bloods challenged each other to a race across the Atlantic and agreed to a wager of $30,000–the winner to take all. (That was a huge sum of money at the time–but there was however, no stipulation that the owner had to be on board!)
News of the world’s first trans-oceanic yacht race soon reached James Gordon Bennett Jr., the 21-year-old son of the publisher of the influential New York Herald newspaper. He was determined to enter with his 107-foot Henrietta, despite the start date of December 11. What’s more he actually intended to take part in this dangerous winter voyage! He hired Captain Bully Samuels, a notorious driver of clipper ship crews, to get the most out of his boat.
It was indeed a wild race, in which the wind never dropped and the decks were constantly swept by green water. Six men were swept overboard on the Fleetwing and never seen again. On Christmas Day, the Henrietta reached Cowes in 13 days, 21 hours and 45 minutes and took the $90.000 prize. The next year, Gordon Bennett took over the newspaper from his father. He was named the NYYC’s youngest commodore at the age 30 and was its only two-term commodore.
In 1870, there was another match race from New York to Ireland between the Cambria and the Dauntless, then interest waned in favor of less risky short-course events, where the gathered nobility could spend their evenings in onshore in lavish accommodations. By the beginning of the 20th century, sailing had become especially popular with the crowned heads of Europe. (It gave them the opportunity to look manly in a naval uniform without actually getting in the line of fire!)
The Kaiser’s Challenge
The Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany enjoyed a keen rivalry with his uncle, King Edward VII of Britain. His schooner Meteor having been soundly beaten on a number of occasions by Edward’s Britannia, Wilhelm sought to improve his chances by purchasing another successful English yacht, the Rainbow, which he re-named Hamburg. The Kaiser’s crew tried their best, but were unable to live up to expectations of German superiority on the inshore race courses.
In the winter of 1904, the Kaiser devised a way to make sure his name would always be on a magnificent yachting trophy: he offered a cup for the winner of a trans-Atlantic race from New York to the Lizard Point in SW England. To make sure no millionaire was left out of the fun, there would be no handicap and no limitations on size or rig. The Kaiser’s Cup was only raced once in 1905–and the Kaiser didn’t even show up at the finish to greet the winners!
But it created two enduring images that both became yachting legends: the voyage of the American schooner-yacht Atlantic, and its captain Charlie Barr. The Atlantic might have been just another graceful vessel from the “guilded age,” but the cup made this three-masted yacht immortal when it completed the crossing in a remarkable 12 days and 4 hours. An amazing one hundred years would pass before that record would be beaten by a comparable vessel in an organized race, making this “the longest-lasting record in sports!”
The Atlantic’s performance did not depend on any particular advance in hull design or rig, it was principally waterline length (135′) and a superb crew and skipper that made the difference. The record was finally broken in 2008, and now the story has com em full circle with the launching of a replica of this immortal design in Holland in March. (You can find the latest news of the project at http://www.schooner atlantic.com)
Yachting in the “Gilded Age”
The American economy was also busily minting fortunes, and flaunting this new-found wealth was considered very fashionable. Yachting was the social event of choice for the rich and powerful who built magnificent mansions in the yachting center of Newport R.I –and had the nerve to call them “cottages!” The Kaiser’s challenge quickly attracted 11 entries: seven schooners, one yawl, and two square-riggers. Among the American entrants in the Kaiser’s Cup were the meatpacking heir Allison Armour, the banker Edmond Randolph, the steel heir Edward Coleman, and Wilson Marshall, the heir to a New York streetcar fortune.
Their vessels ranged in size from the Fleur de Lys, a mere 108 feet (but still bigger than any of the boats in the 1866 race) to the full-rigged ship Valhalla, at 295 feet overall and 648 tons, owned by the British peer Lord Lindsay, the 26th Earl of Crawford and the son of a man who had made a vast fortune building railroads. His yacht was in truth a sailing ship. It was manned by a crew of 90 and featured several fireplaces, a grand piano, and a formal dining room that seated 30!
The big schooner yachts of the late 19th century could run over 200′ overall and would have dwarfed the mighty J-boats of the 1920s. Indeed, some wealthy owners demanded “yachts” so big that the architects gave them a full square rig to break the sail plan down and ensure the sails could be handed in a storm. With none of the labor-saving gear that enables short-handed sailing today, the owners needed to hire a big crew and a professional skipper to handle the acres of canvas The crews were “professional”– but not in the way we use the word today: they learned their craft as fishermen or commercial sailors.
1903: The Legendary Atlantic is Born
PHOTO The Schooner Atlantic: Specifications
Extreme length: 227 feet
Length over deck: 185 feet
Waterline length: 135 feet
Beam: 29 feet
Draft: 161/2 feet
Displacement: 298 tons
Sail area to windward: 18,500 feet2
Wilson Marshall was the heir to his father’s Broadway Stage Line, unimaginably wealthy, and a stickler for comfort. Grieved by the death of his wife in 1897, he commissioned Gardner & Cox, two of America’s foremost naval architects, to design a great schooner. (One of Gardner’s staff made a lasting contribution to small-boat racing by drawing the Star class open cockpit boat that became the Olympic keelboat still widely raced to day.)
According to one writer, “the Atlantic was to be Marshall’s sanctuary where all his troubles could not catch up to him.” (Personally, I imagine it was more about finding ways to spend vast sums of money on his new project that succeeded in cheering him up!) Just like modern super-yacht owners, Marshall prided himself as much on his yacht’s comforts and fine finish as its speed–and of course, he wanted his new boat to be the fastest and the most comfortable.
For speed, Gardner gave it 22,000 square feet of canvas set on steel tube masts that towered some 144′ above the waterline. (For comparison, the fore and aft masts each carried as much sail as a J-Class.) For comfort it had every imaginable luxury including an electrical generating plant, refrigeration and hot running water. It boasted marble floors and a grand saloon with three Tiffany skylights. The 400 HP steam engine weighed 30 tons including boiler, and could drive the ship at 17 knots. Two steam-powered generators ran the electric lights, heating, refrigerators and a large galley. On deck, the halyard and sheet winches were steam-driven too.
All this gear resulted in a displacement of over 300 tons–pretty much off the chart compared to modern yachts. The gleaming black riveted-steel hull measured 185′ on deck with a bowsprit 29′ long. The beam was 29′ and draft 18′. It was launched by the builders Townsend & Downey of Shooter Island, New York and the thirty-nine crew and officers moved into the fo’c’sle, where they would live year-round. When the Atlantic hit twenty knots during sea trials, it was clear to all that she was an exceptionally fast schooner.
During its first season, skippered by Lem Miller, the new schooner did indeed prove fast, winning both the longer races, the Brenton Reef and the Cape May Cup, hands down. During the races, a strict class system was enforced on the yacht, as it would be on a clipper ship: the owner and his friends were passengers who would not have dreamed of joining the crew to work the towering rig. Their biggest involvement with the race was probably the wagers they made with the other parties.
But just like today, the owners hired the best racing captains they could find and rewarded them well for winning. Marshall wanted a “big name” skipper for the Kaiser’s Cup and hired Miller’s friend and mentor Charlie Barr, who had successfully defended the America’s Cup three times against Sir Thomas Lipton’s Shamrocks. Much preparatory work was done, including the removal of the centerboard and lots of spare gear.
Setting the 100-Year Record
The race began on May 18, 1905, so that the Kaiser could present the cup to the winner at the Kiel Week regatta in mid-June. The only rules were that propellers had to be removed and that no motive power could be used to hoist sails. The Hamburg was the favorite and Wilhelm was clearly hoping to win his own cup! It was the greatest fleet for an ocean race ever seen, but the weather was not promising. On May 16, fog prevented the race from starting.
By the afternoon of May 17, conditions had improved and the fleet was towed to the starting line. The yachts received a rousing send-off and disappeared into the vastness of the Atlantic. Soon the lighter boats were racing fast in the stiffening breeze. The square riggers paid off to the south while the smaller more weatherly boats like the Fleur de Lys rushed close-hauled to Newfoundland. The logs revealed a tre nd of increasing wind speeds and shortening sail over the next few days as the yawl Ailsa, Atlantic and Hamburg established a lead.
Then a gale struck the fleet, ripping sails and breaking spars, putting most of the contestants out of contention. However, they all recovered well and only one of them failed to cross the line close to the 1866 record time of 14 days. The Hamburg led for several days while the Valhalla did well on a southerly route. According to the legend, Marshall’s guests were finding the motion hard to endure, so he was moved by fear of catastrophe to venture on deck at the height of the storm to ask Barr to shorten sail.
The fearless Scotsman would have nothing of it. “You hired me, sir, to win this race, and, by God, that’s what I am going to do,” shouted Barr. Then he ordered Marshall below decks while he got on with the task at hand. The log does not reveal when the owner and his gentlemen friends were finally able to stroll around the aft deck, perhaps it was when they reached the Bishop Rock, the first outpost of Europe.
It wasn’t until the Atlantic was sighted off the Scilly Islands after 11 days at sea that anyone suspected it could be in the lead. The New York Times made sure it had a reporter waiting on a boat at the Lizard, close to the Imperial German cruiser Pfiel, which was the outward end of the line. He watched as the Atlantic finished 22 hours ahead of Hamburg. The story he wired back began with a grand introduction.
“The Kaiser’s Cup offered for an international yacht race from Sandy Hook to the Lizard, has become an American institution to rank hereafter in the history book beside the famous trophy won in British waters by the yacht America 54 years ago, by virtue of the magnificent run made by Wilson Marshall’s schooner Atlantic. She passed the mark boat at 9.18 o’clock this evening with every stitch of her canvas set, running superbly before a light SW wind with the Stars and Stripes standing out, bold and beautiful from her peak.”
With the legacy of Gordon Bennet in mind, the New York Herald’s reporter described the scene more artistically: “About half-past six o’clock the war ship moved in and took up her position about two miles south of the Lizard Light, giving plenty of room between herself and the Atlantic to pass. The latter came on, boomed out with squaresail on her starboard side, every scrap of sail set, and drifted over the face of the sun, and the wind freshened up a bit. As the Atlantic drew nearer we could make out a big American ensign flying from her peak. With all her sail set, William Marshall’s beautiful auxiliary three- masted schooner crossed the outside line between the Lizard and the German dispatch vessel.”
“At the next moment every steam vessel within a radius of five miles, tugs, yachts, and launches began a strident concert with whistles. Captain Barr was seen leaning over the port rail of the yacht smoking a cigar. Asked what he thought of the Atlantic the captain said: “It amounts to this: I have got the best yacht afloat, next we had good leading breezes, then the crew worked nobly and you couldn’t find a better set of fellows.” Barr had driven his ship at an amazing average speed of 10.31 knots. In one 24-hour run Atlantic clocked a record 341 nautical miles. Winning the cup made him a fortune and he moved on to successfully skipper the Herreshoff schooner Westward in 1910.
A Gentleman’s Diary of the Kaiser’s Cup on the Schooner Atlantic
Frederick Hoyt was one of Wilson Marshall’s elite circle of friends who was invited to join the afterguard for the Kaiser’s Cup on Atlantic. These gentlemen took no part in the sailing of the vessel–they were truly “along for the ride with all the style that Victorian “sportsmen” were accustomed to–including of course a full night’s rest! Fortunately for us, Hoyt was a keen observer and decided to keep a diary of the voyage. This has become a valuable account of the record-breaking crossing and the conditions on board.
Day two, Mr. Hoyt wrote: “A westerly breeze and bright warm weather greeted us when we came on deck this morning. It was the first day warm enough to get a morning bucket over one and as fresh baths are forbidden, the water supply being limited, it helped out wonderfully. At 0930 a small hole developed in the spinnaker and to save it from growing, the sail was taken in. As it continued to breeze on, it was decided not to risk carrying that sail and the square sail was set in its place with the weather raffee above the yard. The same weather continued with a fresh westerly breeze–the ship going between nine and ten miles–the sea making up all the time but the rolling of the yacht being very easy and not in the least uncomfortable. Toward evening the breeze came more westerly and to save it from banging to pieces, the mainsail was taken it. A beautiful night followed with just enough breeze to keep the sails quiet. The moon added to the beauty.’
Day three, Hoyt wrote: “At 5 p.m. another steamer was made out ahead, which later proved to be the Minnetonka. She also acknowledged our number and in answer to our inquiry said she had seen no ice, but had thick fog, giving the latitude and longitude where it was encountered. Towards sunset the southwest began to look black and as the wind was all letting go we were afraid that there would be some disagreeable weather before long. We were not disappointed for at 9 o’clock as pretty a little squall as one often sees came whirling out of the south and backed to west. It blew hard enough to take in both spanker and mainsail but the worst was over in half an hour and by 11 the sails were again hoisted and the ship on her course. Just at the end of the squall a large White Star Line steamer passed close ahead. We exchanged signals and she gave us three blasts of the whistle.”
Day four, Hoyt wrote: “The breeze kept dropping during the afternoon and by sundown we were not doing more than three or four knots. A heavy southwesterly swell on the quarter did not help matters either for it rolled us about so that with the light breeze all the booms had to be gotten onboard to save the sails and gear. The squaresail and raffee were the only sails which did any work. ‘Much to the disgust of everyone, the breeze continued to drop and all the evening the ship hardly had steerage way. It was a beautiful night for lovers and steamers but as a racing proposition it might have been improved upon.”
Day six, Hoyt wrote: “The balloon main topmast staysail and balloon jib were also set and finally the spinnaker, and with all the light canvas drawing, the ship began to walk off at a nine-knot clip. Afternoon sights put us to the east of our dead reckoning, but that was probably owing to the patent log not registering at the very slow speed we were going previous to the time the southerly breeze stuck in. (Between eight in the morning and noon we had covered just four miles.) The southerly breeze continued to increase until we were forced to take in the balloon sails and set the working ones in their places. Also the temperature of the water began to go down steadily and quickly and at nine in the evening had reached 35 degrees, showing that we were in the immediate vicinity of ice and presently the lookout saw a good-sized berg about a mile to leeward of us.”
Day seven, Hoyt wrote: “Of all days, today is the day which will ever be fixed in our minds with the greatest pride and joy, for the good yacht Atlantic broke the record held by the old Dauntless since 1887 for the greatest day’s run on the passage from New York to England, travelling during the 23h 31m 30s from the noon of the 23rd May to the noon of the 24th, 341 miles or 14.20 miles per hour, the record so long helmed being 328 miles.”
Day eight of the race, Hoyt wrote: “As soon as it was light enough to see, the mainsail with a single reef was hoisted, which did a lot to stop the rolling, and by daylight in the morning we were running before a strong southwest wind under fore and mainsails, squaresail, raffee and two topsails, the mizzen staysail being put on just after noon. It was a dark, cloudy, disagreeable day with rain most of the time, and there was no chance of getting sights, so we had to depend upon our dead reckoning. This branch of navigating a ship is often done in a very slipshod manner, the chances being taken that there will be sights, but Captain Barr is most thorough and our courses, speed, deviation and variation are entered in the log every hour, and when we picked her off at noon today she was just on the circle and we had made the course determined upon at noon yesterday.’
Day eleven Hoyt wrote: “We had a fine night and with a strong breeze and moderate sea we averaged over 14 knots an hour. On coming on deck this morning, a bright sun and long southwesterly swell and a strong breeze made a charming day. They put both staysails on her but with the wind increasing, they were up only for an hour, but we are going along in great shape and at noon today were only 213 miles from the Lizard, the finish of our race.”
Day twelve, Hoyt wrote: “Our long race is nearly over. At 8.15 this morning we made the light on Bishops Rock about a point on the lee bow – an excellent land fall and at 9.37 GMT it bore north true giving a passage of 11 days, 16 hours and 22 minutes. We now have but 49 miles more to go, but the wind is light and almost aft. Still under balloon staysails and spinnaker we are slipping along fairly well and hope to get the Lizard Light bearing N before 5.15, for that will make the passage under 12 days and we shall beat Endymion’s record by almost two days.”
1917: Atlantic Joins the Navy
The Kaiser’s nautical interest would unfortunately turn from yachts to battleships. In 1917, Wilson Marshall sold his yacht to the US Navy for the war effort. It was converted into a mother ship for U.S. subchasers along the eastern seaboard. Amongst the peacetime owners appear the names of railway and coal magnate Cornelius vanderbilt (1924-1928) and Gerald Lambert, the inventor of Listerine (1929-1942). Lambert entered the yacht for the next trans-Atlantic race from New York to Spain in 1928. It finished second to the Elena in the light reaching breezes that prevailed.
Subsequently the Atlantic served as a mother ship for famous racing yachts like Vanity and the J-Class Yankee during regattas in England. On the return trip the crew survived two hurricanes that forced them to heave-to for nine days. The schooner finally reached New York Harbor after 35 days at sea with her 20,000 square feet of sails mostly in ribbons.
In World War II, the most famous yacht afloat was once again painted navy gray and used as a training ship for Coast Guard cadets at New London, Conn. Atlantic would never sail again, but refused to go down without a fight. It was saved from the scrap yard on three different occasions, becoming a roadside tearoom on the New Jersey Intracoastal Waterway, a floating dock at a fuel station, and a houseboat. On one occasion, it broke loose from the mooring, drifting back to sea with no one aboard. Finally its luck ran out and on 30th of January 1982, it was broken up at Newport Harbour, Virginia. (Apparently, not a single piece of the hull was preserved.)
Charlie Barr–the Greatest Skipper of the Golden Age of Yachting
His rivals called him “Wee Charlie” because he stood only 5′ 3″, but Charlie Barr stood head and shoulders above every other racing skipper at the end of the 19th century. His remarkable life began humbly in Gourock, Scotland. He was born into a poor family with a seafaring tradition but his father was determined his sons should follow sensible land-based occupations. His elder brother John Barr was allowed to go to sea and quickly found a place as a yacht crewman, but young Charlie was apprenticed to the grocery trade.
He refused to accept his fate and left his employer to try his luck at sea. He spent a cold hard winter trawling for flounder under sail on the Clyde estuary, then took the first opportunity that arrived to join a yacht. He helped deliver the 20-ton Clara to the U.S. and sailed her in a number of races. He was impressed by the opportunities in the New World, became an American citizen, and was soon given command of a Boston yacht, the Shona. He learned quickly and was given command of a string of big boats, winning prizes in the Gloriana, Navahoe, Vigilant and Colonia.
When Sir Thomas Lipton challenged for the America’s Cup in 1899, Barr was selected to command the Columbia, and Lipton’s fate as yachting’s greatest runner-up was sealed. He defeated Lipton’s Shamrock in three straight races. The small man from Scotland had reached the pinnacle of yachting. During the ceremonies, he stood alongside the wealthiest, most powerful men in the world. They footed the bills for the campaign, but once he was on the water, Barr was the undisputed master of every situation.
One journalist described him as “dark almost swarthy, with black eyes, fearless, taciturn, studious of the wind and sea, the psychology of his opponents and the smallest detail that meant an inch of advantage in a race.” In the 1901 Cup trials, he sailed Columbia so well that she was given the nod over the new Constitution, on paper a much faster boat. Columbia’s second defense against Shamrock II was the closest match for the cup up to that time. Columbia won the first two races. Shamrock II crossed the line two seconds ahead in the third race but had to allow the defender 43 seconds on handicap and lost.
Yachting historian W.P. Stephens described the series this way: “He knew the rules and his rights under them, and he claimed all that was coming to him – and sometimes a little more. Handling Columbia in her second season as a man would a bicycle, turning her as on a pivot, he took chances with her that would have been dangerous in the extreme for the average good skipper. He knew every one of his opponents as well as he knew his yacht.”
In the 1903 cup series, Barr skippered Reliance against Shamrock III and won in three straight races. Spectators said he handled the 144′ yacht like a small boat. After his third defeat in four years, Lipton declared Barr to be “the greatest helmsman in racing.” His unblemished three series wins and 9-0 race record in the cup is still the standard by which all later skippers are measured. (Russell Coutts record now stands at 14-0 with three series wins.)
In 1904, the Scotsman was given command of the steel Herreshoff schooner Ingomar. He took it to England and Germany, and won 19 of 22 races. That record must have impressed the kaiser, who hoped that a much longer race would give the Europeans a chance to teach the Americans a lesson! AS we say today, he was the “winningest” skipper of his day, and there was competition for his services. But his future employment depended on maintaining his record, so it’s unlikely he would have accepted the command of the Atlantic for purely financial reasons. He wouldn’t have taken the job if he didn’t think he had a good chance of winning.
He insisted that the upper spars–the gaffs and topmast–were replaced and the yacht fitted out with the smaller ocean-going rig of 18,500 square feet. He had a reputation for driving himself as hard as he did the yachts that came under his command. Often, “he frightened his crews almost out of their heads by the spread of canvas he ordered on, and then restored then to confidence by his own fearless manner.”
After the Kaiser’s Cup, he was hired by Alexander Cochran to run his new schooner Westward, designed by Nat Herreshoff the “Wizard of Bristol,” and launched on March 31, 1910 as hull number 692 at the Herreshoff Manufacturing Co. in Bristol, Rhode Island, USA. He delivered her across the Atlantic for a busy season in Cowes, England and Kiel, Germany and won 11 races from 11 starts, defeating the best European designs like the Germania, Hamburg and Meteor. The New York Times called this “the most wonderful record ever achieved by a yacht.”
Sadly, it was part of his obituary, for he died suddenly in Southampton on January 24 at the age of 56. He appeared to be in perfect health, but collapsed and died in his wife’s arms while having breakfast with his family on the Westward. The cause of death was stated as a heart attack. His wealthy patrons all paid tribute to this Scottish sailor who had won their admiration and respect. “He was the greatest skipper who ever lived,” vowed the secretary of the NYYC. “No man stood higher in the profession.”