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The inglorious demise of the Cup’s namesake yacht

The sad, complicated history of the original gaff schooner America, the famous yacht for which the America’s Cup is named, has long been associated with mystery and shame. How could it have happened that this once swift, black-hulled beauty was left to rot and die in Annapolis almost 70 years ago under the care of the U.S. Naval Academy?

This survey photo shows the schooner America in December 1940 shortly after she was hauled.

Annapolis writer Dave Gendell answered that and other questions during a winter lecture series by the Windjammers of the Chesapeake titled, “The History and Mystery of the Schooner America (with a special focus on her time in Annapolis).”

The 95.6-foot (LOD) vessel with severely raked spars and a clipper bow was designed and built by a wealthy New York Yacht Club syndicate solely to achieve international racing glory across the pond in one race in late August 1851. Yet just days after this new yacht thrashed all comers in a Royal Yacht Squadron race ’round the Isle of Wight off Cowes in England, her rich American owners were grateful to be rid of her when they found a buyer and got a return on their investment.

Ninety summers later, having survived long past her expected life span and her victory in the one and only race for which she was intended, she ended her days as a neglected, forgotten outcast. Even though President Franklin D. Roosevelt was keen on saving her, she languished and deteriorated at the Naval Academy — primarily a teaching institution ill-equipped to save historic wooden sailing vessels from rot and ruin.

Gendell, 45, is a co-founder of SpinSheet, a Chesapeake Bay sailing magazine distributed free and based in Annapolis. A former colleague of mine and a fellow sailor, he has spent more than a decade researching records of the America at the Naval Academy and the National Archives, and interviewing experts, historians and eyewitnesses.

The schooner had a checkered history of ownership after her wealthy benefactors ingloriously sold her off, presumably to avoid the expense of sailing her home with a professional crew. The syndicate sold her to one Baron John de Blaquiere on Sept. 1, 1851. An international playboy, he raced her a few times before selling her in 1856 to Viscount Henry Montagu Upton, who renamed her Camilla but neglected to sail or maintain her.

In 1858, Henry Sotheby Pitcher, a shipbuilder in Northfleet, Kent, rebuilt the schooner and sold her to Henry Edward Decie in 1860. Decie, a Rhett Butler-like character, in turn sold and delivered her to the Confederate States of America, where he personally captained her as a rebel blockade runner during the Civil War. After her wartime adventures, which included a scuttling, she was captured and refloated by the Union and armed with three bronze cannons to participate in the Union blockade of Charleston.

After the war, she became a training ship for the Naval Academy, which was relocated to Newport, R.I., during the conflict. The Navy entered her in the America’s Cup regatta of 1870 in New York Harbor, where she finished fourth but ahead of the British challenger. In 1873 she was sold as surplus for $5,000 to Benjamin Franklin Butler, a former Union major general described by Gendell as a “short, fat, bald man — loud, arrogant, inept, thoroughly disliked and rich.” But he loved the old yacht and commissioned a Donald McKay rebuild in 1875 and a total refit of the rig in 1885 by Edward Burgess to keep her competitive and for cruising in New England, Bermuda and the Caribbean.

The general died in 1893, and the vessel began a downward spiral under new owners. She fell into disuse and further disrepair during the next 28 years. In 1921 she was sold to something called the America Restoration Fund, which donated her to the Naval Academy. When America left New England under tow to her last port in Annapolis in the early 1920s, those entrusted with her care were still treating her poorly.

“She made many goodwill stops during her voyage south, and all along the way she parted with ship’s ‘souvenirs’ on what seemed like a social cruise,” Gendell says. It’s a wonder she had any hardware, fittings or equipment left when she reached Annapolis, where she faced 24 more years of neglect as she rotted away in a small Naval Academy basin, largely unloved and uncared for.

Much of what survived of the original schooner of 1851 had long been compromised during many rebuilds, refittings and structural changes, Gendell says. “So when she was finally towed from her Naval Academy berth in late 1940 and hauled out at the Annapolis Yacht Yard on Spa Creek, she was beyond saving, although some earnest attempts were made at replacing some wood.”

An old wooden boat left in the water and largely ignored for a couple of decades and then put away wet on land “has at some point stopped being a boat and has started to become a problem,” Gendell says. “She becomes something very different than what her designer and builder envisioned.”

But the times, they were a-changing, with the war in Europe escalating and the Navy exploring the concept of converting private yacht yards and boatbuilding operations to military production, Gendell notes.

At the Naval Academy, there was some interest in her welfare from Capt. Howard Benson, a staff officer responsible for the school’s fleet of training craft. He took up the cause in 1938 with Navy officials in Washington and was granted permission to seek bids outside Annapolis for an extensive overhaul. Another Naval Academy officer, one William “Bull” Halsey — who would become the five-star admiral of the Pacific fleet during World War II — also looked into rebuilding estimates in Norfolk, Va. They were rejected.

Meanwhile, the Annapolis yard was well aware of President Roosevelt’s personal interest in saving the yacht. Also, during the summer of 1937, FDR’s son, James, was having his 56-foot schooner, Sewanna, refitted at the expanding yard as the Great Depression began a slow road to recovery.

America was hauled on the yard’s marine railway at high tide in early December 1940, and workers began cutting 400 large oak wedges to block her up, the stern facing out to Spa Creek and the bow snugged up to an old building. A rudimentary shed was rigged, but a heavy, wet snowstorm in March 1942 collapsed it, and the remains of America gave way and commingled with the protective structure.

Eventually, a proper roofed building was erected to enclose what was left of the sad old schooner. That structure was dismantled between late 1945 and early 1946, and without any fanfare, the remaining timbers and splinters entombed there were scooped up by a clamshell crane, loaded into trucks and carted to a landfill.

Today, there are Annapolitans who swear they possess lumber and rotted pieces of the schooner’s original remains. Some built half-models of what they said were pieces from the bones of America’s hull, but Gendell doubts that any of them had “pieces of the True Cross” from 1851 simply because the schooner had been rebuilt so many times over the decades.

The most choice artifacts had been picked over long before America reached Spa Creek, Gendell says. The large gilded eagle that graced her stern from 1851 through 1858 graced the entrance to an Isle of Wight inn until 1912, when it was purchased by the Royal Yacht Squadron, which eventually presented it to the New York Yacht Club. Today, the eagle, the ship’s tiller and the race ensign she flew in 1851 are displayed at the club’s Manhattan headquarters.

Her original rudder is at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, and her distinctive round cockpit and main companionway are at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Va. The Naval Academy has the schooner’s steering wheel — added later in her career — and binnacle. Also, a scale model, with spars and deck fittings made of wood from the original vessel, was commissioned by the Chief of Naval Operations and presented to the Naval Academy in 1948.

In 1947, the Annapolis Yacht Yard facility was sold to John Trumpy & Sons, who built legendary boats for recreational and military use until it closed in 1974. The final resting place for what was left of America is now a parking lot.

April 2014 issue