Appendices to Making Waves, A History of The Royal Yacht Squadron 1815-2015

Should Sceptre have gone to America?

Should Sceptre Have Gone to America?

“Some standard ought to be established. There is not another sport where such a dismal mis-match would be permitted in a major event.” (Extract from the New York Herald Tribune.)

After some preliminary negotiations between the Royal Yacht Squadron and the New York Yacht Club the deed of gift was, on 17th December, 1956, altered by law to enable yachts as small as 12-metres to take part; and relieve the challenger of the need to sail across.

The way was open for a new challenge which was formally made by the Squadron in April, 1957. The syndicate behind the challenge, of whom the Chairman was Hugh Goodson, was composed to 12 members of the Squadron.

Lt.-Col. A.W. Acland, O.B.E., M.C.
Herman A. Andreae, Esq.
The Viscount Seymour Camrose
Bertram Currie, Esq.
Hugh L. Goodson, Esq.
Group Captain Loel Guinness, O.B.E.
Major H.W. Hall, O.B.E., M.C.
Sir Peter Hoare, Bart.
Major R.N. Macdonald-Buchanan, C.V.O., M.B.E., M.C., D.L.
The Viscount Runciman of Doxford, O.BE., A.F.C.
Charles Wainman, Esq.
Sir John Wardlaw-Milne, K.B.E.

Meanwhile four British designers, David Boyd, James McGruer, Charles Nicholson Junior, and Arthur C. Robb were asked each to submit two designs, one a conventional one and the other an advanced design.

Models of all eight were made and tank testing at the Saunders Roe tank at East Cowes was commenced in April and completed in July, 1957. The results of the tests showed remarkably even performances as between the various models. The syndicate chose the advanced Boyd design.

The keel of Sceptre was laid at the yard of Messrs. Robertsons, Sandbank, in Argyllshire, Scotland; Mr. Boyd being the Managing Director of the yard. In design, as in other matters, such as equipment and sailcloth, the yacht building industry to a considerable extent pooled their resources and knowledge.

The yacht was launched on 2nd April. She was placed in the temporary charge of Commander Sam Brooks of Marabu fame, who was put in command pending the selection of the helmsman and race skipper. She started preliminary sailing almost at once, and thus was a very big jump ahead of the next new yacht the American Columbia, whose launch I attended at City Island, New York, many weeks later.

At this point it is proper and fair to note that the owning syndicate, whose generosity had made this challenge possible, had taken, under the able leadership of Hugh Goodson, each step in a progressive, sound and calculated manner. It was, in fact, particularly generous, as none of these owners was to race on board.

Evaine, the best existing 12-metre was specially and most generously purchased by Owen Aisher, and fitted with a new alloy mast and many new sails, specially as a trial horse to help tune up Sceptre. She was available and training crews even before Sceptre arrived south from Scotland. The Challenger had been completed in very good time. Crew selection (with the valuable help of the Royal Navy) and training was thorough and almost continuous from the time of her commissioning.

As to logistic support, in some of the past British challenges in international sailing events the British representative has had to race with the available crew, sails and equipment strictly in relation to time and funds available. In this case no such restrictions hindered Sceptre. The generous owners loosened their purse strings whenever there was a chance of improving Sceptre’s performance.

We can thus firmly contradict the airy statements which one has heard made to the effect that the affair was taken in hand “inadvisably, lightly or wantonly.”

So, through the late spring and early summer of 1958, Sceptre had in Britain as a sparring partner the old 12-metre Evaine. Evaine had been very thoroughly defeated by Vim during the only season pre-war in which Vim visited Britain. We knew, therefore, that Sceptre had to beat Evaine in an equally convincing manner if we were to have any chance against Vim – let alone a boat chosen as better than Vim.

In the early part of the season in Britain, Evaine proved as good as or better than Sceptre, and depression reigned, as was much (and inaccurately sometimes) publicised in the Press. The Press were not altogether to blame, for in the absence of a Press liaison officer very little genuine information was available and the Press had to exist on rumour and gossip; which they certainly did.

However, in the last three weeks’ racing at Poole, Sceptre, with altered sails and a more worked-up crew, started by small margins to finish regularly ahead. And this in spite of Evaine having been fitted with a new aluminium alloy mast, a thing Vim had had, but Evaine had not, pre-war. I helmed Evaine in a couple of races. Allowing for the fact that I was strange to Evaine and probably not getting quite the best out of her, I formed the opinion that she then was less fast than Sceptre under smooth water conditions.

Sceptre had been taken to Poole for her final races against Evaine in order that the racing might be well offshore, to simulate the conditions off Newport, Rhode Island. Daily Ravahine and another motor yacht laid out special flag buoys, and gave the starts and finishes between the boats.

Unfortunately one of those rare spells of continual fairly fine weather (except for one week-end too tough to race) prevented them from getting very much real windward work in a real big lop. Had we had this (that is to say, something more than what one gets in the semi-sheltered Solent) who knows but that Evaine might have finished ahead and that that might have shown the red light.

After Poole, the final trials of Sceptre in British waters, we felt we had one other weapon in the locker which gave reason for cautious hope – the Herbulot spinnakers. Both Evaine and Sceptre had these in the trials where they functioned well.

So Sceptre was sent to America to challenge in spite of her small superiority over Evaine. I think the decision to send her was correct; partly on the general thesis of “better to have raced and lost than never had raced at all,” and partly because to withdraw at that point might have engendered an even bigger disappointment than being badly beaten at Newport. It would have been extra hard on the four syndicates who had built, or re-built, 12-metres to defend the Cup.

John Illingworth, Where Seconds Count: a textbook of yacht match racing: yacht racing lessons from the defender trials and the America’s Cup races, 1958 (Adlard Coles, Southampton, 1959)

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