1903 America's Cup

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The 1903 America's Cup was the 12th America's Cup race to be held, and was won by the American defender, Reliance, who won all three races against the Irish challenger, Shamrock III. It was the fourth Cup win for designer Nathanael Herreshoff and the third for skipper Charlie Barr. The 12th America's Cup was the last to be raced under the controversial Seawanhaka Rule, which was held responsible for what was described at the time as the "freakish" nature of the 1903 Cup challengers.

The Cup was defended by the New York Yacht Club, and all races took place along the New Jersey coast from Sandy Hook. In total 8 races were held between August 20 and September 3, but unfavourable weather conditions prevented 5 of the races being completed within the time allowed. It was the last America's Cup race to be held from the New York Harbor.

Shamrock III was entered by Scottish selfmade millionaire Sir Thomas Lipton, founder of the Lipton tea company.[1] The 12th America's Cup was the third consecutive Cup to be unsuccessfully challenged by Lipton - first in 1899 with Shamrock, and again in 1901 with Shamrock II. The third Shamrock, as well as the first, was designed by William Fife. Lipton made two more unsuccessful challenges on the Cup, in 1920 with Shamrock IV, and again in 1930 with Shamrock V

Reliance was entered by a syndicate of wealthy New York Yacht Club members, headed by C. Oliver Iselin and secured her right to defend the Cup after winning a series of trial races against previous America's Cup winner Columbia and the yacht Constitution, both designed by Nathanael Herreshoff. After winning the 12th America's Cup Reliance enjoyed a brief but successful career, ending in 1913 when she was broken up.


For more information, see: America's Cup.

The America's Cup was originally the Royal Yacht Squadron Cup but was renamed after the yacht America, the first to win it. The owners of the America donated the trophy as a “Perpetual Challenge Cup for friendly competition between foreign countries” to the NYCC under a Deed of Gift which established the conditions for those wishing to challenge for the trophy. This deed was quite broad, describing only the minimum and maximum allowable waterline lengths for different types of vessel and the basic conditions for how the races would be run, with all specifics being left to mutual agreement between challenger and defender. Should the parties fail to reach an agreement the deed contained a default set of instructions for how the races should be conducted.

An important rule from the Deed of Gift was that any challenging vessel should sail from her port of origin to the race course, wherever that may be. According to Lewis Cass Ledyard, Commodore of the NYYC at the time of the 1903 America's Cup, this condition imparted "all that the framers deemed wise to insert by way of limitation upon the type of vessel - viz., her actual and demonstrated ability to make the passage under sail".[2] (this clause was removed from the Deed of Gift in 1956)

The first challenge came from the Royal Thames Yacht Club and in 1870 the first America's Cup race took place with victory going to the NYYC defending yacht, Magic, in a fleet race rather than the match races that would later become the accepted America's Cup format. The tenth America's Cup, the last of the century in 1899, was the first challenged by Sir Thomas Lipton through the Royal Ulster Yacht Club in his yacht Shamrock. Despite his defeat Lipton returned in 1901 to challenge for the Cup a second time in Shamrock II, again unsuccessfuly.

The competitors

The challenge

On August 7 1902 the RUYC signed a challenge on behalf of Sir Thomas Lipton for the America's Cup.[3] The challenge was immediately posted and departed the following day for New York on board the White Star Line ship Oceanic. In an accompanying letter to the secretary of the NYYC Lipton asked for "no change what-ever in the condition which governed the last contest entered into by me.". The challenge provided the name of the challenger, Shamrock III, the waterline length of 90 feet and the rigging configuration, cutter.[4]

In the letter accompanying his third challenge for the Cup Lipton asked that he "not be deemed importunate or unduly covetous of the precious trophy so long and so securely held in trust by the New York Yacht Club."[5]

On 16 October 1902 a committee to oversee the 1903 Cup was appointed by the Commodore from NYCC members, including Vice-Commodore Bourne, J. P. Morgan, John Malcolm Forbes and William Butler Duncan. That evening the committee, on behalf of the New York Yacht Club, unanimously accepted Liptons challenge and a cable was sent immediately to the RUYC with the simple message "Club accepts. Same conditions last races." .[6]

The Washington Evening Times remarked that "Sir Thomas Lipton's latest challenge for the America's Cup is doubtless based on the old superstition that 'the third time's the charm'."[7]

Race regulations

The Cup was to be decided over multiple races, each beginning from a line between the race committee boat and the Sandy Hook lightship. Each race was to be held over 30 miles, beginning as soon as possible after 11am and not later than 1pm. For each race the time allowed was 5.5 hours, and in the event that neither boat could complete the course within that time "no race" would be declared. The races would continue until one of the yachts had won three. Boats from the United States Revenue Cutter Service would ensure clear passage for the entrants.[8]

The boats were to be rated under the Seawanhaka rule, with a maximum waterline length of 90 feet. The rating, or sailing length, would determine if either boat would receive a time penalty.

The rating system was based on the waterline length and the sailplan. The beam was not accounted for, nor the overall length, and this allowed designers to exploit the rule to create narrow boats with long overhangs at both ends.[9]

There had been much discussion as to the suitability of the Seawanhaka rule for the America's Cup prompting Sir Thomas Lipton to write to Commodore Ledyard of the NYYC in May 1902 to confirm that, in the event of a challenge on the Cup in 1903, the conditions be known in advance. Commodore Ledyard, in an official reply on behalf of the New York Yacht Club, stated that although the NYYC were examining the possibility of using a different system for Cup races, that any such rule change would not take effect until at least the end of 1903, long after the time limit would have expired to set conditions for a challenge during the 1903 season.[10]


For more information, see: Reliance (yacht).

Reliance was owned by a syndicate of 8 wealthy members of the New York Yacht Club, including William Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Elbert Gary, Clement Griscom, Peter Widener and James Hill.[11] The syndicate was managed by C. Oliver Iselin, who had previously managed Cup defenders in 1893, 1895 and 1899.[12] On hearing of the list of millionaires who were sponsoring the American defence of the Cup Sir Thomas Lipton, himself a millionaire, joked that the "first thing I do to-day will be to see how my balance stands at the bank."[13]

Reliance was to be one of the most advanced yachts of her day and employed many technological innovations. She was the first yacht to employ winches to assist in controlling the sails[14], the two-speed winches being stored in the hull so as to maintain a flush, unencumbered deck. Reliance had a hollow mast made of welded steel with a top section that could be extended upwards from inside the mast to hold the topsail.[15] She also had a hollow rudder that could be adjusted by the helmsman to include more or less water ballast, affecting the balance and handling of the vessel.

"Call the boat a freak, anything you like, but we cannot handicap ourselves, even if our boat is only fit for the junk heap the day after the race." said Cornelius Vanderbilt,[16] a design principle emphasised in the construction of Reliance. It had long been felt that the Deed of Gift requirement that a challenger for the cup should sail "on her own bottom" from her home port to the race venue put any European challenger, who must necessarily traverse the Atlantic ocean, at a disadvantage compared to an American defender who need not construct his vessel with rough seas in mind. Reliance would exploit this to the fullest with a lightweight, almost flimsy construction whose life, whilst outperforming Vanderbilts expectations of longevity, would be short.

Reliance was launched on April 12 1903.[17]

Many of the crew of Reliance were Norwegian.[18]

Shamrock III

Preparations for the third of Sir Thomas Liptons Shamrocks were set in motion in January 1902, long before the challenge for the Cup was announced, when William Fife, the designer of the first Shamrock, accepted an order for Shamrock III. Fife was reportedly reluctant at first to accept the order, whose completion would require more than a year of constant supervision, but these objections were overcome when George L. Watson agreed to assist with the design. Watson had designed Shamrock II and furnished Fife with the designs of the second Shamrock as well as the results of water tank experiments made on different hull shapes at Denny's shipbuilders.[19]

For the 1903 America's Cup Lipton engaged Robert Wringe as captain. Wringe was the captain of the original Shamrock during trials for the 1901 America's Cup against Shamrock II, the eventual challenger, and was also the reserve captain for Shamrock II during the 1901 Cup, although his services in that capacity were ultimately unrequired. Wringe was described as aggressive, but with a cool head, and a thorough understanding of the rules of racing, having raced in Britain and America for several years.[20]

Lipton said that he would not consider commissioning a light framed vessel with a very large sail plan such as Reliance, believing it to be too great a risk to it's sailors to sail across the Atlantic to America where the Cup challenge would be held.[21] The necessity of such a voyage was seen as a handicap for the challenger who would have to build a heavier boat to withstand the rough seas.


Both Reliance and Shamrock III were chosen to participate in the Cup after trial races with other potential challengers confirmed them as the most suitable boats.

Reliance competed in trials against Constitution and Columbia, all three having been designed by Herreshoff. Columbia had successfully defended the Cup in 1899 and 1901, both times with Captain Barr at the helm. Constitution was intended by Herreshoff to replace Columbia for the 1901 America's Cup and was thought to have been the better boat, but during trials for that race Barr secured victory for Columbia and the right to defend the Cup for a second time.[22]

There were 20 trials held in 1903 to establish which boat would defend the 12th America's Cup,[23] with Reliance crossing the finishing line first in all races. Reliance was chosen as defender by the New York Yacht Club on July 28, 1903.[24]

The race

Sir Thomas Lipton, in a statement issued on the day of the first race, said "I am eating, drinking and sleeping with the hope of lifting the America's Cup, and I have put away all business until I either win it or lose it".[25]


On Sunday August 16 1903 onlookers had an opportunity to inspect the competitors side by side as Reliance and Shamrock III occupied adjacent dry docks in the Erie Basin to prepare for official measurement the following Wednesday.[26] This was carried out by the New York Yacht Clubs measurer, Charles Mower.[27] A large crowd was in attendance to watch the proceedings, and both designers watched from a small boat alongside. Sir Thomas Lipton observed the measuring from the deck of Shamrock III.[28]

The official measurements were as follows.[29]

The sailing length is text

Waterline length in feet Length overall in feet Sail area in square feet Sailing length in feet Crew Handicap in seconds
Reliance 89.66 201.75 16,169.92 108.41 64 105
Shamrock III 89.81 187.54 14,337.45 104.77 56

Although Shamrock III had a slightly longer waterline length, Reliance had almost 2,000 square feet more sail. According to the rating system this gave Reliance a time penalty of 1 minute 45 seconds over a 30 mile course. According to the racing rules the distance from the mast to the end of the spinnaker boom could not exceed the distance from the mast to the tip of the bowsprit, and as a result of the official measuring Shamrocks boom was found to be eight inches too long. At Mowers direction the excess was sawed off to comply with the regulations.[30]

Following a last minute change of sailplan, Sir Thomas Lipton asked that Shamrock be remeasured, the result of which was another 12 seconds advantage gained over Reliance, making the total handicap over 30 miles of 1 minute 57 seconds in favour of Shamrock.[31] However Shamrock III had some difficulty with exceeding the maximum waterline length permitted under the rules, which necessitated exchanging several heavier crewmembers for lighter ones in order to decrease the displacement of the yacht.[32]

"No race"

The first meeting took place on August 20 and consisted of a 15 mile race south west along the Jersey coast from Sandy Hook and back. The race commenced shortly after 11am in 5 knots of wind and heavy sea swells, but within 30 minutes a storm broke with torrential rain and winds rising to 12 knots. Despite conditions that had been thought favourable to the challenger,[33] Reliance maintained a lead throughout the race, excepting 2 minutes at the start[34]. By afternoon winds had dropped to as little as 2 knots and progress slowed. Reliance rounded the 15 mile mark first, at 1537. 8 minutes later Reliance and Shamrock III passed going in opposite directions. The regatta committee made the decision that the race could not be finished in the 5.5 hours allowed, and as the two boats passed each other the race was declared "no race" and postponed until August 22.[35] During the race Reliance sailed about 20 miles, with Shamrock III sailing about 17.5 miles.[36]

The first race

As Reliance crossed the finish line Sir Thomas Lipton, watching from aboard the Erin, led his companions in three cheers for the victor, which Captain Barr and his crew duly returned, a display of sportsmanship which earned the appreciation of the attending crowds. "Reliance deserved victory." said Lipton, still hopeful as he addressed his companions aboard the Erin soon after the first race was decided, "But I expect Shamrock to do better under different conditions. I shall start in Tuesday morning just as confident as I did to-day".[37]

The second race

The third race

In total five attempts were made to hold the third race, but light winds and fog prevented the first four attempts from being completed during the allowed time.[38] On August 29, for the first time in America's Cup history, the race was postponed not due to insufficient wind but due to high winds, with gales blowing up to 50mph.[39]

The third and final race eventually took place on September 3 in light winds and heavy fog.[40][41] Once again Captain Barr was dominant in the 15 minute period leading up to the start and crossed the line first, at 1301:56, leaving Captain Wringe aboard the Shamrock to incur a penalty for crossing the start line three seconds too late at 1302:03.[42]

Spectator numbers, having been in the tens of thousands for the first two races, amounted to less than 30 attending vessels for the third.[43]

Reliance finished the race in spectacular fashion, appearing through the thick fog just before the finish line to the delight of the spectators.[44]

Reliance wins

After the failure of his challenger, Sir Thomas Lipton said "They tell me I have a beautiful boat. I don't want a beautiful boat. What I want is a boat to lift the Cup – a Reliance. Give me a homely boat, the homeliest boat that was ever designed, if she is as fast as Reliance, I want a Reliance.".[45]


The 1903 America's Cup drew much interest in America and Britain. In Belfast and Glasgow there was such interest that streets were blocked by crowds looking at race bulletins. In many places systems were set up to inform the surrounding country of the results, including a coloured searchlight service,[46] bombs, rockets and balloons.[47][48]

An estimated 20,000 people turned up to watch the first of the races in New York City, many paying to travel aboard passenger boats that had been temporarily withdrawn from their regular work of servicing Coney Island. Hotels in New York were overflowing, some having to set up cots to accommodate all those wishing to stay.[49] To ensure the safety of the spectators seven members of the Steamboat Inspection Squad, which eventually became the United States Coast Guard, were present. They were responsible for general safety and regulating the number of passengers aboard each vessel.[50] Relatively few vessels made any attempt to cross the perimeter of the course, and any that did were swiftly discouraged by the Cutters, first by sounding horns and, if necessary, firing blank warning shots from their 6 pound guns.[51]

There was much speculation as to whether Reliances victory was due to the design of the yacht or the skill of Charlie Barr in sailing her. Lipton himself proposed to allow the two boats to swap crew after the race to decide the matter, but the offer was refused by the owners of Reliance.[52] Barr was considered to be the most skilled seaman of the day, and is now thought of as one of the best yachtsmen in history.

Mark Twain wrote a humorous account of the 1903 America's Cup for the New York Herald entitled "Mark Twain, Able Yachtsman, on Why Lipton Failed to Lift the Cup". Twain, a former steamboat pilot, observed several of the races from onboard the Kanawha steam yacht together with his friend and owner of the Kanawha Henry Huttleston Rogers.[53]

Universal rule

The boats used to contend the 1903 America's Cup were described by some as "freaks".[54][55][56] In a letter to Sir Thomas Lipton in May 1902, Commodore Ledyard of the NYYC confirmed that the club had, some months previously, set up a committee charged with obtaining leading yacht designers views on using a new rule of measurement designed "to evolve a more satisfactory and wholesome type of vessel" than had been produced under the Seawanhaka rule.[57]


  1. Glasgow Guide Famous Glaswegians, Sir Thomas Lipton
  2. New-York Tribune October 17, 1902 The Challenge Accepted
  3. The San Francisco call. October 08, 1902 Lipton's Challenge on the Way
  4. New-York Tribune October 17, 1902 The Challenge Accepted
  5. New-York Tribune October 17, 1902 The Challenge Accepted
  6. New-York Tribune October 17, 1902 The Challenge Accepted
  7. Washington Evening Times October 09 1902
  8. Reading Eagle Aug 16 1903 Great Yacht Event Of This Week
  9. universalrule.com History of the Universal Rule of Measurement
  10. New-York Tribune October 17, 1902 The Challenge Accepted
  11. The Saint Paul globe. August 20, 1903 Big Sloops Are Ready
  12. America's Cup Hall Of Fame
  13. The Saint Paul globe. August 20, 1903 Big Sloops Are Ready
  14. Website of the 32nd America's Cup Reliance
  15. Website of the 32nd America's Cup Reliance
  16. Evening Post, Volume LXXIV, Issue 79, 30 September 1907 Split the Difference
  17. Website of the 32nd America's Cup Reliance
  18. Norwegian Sailors in American Waters
  19. NY Times January 15 1902 Shamrock III To Be Built
  20. NY Times January 20 1902 Concerning Cup Yachts
  21. The Pittsburgh Press - Sep 29, 1907 No One But Lipton Is Anxious To Lift Cup
  22. Website of the 33rd America's Cup, Where are they now? 1901 Columbia
  23. The Saint Paul globe. August 20, 1903 Big Sloops Are Ready
  24. The Montreal Gazette - Jul 28, 1903, Reliance Chosen
  25. New-York tribune August 21, 1903 Reliance Ahead In A Fluke
  26. Reading Eagle Aug 16 1903 Great Yacht Event Of This Week
  27. The Saint Paul globe. August 19, 1903 Challenger Given Time Allowance Of More Than Minute
  28. New-York tribune. August 19, 1903 Measurer Watched
  29. The Daily Star Aug 19 1903 The Yachts Measured
  30. The Saint Paul globe. August 19, 1903 Challenger Given Time Allowance Of More Than Minute
  31. The Saint Paul globe. August 20, 1903 Big Sloops Are Ready
  32. New-York tribune August 23 1903 Lipton not cast down
  33. New-York tribune August 21, 1903 Reliance Ahead In A Fluke
  34. The Pittsburgh Press - Aug 21, 1903, Reliance Outsailed her Rival
  35. The San Francisco call - August 21, 1903 Shamrock Outfooted In Wind To Her Liking
  36. New-York tribune August 21, 1903 Reliance Ahead In A Fluke
  37. New-York tribune August 23 1903 Lipton not cast down
  38. St. John Daily Sun Sep 4, 1903 Reliance Won!
  39. The Milwaukee Journal Aug 29 1903 Can't Race In Gale
  40. Website of the 33nd Americas Cup Where are they now? 1903 Reliance
  41. Website of the 32nd America's Cup When The Fog Muddles Up The America's Cup...
  42. St. John Daily Sun Sep 4 1903 Reliance won!
  43. St. John Daily Sun Sep 4 1903 Reliance won!
  44. St. John Daily Sun Sep 4 1903 Reliance won!
  45. Website of the 33nd Americas Cup Where are they now? 1903 Reliance
  46. The San Francisco call - August 21, 1903 Shamrock Outfooted In Wind To Her Liking
  47. The Pittsburgh Press Aug 19 1903 The Yachts Out For The Trial Spin
  48. New-York tribune August 23 1903 London shuns the news
  49. New-York tribune August 21, 1903 Reliance Ahead In A Fluke
  50. The Saint Paul globe. August 20, 1903 To Stop Overcrowding
  51. New-York tribune August 23 1903 Blank shots on course
  52. The Dawson Record - Sep 4, 1903 Reliance Wins The Cup
  53. Twainquotes.com Mark Twain, Able Yachtsman, on Why Lipton Failed to Lift the Cup
  54. The Montreal Gazette - Jul 28, 1903, Reliance Chosen
  55. Taranaki Herald, Volume L, Issue 12556, 17 May 1904, Page 5 The America Cup
  56. Yachting World, January 2010 A Cup Boat Like No Other
  57. New-York Tribune October 17, 1902 The Challenge Accepted