Deed of Gift Print E-mail
Monday, 24 January 2005

The schooner America carried national pride across the Atlantic, today the contest faces changes to issues that go to the heart of the Deed of Gift.


National Identity

Nobody who follows the America’s Cup has to be told that the liveliest controversy today concerns national identity. Nationality conflicts lie at the heart of the ongoing bitter disputes about cross-border transfers of sailors and intellectual property. 

Should an ensign continue to be more than a flag of convenience? Naysayers contend that nationality regulation has been made irrelevant by cultural and economic globalization. Defenders of the idea cite the continuing vitality of national teams at the Olympics and other events, plus the cup’s rules in the Deed of Gift. All this, and yet the most revealing evidence has escaped review. That is the practice of national identity in the cup’s history. What follows is a brief account of cup nationalism in two of its most visible forms, the naming and crewing of boats. This history indicates that national identity has long been central to the America’s Cup, bubbling up in forms that, though not necessarily familiar to us today, have made good sense at the time.

The founders were visionaries when they dedicated the trophy as “perpetually a challenge cup for friendly competition between foreign countries.” When e John Cox Stevens, James Hamilton, George L. Schuyler, and the other members of the yacht America syndicate inserted those words in the first Deed of Gift in 1852, they could vividly recall numerous examples of unfriendly competition with foreign countries, especially Great Britain. Just the year before in England, Stevens suffered the frustration of being ignored by English yachtsmen. In business, there had been trade wars, boundary disputes, and international financial panics. As young men, they had heard how the British had burned the White House during the War of 1812.

Like all visionaries, the cup’s founders were extremely stubborn about one ideal. For them it was the priority of national distinctions. They wanted a race between teams representing two yacht clubs from different countries. Though only three paragraphs in length, the body of the 1852 Deed includes four repetitions of the word “country.” Still, the founders’ novel ideal was not easily grasped, even by their friends. 

In 1871, in a public letter criticizing the New York Yacht Club’s management of the first cup races, George Schuyler once again hammered away. This was an “international match,” a “national match,” and (the most explicit statement yet) a test of “the relative proficiency of the two countries in yachting.”

Schuyler later rewrote the Deed twice, adding provisions that addressed misinterpretations of the founders’ ideal. Each boat was to be “constructed in the country” of its yacht club, and should the club holding the cup break up, the cup “shall be transferred to some club of the same nationality.” Cup competition, therefore, was founded on the rock of national identity. Syndicates have been voluntarily building on that foundation, right down to today. 


Although the Deed of Gift says nothing about yacht names, the overwhelming majority of owners have been inspired by their nationalities when they named their cup boats. As of the 2003 match, 63 yachts have raced in cup matches; 44 of them (70%) have carried explicit or implicit national names. These 63 names fall into three groups: 21 explicitly nationalistic names include nations (New Zealand, for example) and well-known national nicknames (Columbia) or symbols, like (Shamrock); 23 implicit nationalistic names, among them historic ships (Intrepid), wives of high officials (Dame Pattie), and national features (Genesta) or ideals (Liberty); 19 non-nationalistic names. Three are whimsies (like Alinghi), but big ideas continue to predominate in virtues (Reliance) or mythological figures (Valkyrie). Maritime lore has inspired only one name (Weatherly), as has a private business interest (Livonia, named for a Russian province where her owner, James Ashbury, had clients).

Nationalistic naming of cup yachts originated at the beginning, with America. A less confident and ambitious man than John Cox Stevens would never have borrowed his country’s nickname for such a bold adventure. He could easily have hidden behind the name of his yacht’s port, New York, or even his own hometown, Hoboken, New Jersey. The double gamble paid off even more grandly than even Stevens could have hoped. America won the race, and the conflation of names made her a national icon. “Like Jupiter among the Gods, America is first, and there is no second!” exclaimed the New England orator Daniel Webster on hearing the news from Cowes. Patriotic triumphalism was so relentless that a New Yorker, George Templeton Strong, complained, “One would think yacht-building were the end of man’s existence on earth.” 

In due course the trophy itself became a patriotic icon, first under its original name, which had to do with its cost, and later under the name of the yacht that first won it. (or was it the name of the yacht’s country? ). Stevens’ willful confusion encouraged ambitious men from other nations to follow in his path and try to enhance the reputations of their countries, their yacht clubs, and themselves by sailing a yacht for the cup. How likely is it that so many people would go to so much effort over a prize called “the Hoboken Cup”?

National feeling and identity remain alive in the America’s Cup. When the challengers Australia II, Stars & Stripes, and Black Magic won the cup (each with a name that resonated at home), their fans shouted their patriotism much as Daniel Webster had his in 1851. But statistics tell the story best. Since 1980, nine out of 10 boats in cup matches have carried nationalistic names, most of them explicit. The 1980 match marked the beginning of the shift from part-time campaigns by volunteer amateur sailors to full-time, multi-year professional efforts subsidized directly or indirectly by corporations and governments. A new sense of a large America’s Cup community defined by national interests was marked by Dennis Conner when he announced in 1980, “I have 300 million Americans to represent. I have a lot to think about, and I don’t want to let them down.” Even John Cox Stevens or Thomas Lipton would not have dared make such a sweeping promise.

When television was added to the mix in 1986-7, nationalism became even more engrained: 1986-87: 16 of the 17 12-Meters carried national names, 12 of them explicit (including Conner’s first Stars & Stripes, French Kiss, Canada II, and Italia). 1992-2000: 24 of the 32 ACC boats in the three cup regattas had national names. 2003: six of the 10 ACC boats had national names. Even teams critical of nationalism rules showed off national traits. When Alinghi won a race, the American Express Viaduct Harbour echoed with the clang of Swiss bells and the roar of Alpine horns.

When George Schuyler described the cup as a test of “the relative proficiency of the two countries in yachting,” he obviously was referring to sailors as well as boats. But though the Deed of Gift that Schuyler co-drafted contains rules concerning the nationalities of yachts, challengers, defenders, and yacht clubs, there is no requirement about the national identities of crews. Critics of nationality restrictions might read that as a tolerance of crews of mixed nationality, and they might conclude the same from cup history.

A sailor often cited as a precedent for today’s free-agent professional skippers is the Scotsman Charlie Barr, who steered three consecutive U.S. Cup winners from 1899-1903. A closer look undermines the Barr precedent. He was a naturalized U.S. citizen, and he did not change countries between Cup matches. 

Other examples also are not apt precedents. Just why requires an explanation of the very different worlds of the old and the new America’s Cup, and especially of the roles of professional sailors.

In the Big Class and J-Class eras of the 100-plus foot cup boats between 1893 to 1937, several Cup crews were mixed. In some yachts, in fact, most of the sailors were from a country different from the boat’s flag. While that may at first seem like a precedent for today’s mixed crews, in fact it is not, because the assumption behind such thinking – that an institution’s identity is determined by census – is unwarranted.

A Cup boat’s identity in those days was no more measured by a headcount of her professional sailors than a corporation’s is determined by a vote of all employees. What determines the identity of an institutions is its leadership.  What counted back then were not the professional sailors who came and went from match to match, but the amateurs responsible for the boat. They included the yacht’s owner or owners, her manager, and, by far most important, their yacht club. If the great, unprecedented ideal that lay behind the plan to create a perpetual challenge cup “for friendly competition between foreign countries” stood any chance of being fulfilled, the founders wanted the Cup controlled not by individuals but by established long-term yachting organizations that held the Cup in trust for the present and also for the future. Cup boats may have been named for nations, but the entity that ran and identified any America’s Cup campaign was the local yacht club. The Deed of Gift and Cup history are absolutely clear on that point.

According to the Deed, the America’s Cup belongs to the yacht club that last won it. The winning skipper may not even take the cup home. So it should not be surprising that the Deed’s only rule about the nationality of individuals defines the nationality of the challenging and defending yacht clubs. This is why the owner of the New York Yacht Club defender Mischief in 1881 could be a British citizen. What counted was that he was a member of the club. That was the fourth match. More than a century later, in the 31st match, Team New Zealand and Oracle BMW accepted funding from foreigners without compromising their nationalities. The yacht club and its members who owned and managed a Cup boat were the measure of identity in practice, as well as in the Deed of Gift. Until recently, the status and influence of professional sailors were far different than they are today.  

Now they are the faces of the team, but then they were anonymous. An old-time professional would be astonished to learn that sailors today can make an excellent living racing America’s Cup yachts and also be treated as equals by amateur yachtsmen and women. In the Big Class and J-Class years, most cup sailors were commercial fishermen who devoted their winters to fishing and their summers to yachting. Come spring, dozens of young men headed off to the shipyard to ready the yacht for racing. Come fall, they put the yacht away and returned home to their nets. Most pros were not freelancers but were hired in a package deal between the yacht’s captain and a local agent in a fishing village in America, England, or Scandinavia. If the agent’s demands were excessive, the captain would move on. One year, an American boat’s crew might hail from Maine or Long Island, New York. Another year, she might be crewed by Norwegians. The end result was summarized nicely by L. Francis Herreshoff (a son of the great designer and builder) when he described a Cup boat’s operation as “one head or brain, several mouthpieces, and 20 or 50 bunches of sinew, muscle, and leather which acted instantly at each order.” Vivid as it is, the image lacks two crucial characters. Herreshoff should have added, “one banker and one executive.”

These were amateurs and members of the yacht club. The first was the head of the owners’ syndicate; he served as the chairman of the board from his office or steam yacht. The second was the yacht’s manager, a chief executive officer who had overall command of the racing yacht. Some managers were extremely competent racing sailors. “His experience in tuning-up and racing these great yachts was such as few could equal,” the yachting writer W. P. Stephens observed of C. Oliver Iselin. Iselin meticulously ran four successful Cup defenders between 1895 and 1903, watching over Charlie Barr’s shoulder and working with Nat Herreshoff, the designer and builder.

 This old system, when “yachting” was “Yachting,” can be glimpsed in a telling anecdote from 1899.  Minutes after the 131-foot Big Class sloop Columbia won the cup over the first Shamrock, New York Yacht Club Commodore J. Pierpont Morgan, the head Columbia’s syndicate, came over in a launch from his steam yacht Corsair, hefted himself onto the deck, and “with a shout of delight danced about with joy.”  The tycoon then threw himself into the arms not of Captain Charlie Barr, but of the boat’s manager, Oliver Iselin. No doubt Morgan later presented Barr with a healthy bonus, but as far as he and almost everybody else was concerned, the triumph belonged to him, Iselin, and the New York Yacht Club.

The system remained closed even after amateurs moved behind the steering wheels of these big racing yachts. After Harold Vanderbilt won his third straight Cup match in 1937 in the 135-foot J Ranger, he wrote a book, On the Wind’s Highway. Early on in his discussion of his great boat, he informed the reader that when he wrote “we,” he would be referring solely to his afterguard of six amateur sailors, including the yachts co-designer, Olin Stephens.  As for the remaining 26 sailors, all professional and many of them Norwegian, Vanderbilt had only a very few passing comments, and he identified only a couple of these seamen by name. Nowhere in this heavily illustrated book is there a photograph of the professional sailors. 

All this probably sounds cruel (or at the very least impersonal) to modern ears, but that is not the point. The point is that the identity system that ruled the America’s Cup through the first half of its history completely disregarded headcounts. Like the system that governed commercial sailing ships and many modern yachts, it paid no mind to anything but the authority of the commander and owner. To project our more egalitarian system on that past is a mistake.

After World War II, the America’s Cup was shifted to boats half the length of the J-Class and sailed by amateurs who shared their boats’ nationality. No less was expected of them as citizens, amateurs, and members of yacht clubs. This old system in new clothes survived without challenge until 1980, when Alan Bond retained an American to be tactician in Australia. The New York Yacht Club (as Cup defender and trustee) promptly responded with the first Cup rule that required every crewmember to be a national. As the stakes were raised over the succeeding years, the definition of “national” was loosened up, even as a boat’s national identity remained clear. Only today has the entire system, which has driven the Cup for so long, come under serious question. The solution should not be hard to find, so long as the old consensus and formula for success are respected.

John Rousmaniere

Last Updated ( Monday, 24 January 2005 )
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