Curators Log May 2013
Nathanael Greene Herreshoff and the America’s Cup:
Part Ten- The 1903 Challenger SHAMROCK III
No Shamrock is complete without three petals- Now we have the third-
Will she lift the Cup?
Sir Thomas Lipton initiated correspondence with the New York Yacht Club (NYYC) for a third challenge in January 1902, culminating in a letter of October 7, 1902 to “challenge for the America’s Cup, subject to the same conditions as governed the last contest and proved to be so satisfactory namely- the best three out of five races…The first race to be sailed on Thursday 20th August 1903”.
46-year-old William Fife Jr. the third generation of a family of Scottish yacht designers and builders designs SHAMROCK III. Fife’s first two attempts at challengers (1893 & 1895) lose out in the British trials. In 1898 Lipton chooses him to design his first challenger, SHAMROCK I. Fife arranges the details of the 1899 match that subsequently also govern the 1901 and 1903 races. He personally directs all the trials, but on arrival in America becomes sick with inflammatory rheumatism and misses all the Cup races. In Fife’s absence she is not sailed well. SHAMROCK I loses two races to the Nat Herreshoff designed COLUMBIA and fails to finish a third, losing her topmast in a moderate breeze.
In 1902 Fife has a problem. The Americans have three potential defenders. Two he knows (COLUMBIA and CONSTITUTION) and he assumes Nat will cover his bases with a new radical departure, larger and more powerful vessel. He designs SHAMROCK III to be of good all-around capability independent of weather conditions.
SHAMROCK III is built in the secrecy typical of Cup boats at the William Denny & Brothers yard in Dumbarton, near Glasgow Scotland. The yard, covering 40 acres and employing 2,200, dwarfs its American competitor. Work starts in advance of the challenge and she launches on St. Patrick’s Day 1903. Two hundred fifty guests brought by special train and a local turnout of thousands witness the launching. Because of shoal water she is launched with camels alongside.
Framing and hull are of nickel steel. The entire hull is enameled white. Unlike RELIANCE hull seams are not flush, but lapped. The aluminum deck is covered with canvas and the mast and boom are galvanized steel. She breaks tradition being the first English boat to use a wheel rather than tiller. The unusual wheel is made in bicycle fashion with steel spokes and rim- later to become standard in 12-Meter and IACC Cup racers.
There is considerable new thinking put into plans for the trials with an improved SHAMROCK I. The March 12 issue of Yachting World reports on the general dissatisfaction with prior challenger trials to furnish reliable estimates of vessel performance. “There was seldom any attempt to give the conditions of an actual race.” In making arrangements with his crews for the 1903 trials Lipton “contracted explicitly to give them a dozen actual races between boat and boat, with all the rules stringently observed and prize money offered on the usual scale.” The trial races are on handicap terms- SHAMROCK III scratch, giving SHAMROCK I some minutes allowance.
Fitted out quickly SHAMROCK III sails for her first trial on April 8. Three successful trials prove her to be faster than SHAMROCK I. Over a total distance of 108 miles sailed, SHAMROCK III shows an advantage of 18-1/3 seconds per mile. The trials also show the advantage the wheel gives Capt. Wringe with a clear after deck.
On April 17 sailing in 15-knot breeze with gusts to 30 knots Wringe pushes the boat with a club-topsail aloft. The upper eye of a shroud turnbuckle splits; the mast buckles about 7 feet above the deck. One sailor, Wringe’s brother-in-law, is drowned and others are injured. Every part of the rig and sails with the exception of the boom is ruined. This greatly shortens the trial series. She does not sail again until May 7. Sail maker Ratsey, onboard that day comments: “So long as there is no tax placed on sail area in these cup matches accidents like this will happen.”
Lipton’s steam yacht ERIN leaves the Clyde on May 28 with SHAMROCK III in tow accompanied by the tug CRUIZER towing SHAMROCK I. The expedition numbers 156 men. Both sail yachts are fitted with short ocean rigs. They reach New York on June 14, 1903 where Lipton joins them on Wednesday June 24 after crossing on board the more comfortable steamer OCEANIC. He is given a royal welcome including lunch with President Theodore Roosevelt the following Friday. The ever-gracious Lipton responds with a tribute to the Bristol boat builders.
“ I appreciate as much as anybody in the world the great ability of Mr. Herreshoff. His new boat, the RELIANCE, is a bit of a wonder, but I want to say that I have got a flyer myself, and I believe in my heart that I have got the best chance of winning the America’s cup I ever had. I say this without in any way underestimating the abilities of Mr. Herreshoff.”