Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Scots in America, pre-war Adventures in Oyster Bay


The Seawanhaka Cup is the oldest yachting trophy, originating in America in 1895, that is still in active competition. It was offered by the Seawanhaka Corinthian Yacht Club of Oyster Bay, New York for the purpose of promoting small yacht racing and developing the amateur spirit among yachtsmen. After the first challenge by the Englishman J Arthur Brand of the Minima Yacht Club in Spruce IV the races took place exclusively between North American clubs until 1922, when after sailing a match of the British-American Cup at Oyster Bay, F. J. ('Wee John') Stephen of the Royal Northern Yacht Club successfully challenged the Manchester Yacht Club in a six-metre yacht of his own design Coila III.  Wee John and Coila III successfully defended the Cup until 1925 when Clinton Crane returned to the competition after an absence of twenty-nine years and won it back with his yacht Lanai.


The Royal Norwegian Yacht Club entered the fray in 1924, went on to win the Cup in 1927 with HRH Crown Prince Olav sailing his Noreg (old Norwegian for Norway) and joined the Royal Northern Yacht Club as one of the main challengers. In 1929 and 1931, eight-metre yachts were sailed in the competition, then in 1932, the competition was back in six-metres.

By the end of 1936 the legendary Scottish yachtsman Herbert Thom had enjoyed practically every local success available to him in the local one-design classes and was thirsting for a wider challenge. (I've posted extensively about his record in my other blog www.scottishislandsclass.blogspot.com.)

The Dragons had arrived on the Clyde and were being built in quantities by McGruers, but Herbert Thom refused to consider sailing a foreign design. He may also have wanted a larger boat, as he and his wife Hilda now had three children, Hilda, John and Herbert. He began to speak about having a new six metre built and when they heard about this Alex Robertson & Sons of Sandbank and their talented young designer David Boyd jointly approached him to suggest that they produce one for him. The result was Circe, which was David Boyd's first design for a metre boat. Herbert Thom's decision to go into six metres was soon to take him across the Atlantic.

By the end of 1937 Circe had won 24 flags including 6 firsts, the largest number in any class, despite being dismasted on the first day of Clyde Fortnight. The Glasgow  Herald reported that her helmsman already had 312 flags in 12 years, so was now up to 336.

September 1938 saw a team of four British six metres going to Oyster Bay, Long Island to contest the British America Cup and separately the Royal Northern Yacht Club once again challenged for the Seawanhaka Cup.

The British-America Cup was also the invention of the Seawanhaka Club, intended to cement relations between the two countries after their co-operation during the First World War.  The Cup would go to the first team of four to win four races.

Team racing has to be regarded as a separate sport from normal yacht racing, as the prize goes to the team with the best overall score and the racing rules must be exploited to achieve this. For example if you find your yourself in first place but the rest of your team are well down the fleet your tactic must be to baulk the other team's yachts by luffing them, exploiting port and starboard situations and so on. It requires a different cultural approach, a profound knowledge of the rules and the confidence to put boats at risk and get away with it. It's best done on true one-design boats, which six metres patently are not. I suspect that the British team would have had little if any previous experience of this very tactical and potentially rather aggressive version of yacht racing.

The British yachts were Mr R M Teacher's Erica, Herbert Thom's Circe, Mr J H Maurice Clark's Vrana, all Scottish boats, and Solenta, owned by Eldon and Kenneth Trimingham of Bermuda. The American team consisted of Mr Briggs Cunningham's Fun, Mr George Nichols' Goose, Mr Paul Shields' Rebel and Mr Henry Morgan's Djinn.


The Scottish yachts were duly craned aboard the Anchor liner California at Yorkhill Quay, while Herbert Thom, accompanied by his mother and son John crossed the Atlantic in style, aboard the Donaldson Line's Letitia. She had an absolutely massive capacity of 516 cabin class and 1023 third class passengers served by 300 crew, but on this trip there were only seventeen cabin passengers, including Herbert Thom, his mother Susannah and his son John. The whole excursion would have cost about £1,500, massive expenditure for one private individual on a very speculative adventure in international sport. By 1938 Herbert Thom, in common with most people, was convinced that war was inevitable and I guess that he had decided to enjoy what was left of probably the last summer of peace.

A couple of delights have survived from this trip. Captain Baillie clearly had great artistic ability and perhaps time on his hands, for he produced this delightful water colour for Herbert's mother.


The British-America Cup races were a disaster for the British team.

In the first race, sailed in variable but mainly light conditions, the Americans got first, second, fourth and seventh places, with Circe last.

In the second race, sailed in a nice breeze of 10 to 13 mph, the Americans forced Circe and Vrana over the start line and they were recalled. The Americans got first, second, third and seventh places, Solenta at fourth was the best British boat and Circe came sixth.

The next day the wind was very light. Djinn forced Solenta and Circe over the start line at the expense of being over herself and all three got recalled. Later on Djinn fouled Circe and Henry Morgan promptly withdrew. The British boats were now generally doing rather well, when the race committee decided that the time limit of four hours would not be met and cancelled the race.

On day four Goose luffed Solenta and collided with her, causing both to protest. The yachts had been only five feet apart when Goose's skipper put his helm down hard and at the subsequent hearing she was disqualified. As this was a resail of the third race Djinn remained disqualified for her skipper's behaviour the day before. The British skippers pleaded with the committee to waive this and allow Henry Morgan to compete, but the rule was enforced, so the Americans had a serious handicap. They got the first and second places, but still lost on points. Circe came fourth.

In the fourth race, day five of sailing, there was a good breeze. The Americans won with first, second, fifth and eighth places and Circe came fourth again.

The Americans won again on the final day with first, fourth, fifth and sixth places in very light airs. Circe, considered to be a heavy weather boat, came seventh.

The series demonstrated the classic features of team racing, mentioned above. Everyone declared that they had thoroughly enjoyed the sportsmanship, but I expect the British sailors had learned a thing or two the hard way. I'm not at all sure that Herbert Thom would have felt really at home in this form of the sport; he had too competitive an instinct for that. Also the light conditions had not been suitable for Circe.

On the evening of the last day the Seawanhaka Corinthian Yacht Club declared that Goose would defend the Seawanhaka Cup and the Royal Northern nominated Circe to challenge for it. It is unlikely that the challengers felt they had much of a chance, but by now Herbert Thom had had time to learn about the local conditions. For the challenge he had his pick of crew from all the British boats. He selected William MacAusland from Mr Teacher's Erica and Sandy Baird and Murray Maclehose from Maurice Clark's Vrana to sail with him and his son John. He selected the best sails from all the British boats too.


The crew are, from left to right, Sandy Baird, William MacAusland, Herbert Thom,  Murray Maclehose and John Thom. In later life Sandy went on to become the Harbourmaster at Bermuda. Murray Maclehose, the tall chap on the skipper's left, was twenty and a student at Baliol at the time. He was to go into the diplomatic service in Paris and elsewhere, was involved in Harold Wilson's attempts to end the Vietnam War, became UK Ambassador to Vietnam and elsewhere and finally became the longest serving Governor of Hong Kong, greatly respected and liked. He died aged 82 in 2000. John survived an extremely dangerous and distinguished career in the Royal Navy and then joined the family firm. So far I have been unable to trace the subsequent career of William MacAusland.

Circe on Oyster Bay

On the first day of the series any American complacency was severely shaken. The Glasgow Herald reported:-

"It was a nasty day for sailing, judged by the standards of ladies afternoon sailing parties. There was an easterly blowing up the sound, seventeen miles an hour at the start and clear to twenty five at the finish. It was piling up a real sea, steep, rugged navy, and out of the low gray clouds heavy cold rain squalls sluiced down now and again. Maybe Circe thought she was back at home in her own Firth O' Clyde waters, for it was a dour day for these parts. At any rate she went, and Goose, fastest all-around yacht of the American six-metre fleet, couldn't hold her under the conditions."
JHT in typical Clyde mode

The course was a windward/leeward one from a line off Oak Neck to a turning mark off Oyster Bay and back. At the end of the first beat Circe was a minute ahead, then set a huge borrowed spinnaker for a scary run back to the start. During the second lap the wind steadily increased, but both yachts struggled with genoas on the beat and Circe was still a minute ahead at the turn. Aboard Goose Nichols underestimated and had to pinch up to the mark. This time Circe set a smaller spinnaker than Goose. The latter tried a reaching course with a gybe while Circe went straight for the line and finished a minute and forty four seconds ahead.

The second race had a triangular course, sailed in another blustery day. Herbert Thom gave Circe a perfect start and Goose couldn't catch her, finishing twenty four seconds behind.

The third race was sailed in Goose's weather, a light easterly with a windward/leeward course again. Goose had by far the better start and covered Circe as the latter tacked several times in quick succession. Suddenly the wind whipped round to the southeast, giving a reach to the windward mark, at which Goose was two minutes thirty five seconds ahead. The return was now a reach in about seven miles an hour of wind and Goose rounded the next mark just over five minutes ahead. There was now a run to the original weather mark. Circe made up a little and was four minutes ten seconds behind at the final turn. The final leg was now a beat. The wind died and both boats drifted along, Circe holding inshore of Goose. Herbert Thom must have scented a land breeze, because while Goose lay becalmed Circe silently eased sheets and started moving very gently, gradually overhauling her and steadily easing sheets again, picking up speed, while the crew of Goose could only sit and watch. The wind eventually reached Goose, but it was too late. At the very end she tried the expedient of setting her spinnaker, but to no avail. Circe finished half a minute ahead and won the Cup.

A year later Herbert Thom and Circe successfully defended the Cup against the Norwegian Noreg III, the last boat designed by Johan Anker.

The challenger was ordered by a consortium that included HRH Crown Prince Olav of Norway, and delivered shortly before the races began. For the series her helmsman was the leading helmsman Rolf Svinndal. Circe's crew were, along with skipper Herbert Thom Senior,  William MacAusland, Murray Maclehose, John Thom and Herbert Junior. Noreg and Circe were both heavy weather boats quite unsuited to the conditions they encountered.

The first race was sailed in a near calm, with the yachts towed to a start off Toward. The course was a windward leg to a mark off the Big Cumbrae, a run back to Toward and round again. Circe was over the line at the start and lost a minute in the recall. Noreg was the faster boat in the conditions and was one and a half minutes ahead at the first mark, then opened out a lead to finish the first round four and a half minutes ahead. The boats were well separated and Circe was able to stand out to the North on port tack, then the wind went westerly and she was able to fetch the mark on starboard, forcing Noreg behind her. The Norwegian boat then recovered her lead but Circe got ahead again and was twenty seconds ahead at the windward mark. On the final run the positions changed several times as little puffs of wind came and went. Towards the end Circe was ahead when a wind came up behind Noreg and she ran very fast, but it died away and Circe won by twentyone seconds.

The second race took place in similar calm conditions. The course was twice round a seven mile triangle and it was only just completed within the four and a half hour time limit.

The first leg was a close reach and Circe to leeward steadily drew ahead, until the wind increased, Noreg getting it first and turning the first mark thirtysix seconds ahead. The yachts then set spinnakers for the run and just as on the previous day the wind came and went. Eventually the yachts were becalmed beside each other for fortyfive minutes. When the wind came Circe got it first and rounded the downwind mark three minutes ahead. Noreg now got becalmed while Circe opened out her lead to a mile. The wind eventually came up and the second round proved much less eventful. Noreg reduced Circe's lead to just under eight minutes by the finish.

The third race went to Noreg by a margin of four and a half minutes. The course was another windward/leeward one, from Skelmorlie to Ascog on Bute and back, twice. Circe started slightly ahead, but Noreg sailed faster and pointed higher, turning the windward mark two and a half minutes ahead. Downwind Circe had trouble setting  her spinnaker and lost several minutes, but eventually reduced Noreg's lead a bit. At the end of the first circuit Noreg was three and a half minutes ahead. On the second circuit  Noreg again sailed better to windward and Circe better off the wind, but Noreg had secured her first win.

The next day's racing started in near calm conditions and was declared void after three and a half hours, when Noreg had managed to ghost some distance ahead of Circe. Another two attempts to run this race on succeeding days were also defeated by the prevailing calms. The fourth race was eventually run over a triangular course seven miles long, with two rounds as usual. There was a fresh north-easterly wind and the course was run in just under two hours twenty minutes. Circe led at the start, but Noreg was the faster boat to windward and had a lead of thirtyfive seconds at the mark. On the run Noreg set her spinnaker faster and increased her lead to 58 seconds. Circe was faster on the reach that followed, reducing the lead to 35 seconds again. On the beat again there was a tacking duel, which reduced Noreg's lead down to 25 seconds. Noreg again handled her spinnaker more smartly, Circe caught up once she got going, but the distance remained about thirty seconds. Things became very tense on the final reach, with Circe closed up and tried to luff Noreg above her course with a view to then bearing away swiftly, but Noreg was too alert and bore away immediately Circe did so. Near the end Circe was ahead but Noreg was to windward and the race went to Noreg by one second. Afterwards Herbert Thom went aboard the flagship and pointed out to the race committee that they had laid the finishing line incorrectly. The rules required the mark buoy to be left to starboard, but the line was to be perpendicular to the course. This had not been done, so the yachts could not sail straight through the line, but had to circle the mark and in doing this Circe had to give room to Noreg. He refused to make a formal protest however, so the result stood.

With the score level at two all there were then some  more days of agonising calm before the deciding fifth race took place.

The deciding race was run over another windward/leeward course with the start off Toward and the windward mark off Cumbrae, twice round and a distance of fourteen miles.

Noreg got a better start and sailed better to windward, turning the first mark twenty-eight seconds ahead. On the run Noreg sailed over to Bute, while Circe went straight for the mark and got there three minutes ahead. On the next beat the wind fell light. The yachts close-tacked over to Cumbrae, where the wind freed a little and Noreg turned the mark thirty-four seconds ahead. All now depended on the final downwind leg and the wind went lighter still, making it doubtful if the time limit would be met. This time Circe held over to Bute and after a frustrating spell of calm the wind eventually came from that side and took the lead, while Noreg still lay just outside the belt of moving air. With only twenty minutes left there was now a mile to cover. Circe raced along, her spinnaker now pulling well, and beat the time limit by seven minutes, with Noreg four minutes behind. The race finished amidst screeches of the sirens of steam yachts and the hooting of car horns on shore.

I clearly remember as a child being told that Herbert Thom had carefully studied the settled weather pattern of the cancelled race days and had concluded that if the wind came from anywhere it would be from Bute. Thus on round one he went straight to the mark, so as not to give anything away and on round two Noreg's skipper  of course copied what Circe had done last time.

Tenacity, local knowledge, experience, cunning and a bit of luck all went into the mixture that got the Cup for Circe and her crew against what proved a faster boat.
Post-war Circe was sold to Captain G E T Eyston and went to the Solent, while Herbert Thom enjoyed himself as a popular guest helmsman on various yachts on the Clyde, generally bringing home the prize. In early 1948 he went to the Solent and helmed Circe for Captain Eyston in the Olympic tuning-up races, winning the Solent Cup in her. Circe passed into Russian ownership and competed in the 1952 Olympics. In 1947 the Seawanhaka Cup was duly lost by J Howden Hume aboard Johan to the American's Djinn and it hasn't come back to Scotland since, despite a few challenges.

Competition for the Cup is now much wider and a lot more equal. This year's competition starts at Oyster Bay on 8 September 2011 and challengers have until 1 July 2011 to enter (see www.seawanhaka.org. Up to twelve teams can take part, with at least half based outside of the United States, sailing Sonar Class boats provided by the host club. The British-America Cup competition also continues, again in identical Sonar Class boats, and British yachtsmen have at last learned how to compete in team racing, the Royal Thames Yacht Club having won it last November.


1 comment:

  1. About the picture of Circe in 1937:
    - Circe and her spinnaker can also be viewed on a famous picture taken in the Solent in 1948 by Keith Beken.
    - See http://www.classicboat.co.uk/articles/keith-beken-1914-2007-obituary/
    - See the register of Beken photographs (picture #27413)

    ReplyDelete

The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water