More “Big Class” on Film, 1899

Evidence of libraries and archives increasingly digitising their collections, and therefore making them more accessible, was unfolding before our eyes during the research for Martin Black’s book G.L. Watson – The Art and Science of Yacht Design.

The Library of Congress seems to have been more active than most, but maybe it’s just that they have more than most.

This astounding Thomas Edison footage of the New York Yacht Club’s defender Columbia leading Sir Thomas Lipton’s William Fife designed Shamrock (I) round the leeward mark during the final race of the 1899 America’s Cup series is a good example of the previously unthought-of of wealth in their collections.

For those weaned on the Mediterranean classic regattas, the moment in time that unfolds here may not seem remarkable. For folk with an interest in America’s Cup and yachting history that covers a more extended period… well, we have to pinch ourselves; all our monochrome, still images brought to life.

There’s so much going on here, and to talk about – it warrants a commentary.

First, ignore almost everything Edison and the Library say about it.

October 20th 1899. The course is downwind from Sandy Hook Lightship followed by a beat back to the finish: leeward-windward in a fresh breeze.

As the desperately chasing boat, Shamrock has held onto her spinnaker for longer and sports a jib-headed topsail. Charlie Barr on Columbia has calmly lowered his spinnaker in time to re-stow its exceedingly long pole, allowing more concentration on sail trim to round the leeward mark 17 seconds ahead of the challenger.

Right at the end of this clip we see Columbia pounding into steep seas as she rounds up for the beat home, followed by Shamrock with her pole still hovering over the foredeck and her huge boom dragging in the water as her crew struggles to sheet in the mainsail.

It is hard to imagine the grunt involved in working these huge rigs without the assistance of winches – ‘mandraulics’ as it became known by Solent based professionals during the classic revival of the 1980’s and 90s, when such arts were being rediscovered.

Columbia eventually had gained 5 minutes on Shamrock by the finish to win by 6 mins 34 secs on corrected time and retain the Cup.

New Zealand artist Tony Blake’s painting from the race vividly colours the scene.

Two years later Lipton was back with the tank-tested, G.L. Watson designed Shamrock II.

Shamrock II leading Columbia, 1901 America's CupLibrary of Congress

Shamrock II leading Columbia, 1901 America’s Cup.
Library of Congress

Martin Black’s descriptions of the 1901 America’s Cup races in G.L. Watson – The Art and Science of Yacht Design capture the excitement of that closely fought series, backed up by high quality images, some from the Library of Congress collections and others from G.L. Watson’s own albums.



About Peggy Bawn Press

496pg biography of Scottish yacht designer, George Lennox Watson (1851-1904). Significant book on the history of yacht design & the development of modern yachting. Beautifully illustrated. Many photographs previously unpublished.
This entry was posted in America's Cup, art, Big Class, Captains, film, G.L. Watson, G.L. Watson clients, Irish yachting, tank testing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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