History Centre Heroes: James Rich Steers
Only the fishes see a shipbuilder’s finest ideas once his vessel has slipped into the sea. It is the precise shape of the hull, the swell and curve of the timbers that give the ideal compromise between stability and speed.
The secrets of ship design were known only to their makers two centuries ago, and the mystery made the names of the fastest ships into legends and a huge source of national pride. Such a ship was the racing schooner America, first winner of the oldest trophy in international sport and the biggest prize in sailing, the America’s Cup in 1851.
Affectionately known as the ‘Auld Mug’, the America’s Cup is currently taking place in Bermuda. It’s the 35th time it’s been contested. This campaign is being sailed in high performance catamarans. Teams from Sweden, Japan, Great Britain and France have already been knocked out of the competition. The final showdown from 17-27 June will take place between defenders Oracle Team USA and challengers Emirates Team New Zealand.
But did you know that the America, the yacht that started it all, was designed by a New York company co-owned by a man from Plymouth?
James Rich Steers (1808-1896), born in Devonport in 1808, was the son of a naval engineer called Henry who was employed in the construction department of the Royal Navy Dockyards. The family emigrated to the USA in 1817 where they continued to work in the shipping business.
James helped his father salvage cargo from a sunken British cruiser in New York Harbour, then worked on a steamer before becoming a shipbuilder. He and his younger brother George (1819-1856) became famous for building the fastest pilot boats: light but seaworthy craft that raced out from harbour in all weathers to reach the big ships and offer their services to bring into port safely.
In 1850 they set up their own firm George and James R. Steers Inc. and had their own shipyard.
Confident their revolutionary hull design (a concave clipper-bow with the beam at midships) was second to none in the new world the Steers’ decided to try it in the old, taking the America across the Atlantic to Great Britain’s ‘World’s Fair’.
When the boat appeared in the Solent in July for the Royal Regatta it had already gained such a reputation there was some difficulty finding competitors. After an informal race when the winner was disputed, the America did not have another chance to compete until the final day when she joined the Royal Yacht Squadron’s £100 Cup for the first boat to sail round the Isle of Wight.
Fifteen yachts waited at the start at ten o’clock on the morning of 22 August 1851. Initially handicapped by trouble with the anchor, the America quickly reached the leading pack, making fifth place after half an hour. When the race was nearly over, her pilot decided to risk sailing landward of a lightship on some shoals named the Nab Rocks, shortening the distance and winning her first place – 18 minutes ahead of her nearest rival. When Queen Victoria asked who came second, she was told, ‘There is no second your Majesty.’
The next America’s Cup took place in 1870 and the USA retained its title. Indeed, it would continue to do so for the next 132 years, defending it twenty four times until 1983 when it was taken by Australia II. Since then the USA has won the Cup in 1987, 1988, 1992, 2010 and 2013. New Zealand won it in 1995 and 2000. Switzerland were victorious in 2003 and 2007.
Steers retired in 1857, the year after his brother George died unexpectedly just as he was about to secure a major contract to design a boat for the Tsar of Russia. He became involved in local politics and remained so until his death. He was a rich man and he passed his business to his son Henry who continued the family tradition, building a number of boats for the Pacific Mail Steamship Company.
by Rosemary Babichev and Jo Clarke