The challenge for the America’s Cup that year was issued by British tea magnate Sir Thomas Lipton. He had already challenged America twice since 1899 for the Cup, and he would challenge twice again until 1930.
Lipton was a self-made millionaire who built a chain of grocery stores in Britain and invented the tea bag. He was a passionate yachtsman who hired Britain’s best yacht designers to build his challengers, all named Shamrock.
The New York Yacht Club, defender of the Cup, enlisted America’s best yacht designer – and one of the most innovative in history. Nathaniel Greene Herreshoff, or Captain Nat, was born March 18, 1848 in Bristol, R.I. He and his brother J.B. founded the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company and earned worldwide renown for their fast steam yachts, innovative torpedo boats and superbly crafted sailboats
Captain Nat, then in his 50s, didn’t want to design the 1903 America’s Cup defender. His wife Clara was ill, he suffered from rheumatism and he was depressed because of the failure of his yacht Constitution to beat Columbia in the 1901 Cup trials. The New York Yacht Club persisted. He gave in.
He would enjoy another 10 years of the ‘Herreshoff Era’ of racing, from 1890 to 1920.
Reliance was launched at Bristol on April 12, 1903. She was the largest single-masted sailboat ever, at 143’, 9” with 16,160 sq. ft. of sails, weighing four tons, from the Lawrence textile mills. Her mast was as tall as a 20-story building. Her spinnaker pole was 84 feet long. It took a crew of 66 to sail her. And yet she was built for speed, so she was light -- and unstable.
The Reliance was a freak. A sailing freak. Like all racing yachts, she had one purpose and one purpose alone: to win the America’s Cup.
Yachtsman Cornelius Vanderbilt defended the Reliance from its critics:
Call the boat a freak, anything you like, but we cannot handicap ourselves, even if our boat is only fit for the junk heap the day after the race.
It was a best of five series in New York Harbor. Hundreds of thousands of spectators streamed into New York for the races, buying tickets on a fleet of excursion steamers. The race was more than a race. It was a matter of national pride.
Reliance won the first three races, the third so decisively that Shamrock III was forced to retire.
Lipton, as always, was a gracious loser. He would go on to lose his next two challenges. In 1930, the American people presented him with a gold cup for his good sportsmanship.
Lipton had no regrets, he said. Yacht racing ‘has kept me young, eager, buoyant and hopeful. It has brought me health and splendid friends.’ (Those friends included King Edward VII and King George V.)
Immediately after Reliance won the race, Nathanael Herreshoff proposed the Universal rating rule to avoid such extreme, dangerous and expensive sailboats. The rule was accepted.
With thanks to Temple to the Wind: The Story of America's Greatest Naval Architect and His Masterpiece, Reliance, by Christopher Pastore. This story was updated in 2017.