Arts and Leisure

The Beautiful Freak Reliance Defends the America’s Cup in 1903

The beautiful behemoth Reliance handily defended the America’s Cup in 1903, but her freakishly large size caused the contest’s rules on design to change after the race.

The Reliance before winning the America's Cup challenge

The Reliance before winning the America’s Cup challenge

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, a self-made millionaire, had built a chain of grocery stores in Britain and invented the tea bag. He loved yachting, and he hired Britain’s best yacht designers to build his challengers, all named Shamrock.

Captain Nat

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. They 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 and he suffered from rheumatism. He also hadn’t gotten over the failure of his yacht Constitution to beat Columbia in the 1901 Cup trials.

But the New York Yacht Club persisted. Captain Nat gave in.

He would enjoy another 10 years of the ‘Herreshoff Era’ of racing, from 1890 to 1920.

Herreshoff launched Reliance 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 Freak Reliance

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.

The challenge featured a series of five races 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 retired.

The Reliance crew.

The Reliance crew.

Lipton, as always, lost graciously. 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 then accepted.

Reliance went to the scrap heap in 1913. The Herreshoff Marine Museum in Bristol built a one-sixth model of the Reliance.

With thanks to Temple to the Wind: The Story of America’s Greatest Naval Architect and His Masterpiece, Reliance, by Christopher Pastore.  This story about the Reliance was updated in 2020. 

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