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?

Portrait_of_J._Rich_Steers 1896 New York Herald Tribune Obituary
Portrait of James Rich Steers from his 1896 obituary in the New York Herald Tribune

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.

James Rich Steers' younger brother and business partner George Steers
James Rich Steers’ younger brother and business partner George Steers

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.

The famous Schooner yacht, America
The famous Schooner yacht, America

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

 

 

History Centre Heroes: Sir Francis Chichester

by Rosemary Babichev

We’ll be hearing lots about Sir Francis Chichester over the next couple of weeks. Perhaps the largest crowd ever to gather on Plymouth Hoe – a quarter of a million people – saw the 65 year-old sail home to finish the first west-east solo circumnavigation of the world fifty years ago, on 28 May 1967.

Crowds on Plymouth Hoe to watch Sir Francis Chichester's return in 1967

Hundreds of small ships scattered across the Sound let off their hooters and sirens, fireboats sprayed red, white and blue water and the navy gave a ten-gun salute in an extraordinary celebration over land and sea.

The event was shown on TV, and the heroic yachtsman with his ketch Gipsy Moth IV at once became internationally famous for his heroic feat of skill and endurance.

The accolades poured in immediately. He was knighted by the queen just two months later with the same sword Elizabeth I used to knight another Sir Francis for the first global circumnavigation by an Englishman.

Such a stack of historical parallels even drove the Royal Mail to break a tradition that had never permitted: the depiction of a living person (baring members of the royal family) on a postage stamp. That same year the new one shilling and nine pence stamp bore a picture of Chichester aboard his record-breaking vessel.

Sir Francis Chichester entering Plymouth Sound in 1967

Having won the first solo transatlantic yacht race in 1960 and beating his own record two years later, he then set the yardstick for round the world solo yacht racing. Over the following years his time of 119 days went down to 94 (Ellen MacArthur) in 2001, then 71 in 2005, resting at present at only 57 days since 2008.

Chichester came to yachting late in life. Born in 1901, he began his career as an airman. As soon as he gained his pilot’s licence he attempted to break the record for solo flight to Australia.

Too slow to succeed due to mechanical problems he nevertheless proved the utility for air travel of off course navigation, an ancient method in which you deliberately sail the wrong way in order to get to the right place faster. It gave greater accuracy as well, and allowed him make the first ever aerial landings on two tiny Pacific islands: Norfolk and Lord Howe, where the islanders helped him rebuild his damaged plane.

Too old to engage in active service during the Second World War, he joined the reserves and used his expertise to write the manual instructing pilots on solo missions over Europe.

Sir Francis Chichester 28 May 1967

It was his passion for navigation that compelled him to undertake these huge journeys rather than any enjoyment of their solitary deprivations. On returning to Plymouth in 1967, he is quoted as saying: ‘What I would like after four months of my own cooking is the best dinner from the best chef in the best surroundings and in the best company.’ Let’s hope he found it close by.

History Centre Heroes: Ellen MacArthur DBE

by Rosemary Babichev

It was ‘Swallows and Amazons’ the classic children’s story of sailing and adventure on the Norfolk Broads that led Ellen MacArthur to choose the tack that made her a record breaking yachtswoman. She first hit the headlines sailing solo round the world aged only 24, little more than a decade after saving up for her first boat, the ‘Threp’ny Bit’ with money from missing dinners at school in Derbyshire where she grew up.

Photographic portrait of female sailor Ellen MacArthur

Her connection with Plymouth came in 2000 when left the port to race to Rhode Island in the USA in just 14 days, 23 hours and 11 minutes, setting the record for a woman making a solo passage East-West across the Atlantic. She has continued to champion the city as the starting point for the Transat, the first solo yacht race in history which has started from Plymouth ever since it began in 1960.

Her most incredible feat is circumnavigating the globe entirely alone in her high-speed trimaran in 2005. She had to face heaving seas fleeing from an 80 mile-an-hour storm in the Southern Ocean, knowing she was at any time four days away from being rescued – the nearest humans were on the international space station somewhere above. She successfully took the record from Frenchman Francis Joyon, and though he took it back three years later, she is still the fastest woman to sail round the world solo to this date.

On a vessel leaping across mountainous waves, racing the clock she knew her life depended making the right decisions in her battle with the weather, but that she had total control over everything that happened on the ship. MacArthur learnt above all the importance of planning. Each last item she needed during the voyage had to be brought from the outset, if something got used up she would have do make do without.

Photography of Ellen MacArthur celebrating after breaking the round the world sailing record

After this, shocked by abandoned whaling stations on a desolate island in the South Atlantic while on a survey of Albatross she began to see her experiences on a boat at sea as a metaphor for our world in the universe. Like the food and materials she used as she sailed along, she felt the critical importance of doing something to stop coal, oil and gas being burnt up to no advantage to the planet.

Since 2008, instead of using her immense determination to plan ever faster solo crossings, MacArthur seeks out international decision makers and people of influence in universities and governments to explore ways of developing a ‘circular economy’. Waste would be eliminated altogether. Every product would be designed to have a complete ‘life cycle’ – each component when obsolete or used up could be used in other products or services and have new functions in supporting human life.

She now runs the Ellen MacArthur Foundation that funds research into plastics and textiles, beer making from waste bread, and urban biocycles. It supports an online community to ensure the ideas behind changing from a one way, linear economy to a circular one are discussed continuously.

Photograph of an Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust sailing yacht

Her lifelong love of the excitement and freedom of sailing she shares with children suffering life-threatening illness through the Ellen MacArthur cancer trust. MacArthur has now put her courage and commitment to survival in the service of other people.