1887: The Launch of a Champion Yacht

June 30, 1887

A yacht named Volunteer, which had been built by the Pusey and Jones Company for that year’s edition of the international sailing competition known as the America’s Cup, was officially launched. Volunteer was specifically a sloop (a sailboat with a single mast) equipped with a centerboard, which is a retractable keel that pivots out of a slot in the hull of a vessel. That retractability enabled Volunteer’s centerboard to be raised to effectively operate in shallow waters and it also helped reduce overall drag on the vessel whenever the entire portion of the centerboard was not needed. In addition, the deck of Volunteer was made of white pine. This vessel would also become the first America’s Cup yacht with an all-steel frame and hull.

Volunteer was designed by Edward Burgess. Other racing yachts that he had designed were Puritan, which defeated the English yacht Genesta for the America’s Cup in 1885; and Mayflower, which beat out her English counterpart Galatea in the 1886 edition of that international competition. The owner of Volunteer was Charles J. Paine of the New York Yacht Club. Along with being an avid yachtsman, Paine had served as a Union Army general during the American Civil War.

The early-evening launch of Volunteer took place at the Pusey and Jones Company’s shipyard at the section of the Christina River in Wilmington, Delaware. Approximately 1,000 people showed up for the event. The next day’s edition of the Wilmington-based Morning News reported, “There were no formal christening ceremonies at the launch and the breaking of the usual bottle of vinious extract was omitted.”

Despite the comparative lack of traditional fanfare, the launch of Volunteer still proved to be exciting if somewhat intense for those in attendance. “As the boat struck the water, owing to the peculiar construction of her stern, she made a dip that conveyed the impression to many that she was going under,” recounted the Morning News. “A few ‘oh’s’ were heard among the spectators as those on the yacht’s deck stooped to meet the shock that came.” This article further noted, “Not a drop of water struck the deck of the craft, which, in less time than it took to write this sentence, floated as buoyant as a duck.”

Three months after her memorable launch, Volunteer — skippered by Captain Henry C. “Hank” Haff — prevailed over the Scottish yacht Thistle to win the America’s Cup during races in New York Bay. “The America’s cup remains in America,” proclaimed the Ohio-based Hicksville News. “The Volunteer won a great victory on [September 30], and settled for the present her superiority over any yacht ever designed on the other side of the Atlantic . . . Hundreds of craft of all sorts had gathered to honor Gen. Paine’s yacht, and all celebrated the victory in boisterous fashion.” (The above picture of Volunteer competing in that year’s edition of the America’s Cup was taken by renowned maritime photographer John S. Johnston.)

Not long after winning the America’s Cup, Volunteer was acquired by yachtsman and business executive John Malcolm Forbes. The yacht was subsequently modified as a schooner (a multi-masted sailing vessel), complete with a cabin and seven staterooms. Volunteer was eventually rerigged as a sloop, however, and ultimately broken apart in 1910 at a New York junkyard.

Photo Credit: Public Domain

Additional information on the racing yacht Volunteer is available at https://www.nps.gov/safr/learn/historyculture/the-yacht-volunteer.htm

For more information on yachts that have won the America’s Cup, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_America%27s_Cup_challengers_and_defenders

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