Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Shoe String Shot at Blue Ribbon: Schooner Days CCCIII (303)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 31 Jul 1937
Full Text
Shoe String Shot at Blue Ribbon
Schooner Days CCCIII (303)


How Capt. Cuthbert, Professional Lake Sailor and Builder, Tried for America's Cup With the Pride of Cobourg


EVEN at the risk of ringing in a repeater, one cannot refrain from again pointing out that Canada had a whack at the America's Cup sixty years ago — two whacks, in fact — and that each time the effort was made primarily through the audacious courage of a skipper of Schooner Days, Capt. "Al" Cuthbert, of Cobourg. Toronto talent entered into it, for the first challenge was under the burgee of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club, and the second challenge, while under the colors of of the Belleville or Bay of Quinte Yacht Club, was made, as the late Commodore A. R. Boswell emphasized, with the consent of the Royal Canadian. Lord Dufferin, a yachtsman of high repute, was Governor-General of Canada in 1876, and this yacht of Cuthbert's creation was named after the Governor-General's wife, who died only last year, aged ninety-three. It appears that the only connection the Dufferins had with the schooner or her challenge for the America's Cup was that the yacht had been named after the countess, presumably by permission.

As pointed out earlier, Cuthbert had the same trouble that afflicts all of us sailors—lack of capital. His yachting ventures were all on a shoestring. He succeeded in interesting Major Charles Gifford, of Cobourg, Vice-Commodore of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club, in his ambitious project. Major Gifford formed a syndicate, which scraped together some money, and secured the auspices of his club for the formal challenge for the America's Cup, then as now the blue ribbon of the yachting world. It is worthy of note that in The Telegram's accounts of the races in 1876 the trophy, is always referred to as the Queen's Cup — as it was known when America won it. The challenge was formally that of Major Gifford and the Royal Canadian Yacht Club. The actual challenger was the bold Capt. Cuthbert.

Major Torrance and Messrs. Fred Lucas, brother of Allen Lucas, later Commodore of the Royal Hamilton Yacht Club, and Thos. Leggett and Massey Geddes, all of Hamilton, were in the syndicate. At any rate these last three young yachtsmen were among the handful of amateurs who contributed $100 apiece for expenses and helped sail the Countess of Dufferin down to New York by way of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. They also had to come across pretty heavily to keep her going after getting there.

The poor Countess was the best that Cuthbert could do on the limited resources at his disposal, She looked a winner with her long razor bow, when she slid into the water at Cobourg, but when the critics saw her coming up the bay in New York they panned her unmercifully.

"A clumsy coaster rather than a racer," "sails fitting like a purser's shirt on a handspike," "bad imitation of a Yankee-yacht built in Canada," "clapboard top and roughcast bottom" were some of the wisecracks hurled at her. The discerning admitted that she looked to be an improvement upon the Cora and the flatiron model. Their criticism of her design was the position of her sternport, which they considered too far forward. It was felt on all sides; that she was so roughly finished and poorly rigged; that she would have no chance against the spick-and-span highly groomed schooner Madeleine, which had been chosen to meet her.

Her topsails did not fit and her maintopmast staysail was such a mess that it had to be hoisted three times in the first race before it could be trimmed, and was finally carried upside down in an effort to make it draw. The mainsail, made and bent at Kingston by Oldreeve and Horne, on the way to battle, had proved too big for the mainmast, so a new mast was made at Quebec, to hold up the big sail. Apparently the mainsail was too big for the yacht no matter what spar spread it, for it is on record that she always had to carry her jibtopsail in order to make her steer. A jibtopsail is often a hindrance going to windward, and a griping mainsail is a hindrance at all times. All her working sails except the jibs had to be made over or replaced with new ones after she got to New York. The new outfit was far from perfect and she still lacked balloon canvas.

The Madeleine had been built as a sloop eight years before by David Kirby. She was altered radically five years later, being lengthened and hipped out, that is, made fuller in section so as to get more power, and re-rigged as a schooner. After these changes she rode the whir wind of victory, especially in long distance races. Three times in succession she defeated the flyer Mohawk, a huge shoal schooner whose tragic capsize a little later ended the popularity of the over-canvassed skimming-dish type into which the largest racers had degenerated.

The Countess of Dufferin had certainly enough sail to make her move like a ghost in light winds and turn her skipper's hair white in heavy. But that is the way racing schooners were rigged then—a tremendous spread of muslin, including many fancy kites and balloon sails, spread out wide so as to keep the centre of effort low. They were sailed on the trigger, the helmsman having to luff them to ease the pressure and keep them on their feet in a breeze, and the foresheet often being let run to keep them from capsizing.

All this has since been changed, T. O. M. Sopwith's Endeavour II, with her 165 foot mast, would tickle clouds fifty or sixty feet above the Countess of Dufferin's highest sail, but her spread as measured is only 7,550 square feet. It would take her to windward three feet to the Countess' one. Running down the wind Endeavour can set a spinnaker like a circus tent, of double the measured area of her total sail plan—15,000 square feet. The poor Countess had no spinnaker at all when she went to New York, just a squaresail for running, like a Welland Canaller. Even so, on a run or reach she could go faster than Endeavour; that was where those skimming dishes made their time. She is said to have done fourteen knots frequently.

The Madeleine and the Countess of Dufferin were both exponents of this same dangerous type, but less extreme than the fatal Mohawk.

The Madeleine was 106 feet over all, 95 feet on the waterline, 24 feet beam and 7 feet 4 inches draught with her centreboard up. The Countess of Dufferin was 107 feet over all, 23 ft. 7 in., beam and 101 feet on the waterline. Her after overhang was 11 feet, and her forward overhang little or none, her carved cutwater giving her the appearance of an overhanging or clipper bow without its reality. The Countess of Dufferin, on a draught ranging between 7 feet 3 inches and 6 feet 6 inches, is said to have spread 4,000 yards of canvas. Six-foot-six is about the draught of an 8-metre to-day, and the 8's spread only 850 square feet.

They laughed at her when she got to New York, but Major Gifford went info the Brenton Reef race from Sandy Hook to Newport and back, as a preliminary canter to the America's Cup. Tidal Wave, Wanderer, Idler and the original America all took her on. She beat the America on the run to the Reef, but the Idler beat her home by hours. It was, of course, a long race, something like up and down Lake Ontario, and a large margin might well separate the contestants. But the Countess, with Major Gifford in nominal command, Al Cuthbert sailing master, Capt. J. Brotherson, navigator, and only seven sailors to muzzle her four thousand yards of cloth, made a poor showing.

Somehow, with the generous assistance of the Americans who had received this cheeky challenge from the Canadian back woods, the Countess of Dufferin was then groomed for the blue ribbon event. She was hauled out for scraping and polishing, and she needed this so badly that much of the scraping was done with jackplanes, so roughly had she been finished. Money was even found for adequate sails for her. And so, with Joe Ellsworth of Bayonne, N.J., as pilot, and American sails aloft and American elbow grease on deck and below—meaning the American sailors lent from the yacht Comet, and the blacklead on her bottom—she came to the line for the first race of the America's Cup series. This was on Aug. 11th, 1876; twenty yachts sailing the course with her off Sandy Hook and twelve excursion steamers carrying the crowds.

It was an improved Countess this time, but the Madeline, with her polished copper bottom shining like gold, still had the heels of her, and beat her by ten minutes on the forty-mile triangle. They raced again next day, twenty miles to windward and return, with the "old" America thrown in by courtesy. The America, it should be remembered, was only twenty-five years afloat at this time, and still in her prime. Madeline led at the weather mark, America three minutes behind her and the Countess nine minutes behind America. Coming back, under balloon canvas, America doubled her lead and Madeline beat the challenger by an appalling margin, 27 minutes and 14 seconds.

There were, of course, innumerable alibis, but the fact remains that the Countess of Dufferin was so ill-equipped both in crew, sails, rigging and hull condition, even after her brush up through the kindness of the challenged, that she really could not race. No matter how great Al Cuthbert's genius as a designer, wilder and sailor, it could not take the place of the hard cash needed or the thousand refinements of detail construction, rigging and sails, nor could it make up for the lack of an adequate crew, trained by seasons of teamwork; and where late aspirants had millions to spend, Cuthbert had to borrow hundreds.

The Countess of Dufferin came back to Lake Ontario by painful stages after a sheriffs sale in New York of Major Gifford's interest, and took part in local regattas, doing well. In 1879 she lay lonely at anchor in Burlington Bay, for sale for $5,000 with no takers, and charging 25 cents a head admission for sight-seers. Finally Capt. Prindiville, of Chicago, a schooner man who made money and became commodore of the Chicago Yacht Club, bought her at a bargain and took her west. She sailed some great races on Lake Michigan, and became a floating yacht clubhouse. About the time of the World's Fair of 1893 she was taken outside the Chicago breakwater and scuttled, and there she lies, sanded over these forty years or more. A great yacht, named after a great lady, capable of great things, but less fortunate in fulfillment than her gracious namesake.

Al Cuthbert was a good sailor and left his mark on lake yachting. His Annie Cuthbert beat the Cora at Put In Bay on Lake Erie in 1874 and took from her the Fisher Cup, which is still an international trophy of great importance. She beat the Cora again on Lake St. Clair for the Goodwin Cup. Capt. Cuthbert sold her to Hamilton yachtsmen and was sailing the Dauntless of Cobourg in 1875. In a heavy weather free-for-all which the Royal Canadian Yacht Club gave that year, out the Eastern Gap to Mimico and return, he raced the Dauntless against the Annie Cuthbert and half a dozen Toronto yachts. Col. Shaw, owner of the Ina, and one of his guests, a Mr. Lee, were swept overboard in a jibe. Cuthbert spun the Dauntless around, picked them up and saved their lives, and went on with the race.

The Annie Cuthbert had got away from him in the maneuver, and finished first, with Dauntless second. Cuthbert protested the race on ground that his old love had not turned back to render assistance to the distressed Ina crew. The committee accepted his protest and award the race to the Dauntless.

Still lives in lake lore the famous "Cuthbert jibe." He was an adept at stopping a vessel in her tracks - a most useful maneuver when coming-to in crowded harbors like Cobourg's in the old days. Running in before the wind, without a word of warning to her crew, he would roll the wheel hard up, and swing the mainsail over "all standing" with a bang enough to twist the stern off the yacht. All the time he would be rounding her up in one continuous narrow circle, cheating the wind of a chance to fill the jibed mainsail. As one old-timer describes it, "a Cuthbert jibe turned the yacht in side out in her own length." Cuthbert's yachts were always lightly built and fastened; he expected them to leak, and they never disappointed him. His theory was that a basket craft wriggled through the water where the rigid one stood still.


COUNTESS OF DIFFERIN - From an old Currier and Ives print in the archives of the Canadian Yacht Club.

COUNTESS OF DUFFERIN (left) and MADELEINE (right) starting off Sandy Hook in their first race for the America's Cup, Aug. 11th, 1876.)

THE LAUNCHING WAYS AT COBOURG, 1876 - From an old photograph I the possession of the Cuthbert family.

Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type
Date of Publication
31 Jul 1937
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.95977 Longitude: -78.16515
  • New Jersey, United States
    Latitude: 40.44316 Longitude: -73.98986
Richard Palmer
Copyright Statement
Public domain: Copyright has expired according to the applicable Canadian or American laws. No restrictions on use.
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Shoe String Shot at Blue Ribbon: Schooner Days CCCIII (303)