A brisk northwesterly wind kicked up whitecaps that grew more robust beyond the lee of Staten Island, out toward Romer Shoal and the open Atlantic east of the Sandy Hook Lightship. The front that brought the northwester and the cold on March 12, 1887, had scrubbed the air clean of fog and clouds, making the sailing vessels and steamers under way in the Main Ship Channel, leading from Sandy Hook bar to the snug upper bay off the Battery in New York City, stand out in perfect clarity against the low, purple backdrop of Long Island’s southern shore.
Amid the procession of inbound and outbound coastal traders, transatlantic liners, and tramp steamers in the lower bay were two graceful schooners, the symbols of opulence that so typified New York in the Gilded Age and the pride of the men who owned them. These fine craft were the talk of the town. The chatter arose from the interest surrounding the transatlantic race slated to start within minutes. One of the boats was an unknown quantity, the 133-foot Coronet, a schooner designed and built almost two years earlier for her owner, industrialist Rufus T. Bush, as a world cruising boat. She sailed against the swift schooner Dauntless, a long-time winner in New York racing circles and the pride and joy of Caldwell Colt, son of Samuel Colt, inventor of the Colt .45-caliber revolver.
It had all started with a letter from Bush challenging any comers in the New York Yacht Club to a race of approximately 3,000 miles to Queenstown, Ireland, for a prize of $10,000. Colt, who considered Dauntless the fastest keelboat afloat, readily accepted, and so it was that a race that inspired banner headlines in the city’s largest dailies went from the boasts of both men in the clubhouse bar to the reality of a closely matched pair of thoroughbreds braving the spring storms of the North Atlantic. Most wealthy members of the New York Yacht Club put their money on Dauntless, though a few placed substantial wagers on Coronet. Bush’s schooner was designed after the swift New York pilot boats and might sail like the wind.
Favoring the warm confines of his mansion, Bush didn’t sail in his schooner, rightly believing the passage would be rough. He’d spent $30,000 outfitting Coronet for the race, including shortening the topmasts and having 10 additional tons of lead ballast bolted to the keel. These expenses brought the total cost of the boat to $100,000. The $10,000 prize meant little to Bush, nor did it matter much to Colt, who sailed aboard Dauntless during the race for the sheer thrill of it. For them, the purse was of secondary importance. Winning was everything.
At 1314, Coronet crossed the starting line ahead of Dauntless, and Coronet’s captain, Christopher Crosby, put the boat on an easterly heading with the wind off the port quarter. Dauntless followed fast, but gradually the distance between the boats broadened, and soon the crews saw nothing save for the heaving sea. The five newsmen aboard Coronet, official observers of the race, tired of the cold and went below, stepping down the marble stairs of the main companionway and proceeding through the stained-glass doors to the 18- by 18-foot main saloon, with its fireplace, upright piano, sofas and chairs, deep-pile carpet, and chandelier. The six staterooms were equally palatial.
As the men enjoyed drinks while bracing themselves against the violent motion of the boat, it came up in conversation that all of their editors had asked them to write their obituaries prior to departure and that their respective publishers had all denied them life insurance for the voyage. Yacht racing was dangerous, and racing across the ocean in mid-March was thought especially so. There was reason for concern, though no one, of course, knew it at the time. Gathering far to the west were several of the most powerful low-pressure systems any mariner had seen in decades, and they were streaking toward the two racers.
Captain Crosby pushed the schooner hard, ordering sail changes with every wind shift. Coronet carried a 3,000-square-foot square sail, which boosted her overall canvas to more than 8,000 square feet. Crosby deployed it whenever possible, racking up a run of 246 miles and hitting 13 knots at times on March 13. He did almost as well the next day. Coronet closed with the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, increasing the danger of encountering icebergs riding the Labrador Current southward to threaten the shipping lanes. New York lay far astern, and Dauntless was nowhere in sight. The reporter for The New York Times wrote, “Cloth after cloth unfolded to the breeze, and the Coronet went swirling over the sea like a flying cloud.”
It was sailing at its best, despite the high winds and seas and the cold, threatening weather. By March 16, the ship’s logbook recorded a total of 892 nautical miles made good over the ground from New York, an average of 10 knots and often better. Dauntless was also sailing well. The race could go to either vessel.
Thursday, March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, came in with light winds from the southeast and a heavy swell from the west. Dawn revealed a thick layer of low clouds stretching from horizon to horizon. Later in the day, Crosby noted a dramatic plunge in barometric pressure within a few hours. The wind shifted south and kept clocking west. A veteran mariner at the age of 57, he knew the signs of an impending blow, and as the schooner ghosted along with all sails set, rolling with seas almost dead aft, the captain ordered his men to make ready for the storm.
The wind built. It was exhilarating to stand on deck and gaze forward as the schooner surged through the waves. But then, almost as if a switch had been thrown, the wind and seas rapidly increased, so much so that Crosby specifically mentioned the quick deterioration of conditions in the ship’s log. He was worried. Dusk was deepening, the storm was upon him, and the iceberg threat lay ahead. He shouted orders to strike the remaining sails, leaving only a reefed fore-trysail flying, as he hove the yacht to in the mounting gale. He did so just in time.
“Then followed a scene that beggars description,” wrote the reporter for The Times. “Terrific squalls tore across the sea. The roar of the battling elements was deafening. The stricken vessel reeled like a falling man. The sky was an unbroken expanse of heavy leaden clouds, and dingy brown scud swept across the face of the heavens.”
By midnight, the schooner was running with the storm. Winds in excess of 80 knots lashed the boat, and seas over 30 feet often swept the deck. Foam filled the air, and wind-driven spray stung the faces of the sailors on deck. Down below in the main saloon, some of the officers and all of the passengers gathered together. “We had enough to do to think of ourselves,” The Times reporter wrote, “but many a time during this day . . . our thoughts flew to Dauntless.”
The westerly gale held throughout the following day, and the temperature dropped below freezing. However, Crosby got the schooner under way, setting a reefed storm trysail, then a staysail. An interlude of fine weather followed, but it lasted only a day before another strong gale bore down on the yacht. Her progress slowed as she battled the sea and a northeasterly wind, and on March 22 she logged only 38 miles. The 15 men in the crew were exhausted, but Crosby drove them as hard as he did the ship, and the pace picked up once again. By March 26, all aboard knew the Irish coast drew near, and all aboard were amazed at Coronet’s speed; she hit 16 knots at times in the strong southwesterly wind. Her run for the day was 291 nautical miles. “It took our breath away,” one reporter wrote.
But where was Dauntless? Ahead? Astern? Had she made it through the storms? Those were the questions everyone was asking. At 0740 on March 27, Fastnet came into view. Not long after that, Crosby hove to and took on a pilot. When asked of Dauntless, he said she’d not been seen. Cheers rang out on board, but many were also “inwardly praying that our little antagonist was as safe and sound as the Coronet was,” The New York Times reporter wrote. (She was; she finished 30 hours after Coronet.)
Crosby cracked on all sail. Coronet surged on, finishing the last of her 2,949-mile run from New York to Queenstown, Ireland. She covered the distance in 14 days, 19 hours, 3 minutes, and 14 seconds, a time equal to that of the fleetest of American packets back when sail still ruled the seas 40 years before and New York yards turned out some of the fastest sailing ships the world had ever seen.
The author of seven nonfiction books, including Daring the Sea, David W. Shaw is a Cruising World associate editor.