After a drunken evening in New York’s lavish Union Club, three of the richest men in America made a bet that would change the course of yachting history. Six men died in the brutal first race across the Atlantic, turning the perception of yachting from gentleman’s pursuit to rugged adventure. The $90,000 prize (about $15 million today) helped to herald the “gilded age” of America.
Sam Jefferson’s new book Gordon Bennett and the First Yacht Race Across the Atlantic (Bloomsbury, 2016) tells the tale of James Gordon Bennett, Jr., the playboy son of the New York Herald multi-millionaire.
Bennett was no stranger to crazy antics. His stunts included driving a carriage through New York while naked, tipping a porter $30,000, and showing up to his own engagement party so drunk that he mistook a fireplace for a urinal. The daring race fit right in with Bennett’s usual behavior.
Despite being mostly known for his bizarre actions, Bennett was also a serious yachtsman who served with distinction during the Civil War. His comfort at sea allowed him to be the only owner aboard his boat during the Atlantic race.
Along with Bennett’s story are those of his captain Samuel Samuels, a legendary clipper skipper, ex-convict, and occasional vaudeville actor; financier and turf man Leonard Jerome, grandfather to Winston Churchill; and Stephen Fisk, a journalist so desperate to cover the race that he evaded a summons to appear as a witness in court and, instead, smuggled himself aboard Henrietta in a crate of champagne.
Gordon Bennett and the First Yacht Race Across the Atlantic is a story of scandal, adventure, and a monumental moment in yachting history. These colorful characters were desperate to win at any cost, and this book tells just how the eccentric group pulled it off.
Author Sam Jefferson is a journalist and maritime historian, and is one of the leading authorities on the clipper ship era. He is a former deputy editor of Sailing Today, and writes regularly for Classic Boat, Sailing Today, and Traditional Boats and Tall Ships. He is the author of Clipper Ships and the Golden Age of Sail and Sea Fever, both published by Bloomsbury.
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