What was actually said to Queen Victoria that day in August, 1851, is likely lost to history or the vagaries of partisan mythology.
It was August 22, and the America, the sole entry from the United States, was racing against a fleet of 14 or 15 — accounts vary — British yachts in what would ever after be known as the America’s Cup.
The America, a 101-foot schooner, took on, in essence, the Royal Yacht Squadron in the 53 nautical mile regatta around the Isle of Wight that began at 10 in the morning.
By late afternoon, Queen Victoria, observing the race at some distance aboard the royal yacht, the Victoria and Albert, supposedly asked aloud: “Are the yachts in sight?”
“Only the America. May it please your Majesty,” came the reply from the signalmaster, according to an account published by American Heritage Magazine in August 1958.
“Which is second?” the queen queried.
“Ah, your Majesty, there is no second,” to quote the answer that has resounded in history, legend and, as it happens, art. Reading through a variety of recreations of that moment it appears the queen was told either “Ah, your Majesty, there is no second” or “Ma’am, there is no second” or “Madam, there is no second” or “Madame, there is no second place.”
Or, as yet another reading has it, this by David W. Shaw in his 2002 book, “America’s Victory: The Heroic Story of a Team of Ordinary Americans — And How They Won the Greatest Yacht Race Ever,” the queen already sailed for home, convinced the British yacht Aurora, the nearest competitor, would not catch up to the America and the race was over.
“… And aboard the yachts gathered to see the finish, the news of the race’s probable outcome spread fast,” wrote Shaw.
“‘Is the America first?’ was the question on everyone’s lips.”
“‘Yes,’ came the replies from the passengers aboard the steamers.”
“‘What’s second?’” “‘Nothing.’” The moment, whatever the reality, has inspired any number of marine artists through the years, two of whom, both highly regarded painters, hold special interest to me.
Adorning my walls for some time has been one of my favorite posters, painted by Christopher Blossom, of Stratford, Conn., who in the 1980s rendered an intimate, aerial perspective of America’s victory bearing, beneath the painting, the quote “Ah, your Majesty, there is no second.” The painting has proven to be a best-selling poster.
Russ Kramer, of Mystic, who was awarded Best in Show at the 2017 Mystic Outdoor Art Festival, the first time he participated, and has a gallery of his marine paintings above the Finer Line Gallery in downtown Mystic, offered up an ocean-level, full action perspective of the America’s captain and mate and crew, as the schooner approaches The Needles, a rock outcrop off the Isle of Wight, bearing the title, “Yacht America: No Second Place.”
Kramer, past president of the 500-member American Society of Marine Artists, also told me something about that storied race more verifiable than whatever Victoria was, or was not, told: The captain of the America, Dick Brown, was from Mystic, and the mate, Nelson Comstock, was from New London.
According to Shaw’s history, Brown was born in 1810 and his father was a ship’s carpenter in Mystic. Young Richard Brown went to sea at age 16, wrote Shaw, and by his mid-30s was licensed by the Sandy Hook Pilots. They were seasoned skippers who sailed with schooners out to sea to find ships to deliver safely across the shoals of Sandy Hook and into New York Harbor.
“Brown was a tall, stocky man … soft spoken despite his size, with a squarish face fronted with a spade beard in the style of deacons of the day, and bright blue eyes accented with laugh lines.”
Shaw said he learned about Comstock’s background through the papers of Margaret Comstock Thoms, who lived in Connecticut and was the last living relative of Henry Nelson Comstock, who was born in New London in 1821. He was one of seven brothers, five of them seamen, and, through the Sandy Hook Pilots, found his way to become mate aboard the America. Comstock eventually captained yachts successfully in other America’s Cup races. Besides Brown and Comstock, Shaw credits a third man, George Steers, a “rather timid, shy genius of naval architecture,” with the victory. Steers, born in 1819 in Washington, D.C., “changed the face of yacht design in the United States … incorporating (in the design and building of America) the latest theories of hull form, sails and rigging.”
Like Brown and Comstock, Steers had no formal education, but, just as the captain and mate did, “acquired his skill from the school of life.”
And they didn’t finish second.
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.