Harold Stirling Vanderbilt: A Sailor’s Sailor

Harold Stirling Vanderbilt was a genius. When Albert Einstein discussed sailing, he did it with Vanderbilt, which should be proof enough, but there are many more instances of his innovative intellect. In fact, George Plimpton could not cover them all in a four-part series he wrote for Sports Illustrated in 1956. Perhaps what “Mike” Vanderbilt is best known for today are his creations of the Rules of Right of Way for sailors and Contract Bridge for players, but there were many other pastimes that Vanderbilt explored and improved—including waltzing backwards.

Harold was born in 1884 to William K. and Alva Vanderbilt, the youngest of three children. Educated at St. Marks, Harvard College, and Harvard Law School, Harold grew up summering in Newport, Rhode Island, sometimes at Marble House. Marble House, designed by Richard Morris Hunt and completed by 1882, was an opulent 39th birthday present for Alva. However, she left the house in 1896 to marry Oliver Hazard Belmont. When he died in 1908, Alva returned to Marble House and created the Chinese Tea House. The Tea House hosted gatherings of the Suffragettes, as Alva helped to secure the women’s right to vote.

Harold K. Vanderbilt at Ranger’s helm with her afterguard (from left): Rod and Olin Stephens (her co-designer), Prof. Zenas Bliss, and Mrs. Gertrude Vanderbilt, along with an unknown crew member.

Many children who spend their summers in Newport learn to sail, and Harold was no exception, except that his skill far exceeded that of the average sailor. In 1910, he skippered Vagrant to win his first and only Bermuda Race. By 1922, he was the Commodore of the New York Yacht Club and would proceed to win six Kings Cups and five Astor Cups over the course of his competitive sailing. But it was his three-time winning defense of the America’s Cup that were his greatest victories.

In 1930, an aging Sir Thomas Lipton, of tea fame, challenged the New York Yacht Club in a race to win the America’s Cup. A race that had its start at Cowes in 1851, when the American schooner, America (hence the competition’s name) won what was to become the oldest international sporting trophy. Lipton wanted to bring “the auld mug” back to England with his J boat Shamrock V, but it was not to be. Harold Vanderbilt and his syndicate won four straight races on their J boat, Enterprise, designed by William Starling Burgess.

Ranger’s afterguard in a relaxed moment with owner and skipper Harold K. Vanderbilt at the wheel.

The popular success of Vanderbilt’s win earned him the cover of Time magazine that September. Harold even wrote a book on how Enterprise became victorious. His total recall of each race is impressive and illustrates his curious mind for details. The year 1934 brought a new challenger for the Cup, T.O.M. Sopwith, the English flying ace, with his J boat, Endeavor. This time, the race became contentious. Vanderbilt was chosen to defend on Rainbow, which lost the first two races. The third race was won by Rainbow, but not without two incidents of near-collision, which Endeavor protested but lost on a technicality. Although Rainbow won the series, it was unfavorable. One headline read, “Britannia Rules the Waves and America Waives the Rules.” Vanderbilt responded by co-authoring a pamphlet on the Rules of Right of Way, which would have eliminated the problem in the third race. Vanderbilt’s intellectual integrity is impressive.

Although not fully adopted until 1948, these are the rules used in sailing today. As an aside, the Lake George Club was the first yacht club to adhere to Vanderbilt’s practical solution.

In 1933, an American syndicate of 18 owners joined Harold S. Vanderbilt and ordered a new J-Class defender from the Herreshoff Manufacturing Co., to be designed by William Starling Burgess and to be christened Rainbow.

Sopwith returned in 1937 to challenge the New York Yacht Club again, but the dire economic situation in the U.S. prohibited the formation of a syndicate to defend. Harold Vanderbilt came to the rescue by personally funding a new J Boat, Ranger. This boat was a collaborative design of Burgess and the up-and-coming Olin Stephens. Ranger, considered the fastest J Boat ever built, beat Sopwith’s Endeavor II handily in four races. The mood on Ranger was upbeat: perhaps due to the two accordions being played by the afterguard (Rod Stephens and Zenas Bliss), as well as having the first American woman in a Cup race on board, Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt, who had married Harold in 1933.

Ranger’s win marked the end of J boat contenders for the Cup. In 1938, Vanderbilt and the New York Yacht Club changed the deed of gift in favor of the smaller 12 Metre boat. Harold never raced in another America’s Cup, but he did successfully race his personal 12 Metre, Vim, designed by Sparkman and Stephens. Vanderbilt never lost his passion for the America’s Cup. When Walter Gubelmann (my father-in-law) went looking for funding for the 1964 campaign for Constellation, he is quoted as saying he went to “the Delphi” for support and got it. Vanderbilt also was a syndicate member of Intrepid, which won the Cup in 1967 and 1970.

Rainbow was purchased by Chandler Hovey of Marblehead, Massachusetts, in 1937. Mr. Hovey is the tall man dressed in all white, Chandler Hovey Jr. stands at the wheel be-hind him, and Elizabeth Hovey (the only woman on deck) acts as navigator in front of him, July 8, 1937.

Before Harold died in 1970, he funded the gift of Marble House to the Preservation Society of Newport. Alva had sold the house to Frederick H. Prince in 1932, by whom it was beautifully maintained until the Society took it over in 1963. Here, the Vanderbilt Trophy Room—created by Gertrude Vanderbilt to showcase Harold’s sailing trophies and memorabilia—can be viewed. It is a tremendous testament to a man who had the genius and the will to improve conditions for his fellow sailors.