The Lipton Challenge Cup – A Potted History

The sheer pride and joy of winning the coveted Lipton Cup is clear in this image of Etienne van Cuyck – winner of the 1986 challenge.

by Richard Crockett

Like most people who follow the sport of sailing in our country, the Lipton Challenge Cup is the one competition which stands head and shoulders above all others, and which commands much interest, comment and a large and diverse following.

In the above the word “challenge” is very important as the Lipton Cup is a challenge cup between Yacht Clubs. In fact it is the only national interclub sailing challenge in the country – and is not an event individuals can enter unless selected by their Club.

In this feature, cobbled together from a ton of material I have in my sailing archives, I attempt to highlight the reasons why the Lipton Challenge Cup has this aura, what it means to the South African sailing community, while interspersing it with some interesting information that Lipton Challenge Cup followers may not be aware of.

The best way to begin is to answer the following question:

Sir Thomas Lipton, the man with the vision who donated the Lipton Challenge Cup to the sport in South Africa.
From the SAILING Publications archives

Who was Sir Thomas Lipton?
Thomas Lipton, the son of an immigrant Irish blue collar family, left school at the age of 10 and on his 21st birthday (10 May 1871) opened a modest General Dealer shop in Glasgow. The store was an immediate success due to Lipton’s industry and imaginative promotional ability.

Encouraged by the success of his first venture he started opening further stores and by 1881 he had twenty shops throughout Scotland.

Over the years his trading empire grew and prospered until in 1890 he had 300 shops covering the length and breadth of Great Britain. It was in this year that his parents died. Lipton had a particularly strong bond with his mother, she it was, who acted as his inspiration and guiding light and her death left him empty and aimless.

Announcing that he was going on vacation to Australia, Lipton stopped off in Ceylon and became intrigued by the possibilities of the tea market. His ship sailed without him, as he threw himself with his customary vigour into the intricacies of tea growing, shipping and marketing.

Prior to this time Ceylon had been a coffee producing area but its quality had been superceded by several Central and South American countries whose proximity to the valuable US market had resulted in reducing the Island’s economy to a state of severe depression. Tea, however, was to be its salvation and when Lipton arrived – already a millionaire at the age of 40 – huge estates and plantations were being sold for a song. Needless to say he very rapidly put together a giant tea producing operation and hot-footed it back to England.

On his return LIPTON’s tea was launched. As usual Lipton employed highly original if not provocative advertising techniques but because his tea was sold in sealed, weighted and price marked packets he soon outstripped his competitors who sold from open tea chests which caused a deterioration in the tea and led to dishonest dealing by under weighing and adulteration.

If his stores had made him rich his tea brought him unbelievable wealth and fame on both sides of the Atlantic. He was forever seeking publicity not for himself, it must be stressed, but for his business interests. On the occasion of her Golden Jubilee Lipton offered Queen Victoria the world’s largest cheese weighing 5 tons. Although the gift was “respectfully declined” the attendant publicity left Lipton well pleased with his offer.

Although Thomas Lipton had a passion for the sea and genuinely loved the tall ships which plied the world’s trade routes, his quest for the America’s Cup was rooted in part to his thirst for publicity.

However, he was a true sportsman and although all his five America’s Cup challenges in a series of yachts called Shamrock ended in failure his gracious behaviour so endeared him to the Americans that after his fifth defeat a public fund was set up which resulted in an eight thousand guinea gold loving cup being presented to Sir Thomas as a consolation gift from the American People.

Inscribed “To The World’s Best Loser” it is believed that his was his most cherished trophy.

It was in 1898 that Thomas Lipton was knighted by Queen Victoria in recognition of his charitable work and services to British Trade.

After Victoria’s death, the early twentieth Century saw some of the most flamboyant and lavish living the world has ever known. The annual Cowes Week regatta became the pinnacle of yachting and was attended by the majority of the crowned heads of state in Europe. Thomas Lipton because of his vast wealth, expansive manner and generous nature soon found himself accepted by the nobility despite his humble background.

He was an enigmatic character. He neither smoked nor drank, but entertained royally providing wines, liqueurs and delicacies of every description. He loved female company but never married. He was at home with king or commoner, indeed he was a close confidante of Edward VII.

In a distinguished life Sir Thomas Lipton enjoyed many milestones. Someone as successful as he had to be controversial. He was a kind and sensitive person and adverse publicity hurt him deeply. Many wondered at his not being invited to join the Royal Yacht Squadron – the elite of British sailors. Perhaps, it was suggested that a grocer would be out of place in such August company.

In 1930 at the age of 80 he was granted this final accolade which entitled him to fly the prestigious red duster from his masthead.

Still threatening to mount yet another challenge for the America’s Cup Sir Thomas Lipton died in 1931 at the age of 81.

From the prestigious Lipton tea business, to the helm of his Yacht “Shamrock” Sir Thomas J Lipton epitomised the spirit and sportsmanship that has made the Lipton Challenge Cup, South Africa’s most prestigious sailing event.

The Lipton Cup Trophy.

How the Lipton Cup Came to South Africa
Thanks to an approach in London by Capt. Sir Peter Bam, member of the Legislative Assembly of the Cape, Sir Thomas Lipton bestowed on the Table Bay Yacht Club, in only the third year of its existence, a costly trophy valued at £200 to be held in their custody for competition between South African yacht clubs.

In 1909, Sir Thomas Lipton presented the magnificent silver gilt Lipton Cup to the Table Bay Yacht Club (which later became the Royal Cape Yacht Club).

In a letter to Sir Peter Bam, MP for Harbour and vice president at the club, Sir Thomas wrote:

“Dear Sir Peter.

With reference to your kind promise to undertake the delivery of the cup which I am giving for competition among South African Yacht Clubs, I now have the pleasure in sending you the deed of gift in connection with the cup mentioned and which I have duly signed. I should be glad if you would kindly hand this, along with the cup, to the Committee of the Table Bay Yacht Club.

As I have already explained to you, I have always taken a very great interest in yacht racing and boat sailing, and my earnest wish is that this great sport should be encouraged in South African waters and particularly in regard to deepwater sailing. The deed of gift, which was drafted by the Committee of the Table Bay Yacht Club, I think covers the main points with regard to the conditions of the competition, and I have very gladly agreed to all their wishes and suggestions in this respect.

It will be a very great pleasure to me if this cup could be the means of encouraging and developing yacht racing around the South African coast, and I am greatly obliged to the officials and members of the Table Bay Yacht Club for their kindness in undertaking the custody of the cup and the general arrangements regarding the competition. I hope you will convey to the gentlemen my sincere thanks for their courtesy in this respect, and I also would like to take this opportunity of thanking you personally for all the interest and enthusiasm you have displayed in this matter.

I am, yours faithfully Thomas J. Lipton.”

Sir Thomas consented to being a patron of the club and was elected a life member but partly because Sir Thomas was not born in South Africa, no challenge was received by the Table Bay Yacht Club in the year the cup was donated. 1910 passed and there were still no challengers. This was because no South African club owned a yacht which complied with the conditions and measurements of the deed of gift.

The conditions were: “That any recognised yacht club that had headquarters between Walvis Bay and Beira could compete for the cup with one representative yacht which was to be not more than eight metres and not less than six according to international measurement.”

The deed of gift for the Lipton Cup could not have been more clear in that it was to be a friendly contest in sailing and seamanship. The deed opened as follows:

I, Sir Thomas Lipton, of London, England, for the purpose of encouraging yachting in South Africa, and especially in the way of friendly contests in sailing and seamanship in deep sea yacht racing, do hereby give to the Table Bay Yacht Club of Cape Town, Cape Colony, the silver Cup delivered herewith”.

Sailing – Rule 1
Over the years these series have produced a highly competitive brand of sailing, but at the same time have developed a trade mark which may be described as Rule 1 of the rules governing yacht racing.

The essence of Rule 1 is … ·’shall keep in view the ordinary customs of the sea, and discourage all attempts to win a race by other means than fair sailing and superior speed and skill”

Perhaps this is of more than passing interest in these days of highly commercialised sport?

The Sailing Courses
Sir Thomas prescribed the courses to be sailed in the deed of gift, as well as how many races could be sailed in the initial contests.

The “compulsory” courses are always the same: an equal triangle, a quadrilateral and a windward-leeward. The legs of each individual course adding to twelve nautical miles. Today, until these three courses have been completed, there cannot be a result.

The Cup Itself  (by Peter Bazlinton)

The Lipton Challenge Cup was manufactured by the noted British Silversmiths, Elkington and Company, in Birmingham during 1908 of solid sterling silver, and hand gilded with gold plate. This is confirmed by the 4 hallmarks embossed on the main body of the cup. The trophy would have been manufactured by at least seven different people, each specialized in different skills required, including casting, hand-embossing, spinning, gilding, enamelling, engraving and assembling. The cost then was in the region of £300 sterling. A lot of money in those days!!

The era during which it was made was at the height of the British Empire’s prosperity and extreme affluence, when, as a result, demand for trophies of this size and style was fairly high. Although not impossible, to re-create the cup today in the same detail, materials, size and style would be exorbitant due to the limited number of people with the required skills.

Why is the cup silver and not gilded? Legend has it that during the period between 1923 and 1952, the trophy, following the 1923 prize giving when it was filled with champagne and passed around the gathered crowd, was stored in the attic of a house in Durban where it rested for a number of years. The Royal Cape Yacht Club eventually requested its return to Cape Town some years later.

The previous winner then instructed his man-servant to clean the cup as it was covered with mould and extremely tarnished. The over-zealous man-servant spent several days trying to remove the “dirt” with whatever abrasives he could find and in the process removed virtually all the gilding! But small remnants of the gilding can still be seen in small, inaccessible areas to this day!

An intriguing piece of history is captured in the enamelled plates around the cup which are the “coats of arms” of the “five Colonies” being South West Africa (now Namibia) Cape, Natal, Mozambique and, strangely, given that the cup was deeded to promote “deep-sea sailing”, Rhodesia (now Zambia / Zimbabwe).

Due to the generosity of a RCYC. Club member, Mike Daly, the trophy was repaired, refurbished, polished and restored during 2003/2004 by one of South Africa’s most respected silversmiths, Rado Kirov, who learned his skills from older craftsmen in his native Bulgaria.

Incidentally, and some trivia, it holds 11½ bottles of champagne!

Other Trophies
Besides the magnificent Lipton Cup going to the overall winner of the series, a number of other trophies are at stake.

The Pokall Cup was presented by the international 30 sq metre class. For the winner of the Last Race over an Additional Course.

The Van der Stel Trophy was presented by the late Rear Admiral Terry Lloyd, then Captain of the S.A.N. Frigate of that name which acted as the Guardship for the 1952 Challenge series. For the First Kwa-Zulu Natal boat overall on points.

Jack Finlayson Memorial Trophy was presented in memory of the gentleman who did so much in the organisation of the event in the 30 sq metre class era. For the winner overall on points over the 3 Compulsory Courses

Boating Association of Table Bay Trophy (1893) ‘A’ for the winner over the Compulsory Rectangular Course (Course”R”)

Boating Association of Table Bay Trophy (1893) ‘B’ for the winner over the Compulsory Triangular Course (Course “T”)

Boating Association of Table Bay Trophy (1893) ‘C’ for the winner over the Compulsory Windward/Leeward Course (Course “S”)

L26 Class Association Trophy for the winner of the First Race over an Additional Course.

Owen Aisher Trophy. Floating trophy awarded at the discretion of the Lipton Trustees for the encouragement of youth sailing.

Lipton Golden Teapot. Floating Trophy awarded daily to the winner of the day’s race. (If 2 races are sailed this trophy will be awarded jointly).

Role of the Trustees
The original deed of gift was drawn up by the trustees of the Table Bay Yacht Club, which today is the Royal Cape Yacht Club. This deed of gift has been amended from time to time to suit changing sailing conditions, but the broad outline remains as originally envisaged.

The cup may be competed for by recognised Yacht Clubs, from Walvis Bay to Beira, and always remains the property of the trustee club.

Over the years the trustees have amended the deed in an attempt to keep the event relevant and current. Theirs is not an enviable one as every club and competitor has a personal view on how the deed should be interpreted and how the event should be run. These Trustees are made of tough stuff!

The Racing
Dating back to 1909, and being an event with 112 years of history, it’s important to understand that the Lipton Cup has survived two world wars, six class changes and many different political changes in South Africa, yet it has never really lost its lustre.

In 2021 the 67th Lipton Challenge Cup will be sailed.

The Founding Era – 1911 – 1923
Initially races were suggested for September 1909 but did not eventuate. The next date was for August 1910 with possible deferment to September or October to coincide with the first meeting of the Union Parliament, but it was not until 7 June 1911 that the Hon. Secretary G.W. Pilkington advised that the first races were fixed for August 25, 26 and 28.

At the beginning, while the men of the trustee club were deciding on a craft suitable to defend the cup, a challenge came from the Point Yacht Club in Durban. The challenger was the Natal-built 8 metre ‘Tess’. The Cape men rapidly altered an existing yacht ‘Patricia’ to conform with the Deed of Gift and accepted the challenge. An interesting series followed with ‘Tess’ winning, and the cup moved to the shores of Natal for a long, long stay.

Table Bay was represented by the best of its heavy boats, built especially for local conditions. ‘Tess’ was a racer by comparison and ‘Patricia’ did well to perform as she did, the second race being lost by a second.

For the 1912 race both Point Y.C. and R.C.Y.C. had identical boats built by Sir Thomas Lipton’s builder in Fairlie, Scotland.

The Capetonians were attached to this cup and formed a syndicate, raised money and commissioned the Scots designer, Mr. William Fife, to design and build their challenger: ‘Erica’. Work was well in hand when Fife received an enquiry from the Point Yacht Club for a defender! Fife could hardly design both, but the Table Bay Yacht Club consented to having the Natal Yacht ‘Skabenga’ built on the same moulds. A unique position – the defender and challenger were sister-ships apart from small rigging details.

Moreover Sir Thomas responded to a request by the Woodstock cadets for a design and he sent out the plans of his own designer. So there were three boats (Woodstock Y.C. being the third) in the 1912 races.

Consummate sportsmanship by the RCYC skipper in reporting an unobserved touch of the flag on the buoy when a sea threw him in that direction gave the series of 3 races to Point.

The 1913 races were also won by Point and by the time the 1914 races came to be held war had broken out and the last races for 8 years to come were also won by Point.

The five races which featured these two boats as the principal contestants, were held in 1912, 1913, 1914 and 1922.

Records show that these two yachts were closely matched, but bad luck dogged ‘Erica’, she twice sprung her masts among other accidents. It was not lady-luck alone that governed ‘Skabenga’s’ victory run; at her tiller was the renowned Herby Spadbrow, who managed to dominate even the tough opposition of the equally famous Advocate Upington.

Rapid, who came second overall after a keen tussle with Mariquita, slips past the guardship SAS Port Elizabeth to win the second race. Spinnaker sets without a crease in the reaching breeze, making an intriguing foil to the slender mainsail.

The Magnificent and Graceful 30-Square Metre Era – 1952 – 1973
At the end of the 1923 series, competition for the cup wallowed in the doldrums of the depression, unsuitable craft and the war years. In 1952 interest again soared, the boats now competing being the class of Swedish bred 30 square metres. These boats are characterised by their easily driven hulls, long overhangs, rakish tall masts and short booms.

They are excellent sea-boats and very exciting to sail, especially on the run when the wind has a punch in it.

Durban was again the venue, and once more the “Banana Boys” retained the cup with ‘Avocet’ flying the burgee of the Point Yacht Club, skippered by F. Meadows .

The following year after a determined entry by the Royal Cape men, and with the Reimer’s designed ‘Tarpon’, they won all the races. Imagine the joy of the trustee club when after forty-two years the cup returned to home waters. The man to achieve this was that remarkable helmsman “Sonny” Thomas.

The Royal Cape Yacht Club and the Zeekoe Vlei Yacht Club alternated in the victories for the next three years, a neighbourly sort of thing; both being Cape Clubs. ‘Yvette’ and ‘Tarpon’ taking turns to keep the cup in the shadow of Table Mountain.

To enter an untried yacht, with a skipper and crew that had been used to small boats all their lives is unusual, but to do so and win deserves credit. This was the lot of Harold Kohler and his stalwarts from Redhouse Yacht Club in 1957. In doing so Kohler was instrumental with his ship ‘Trickson ll’ in introducing as a venue the splendid waters of Algoa Bay.

Port Elizabeth has a reputation for wind, which some local yachtsmen feel is a debatable point. After all, they argue, you must have wind to sail, but even the most hearty of these gentlemen sometimes come ashore looking a little more thoughtful than they did at the 5-minute gun.

The 1958 series in Algoa Bay will be remembered for two things – ‘Sunmaid’s’ grand slam of five wins in five starts; and the third race. Light conditions prevailed for the first two races with ‘Sunmaid’ under the hand of Wilf Hancock getting the gun. The start of the third race was slow with light shifting airs, and then it came … a howling Westerly gale, peaking to 58 m.p.h. It slammed down on the fleet, two boats retired, others reefed or slogged on under headsails only.

‘Sunmaid’ fought on under full sail to win. Hancock crossed the line first in the last two races, and the cup returned to Durban, but this time to the Royal Natal Yacht Club.

New boats were appearing with each series – Jimmy Whittle’s beautiful ‘Sunrose’ made her debut in Algoa Bay, where she finished third. Graham Packer acquired ‘Tintomara’ – always a factor to consider in any race she entered. Hancock sold ‘Sunmaid’ to Paddy Goodall and had the businesslike ‘Mariquita’ built as his 1959 defender. Retaining his excellent crew and magic touch he staved off opposition and held the cup once more.

Back to Natal for the 1960 series which fulfilled all the expectations of interesting racing. There were favourites as always, but even the outsiders were showing form that could not be ignored. Noel Horsfield bought ‘Rapid’ – the longest 30 square metre in the country, did some tinkering as he put it, and proved to be the dark horse that beat the favourite. Beat the favourite he did, but the duels between ‘Rapid’ and ‘Mariquita’ were classics of their kind. The finishing times between the leaders and the rest of the fleet in 1960 helped to demonstrate the very keen competition.

‘Rapid’, the 1961defender, flew the burgee of the Beira Clube Naval; by general agreement, however, the series was sailed in Algoa Bay.

The quarter-tonner Fuel Free, the Point Yacht Club winner in 1982, steaming along under reduced canvas.

The Quarter Tonners – 1982 – 1983
The competition was revived when a Challenge raised by the Commodore of the Royal Cape Yacht Club, Harold Sender was taken up by the Commodore of Royal Natal Yacht Club, Guy Reynolds in November 1981.

The challenge and its acceptance not only ensured the revival of the Lipton Cup, but also resulted in two new ¼-Tonners being built for the event.

Nine years had passed since this magnificent trophy, that stands over 1 metre high and holds 11½ bottles of champagne, had been challenged for.

Traditionally the Lipton Challenge Cup Contest has been sailed between yacht Clubs based in coastal ports, and for the first time in 1982 the Competition included representative yachts registered at Clubs in the Transvaal and Orange Free State. With the rapid development of keel-boat sailing on the larger land-locked dams, these newly represented fresh-water clubs will have taken some beating if the trophy was to remain at the coast.

The 2018 Lipton Challenge Cup saw the RCYC Entry, jointly skippered by Roger Hudson and Asenathi Jim, win in what was the last appearance of the L26.
pic by Richard Crockett

The L26 Era – 1984 – 2018
In a press release written in anticipation of the 1984 challenge in Cape Town said: “The Lipton Challenge Cup has been contested on 30 occasions since its donation in 1909. However, yachting is in the main a participation and not a spectator sport, consequently the modest number of people involved in this aquatic contest has not as yet generated mass public awareness. A number of events have taken place in the recent past which suggests that this yachting event will take its place amongst the foremost on the South African sporting calendar.

“Firstly, the “explosion” in boardsailing has meant that the number of people sailing has more than quadrupled in the past three years. This in turn means that the techniques and jargon of sailing are now known and understood by a vastly increased number of people.

“Secondly the nail-biting series in Newport in September last year which saw the Australians achieve the impossible and lift the America’s Cup, resulted in media coverage hitherto unknown in the history of sail boat racing. At long last the man in the street has started to comprehend the complexity, drama and excitement of yacht racing at its highest level.

“Thirdly, Angelo Lavranos arguably South Africa’s leading naval architect has designed a boat which because of its success as a One Design Class is available in sufficient numbers (over 80 built to date) to allow all eligible Clubs to enter a boat in the 1984 Lipton Challenge Cup. The L26, as the craft is known, is a state of the art strict One Design yacht. This means that the boats are identical in size, have the same sails, equipment and crew compliment and are governed by stringent regulations covering all aspects of the boat and its appendages. Theoretically this results in a “singer not the song” situation whereby the best sailor wins and not the most expensive or radical boat.”

This era, which spanned 35 years, was dominated by the names of King, Nankin, Davis, Hudson, Sadler, Blanckenberg and Rae all dominating at different times.

Greg Davis won the event 13 times as skipper or co-skipper during this era, with Chris King and Rick Nankin both earning 7 wins each.

The youngest team to win in this era was in 1985 when the University of Natal YC team skippered by Bruce Savage took the coveted Cup.

The only team representing an inland Yacht Club to win was when the Transvaal YC won the first ever event sailed in L26s. It was Ewald Sternagel on Table Bay waters who earned this honour.

Nitro sailing under the Witbank Yacht & Aquatic Club burgee is the first Cape 31 winner of the Lipton Cup.
pic by Liesl King

The Modern Era – 2019 –
Suddenly the Lipton Cup changed into the modern era when, in 2018 the Cape 31 was selected as the Class for the next two challenges after a 35 year dominance of the L26.

The ultra-modern, ultra-fast and very slippery Cape 31 has provided close-quarters sailing since the first boats were launched. As the boats were still relatively unknown, and with crews still getting to grips with their nuances while fine-tuning for all points of sailing takes dedication and loads of training time on the water. “To win the coveted Lipton Challenge Cup the teams will have to produce more than just their A-game! Sailing at its consummate best will be witnessed on the water – of that there is absolutely no doubt” said a press release announcing the event.

Owing to the new class of boat, all the top sailors in the country were gearing up to compete as they knew that the very best and most competitive racing ever seen in the regatta for many years. Many a former Lipton Challenge Cup winner returned to the event relishing the action offered after growing bored with the L26 Class yacht.

Interestingly the first Club to win in this era was an inland club – the Witbank Yacht & Aquatic Club led by Mike Hayton and David Rae.

A strongly worded Deed of Gift and Trustees who have the best interest of the event as the “pinnacle of top-class competition in South Africa” at heart, stands the Lipton Challenge Cup in good stead for the future.

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