The Sailing Capital of the World – Newport has a longstanding sailing history that is evident everywhere in the “City-by-the-Sea” from the many Colonial sea captains’ homes that line the streets of Newport’s downtown, to the busy Newport Harbor that is a destination and home port, to some of the most renowned sailing and motor yachts in the world. Newport even has a busy downtown street, America’s Cup Avenue, dedicated to the most famous sailing race! Since its founding in 1639, Newporters have taken advantage of their city’s seaside location sailing for trade, pleasure, sport and business.
In the 18th century, Newport became a worldwide, maritime, trading center. Newport, along with Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston, emerged as one of the five leading ports in colonial North America. Economic growth created by maritime trade generated an expansion of Newport’s harbor and downtown. Over 150 wharves were built and sailing, cargo ships crowded Newport Harbor. Many of Newport’s famous landmarks were built during this time, including Trinity Church, the Redwood Library and The Brick Market.
In the 19th century the United States Navy officially sailed into Newport and became the major part of Newport’s economy. During the Civil War the US Naval Academy was temporarily moved to Newport. During this time the USS Constitution and America (the first America’s Cup winner), were used to train midshipmen while the US Naval Academy was located in Newport.
After the Civil War the Naval Academy was moved back to Annapolis, but the Navy was here to stay in Newport. During this time, the first naval laboratory for torpedo testing was built in Newport Harbor on Goat Island; the Naval Training Station and Naval War College were also established in Newport, RI. Later, Newport and Narragansett Bay were used as a major port for US Navy ships. At one time more than a quarter of the US Navy’s Atlantic Fleet was stationed in Newport, Rhode Island. Today, although Newport is not a home port to the Navy’s ships, there is a retired aircraft carrier at the base. With the Naval War College and other training facilities still in Newport, the Navy continues to be an important part of Newport’s economy.
Later in the 19th century, Newport Harbor went from being a maritime trading center to a sailing playground for the rich and famous. During this gilded time many of America’s most influential businessmen, built summer “cottages” in Newport, Rhode Island. With this influx of wealth Newport Harbor became a major yachting destination. The Vanderbilts, the Astors, the Manvilles, J.P. Morgan and many more all sailed their luxurious yachts here. In 1883 the New York Yacht Club held its first annual regatta in Newport and it was added as a stop on the NYYC Annual Cruise from New York to New England. As the interest in sailing grew, two yacht clubs were formed – the Newport Yacht Club in 1893 and the Ida Lewis Yacht Club in 1928. The New York Yacht Club also had an official presence here with a local clubhouse, Station 9, for their yachting events. The Newport, NYYC clubhouse has been the center of an impressive number of international sailing events, including America’s Cup sailing defenses, the Annapolis to Newport race, and the World Championships of the One Ton Ocean Racers from around the world.
For more than fifty years, the world’s most coveted sailing race was held in Newport – the America’s Cup. Since the first America’s Cup defense in 1870, the New York Yacht Club had held the America’s Cup races in New York Harbor. However, in the 1930s, they brought the America’s Cup competition to a new venue – Newport, Rhode Island. During the 1930’s the spectacular J-Boats raced for the America’s Cup. At more than 100 feet long, crewed by 20+ men the building and sailing of these yachts was an extremely expensive endeavor. Some of Newport’s most wealthy summertime residents were very active in America’s Cup sailing including Harold Vanderbilt who funded campaigns and won the Auld Mug for the NYYC in 1930 (Enterprise), 1934 (Rainbow), and 1937 (Ranger). You may view many of Harold “Mike” Vanderbilt’s yachting trophies at Marble House, his Bellevue Avenue residence.
In 1958, after a halt in America’s Cup sailing due to WWII, the 12 Metre yachts brought a new era of America’s Cup racing to Newport from 1958- 1983 until, for the first time in 130 years, the NYYC lost the Cup to Australia.
Following the loss of the Cup, the Newport sailing community focused on rebuilding its yacht racing prominence by forming Sail Newport, a public sailing center. The New York Yacht Club acquired Harbour Court, the stately harbor side home of former NYYC Commodore John Nichols Brown and began to develop its own regatta programs along with the Ida Lewis Yacht Club and Newport Yacht Club.