The life of Thomas Johnstone Lipton of Great Britain provides history with a most outstanding icon in the field of yachting. Sir Thomas, who was knighted in 1898 by Queen Victoria, offered all yachtsmen an excellent example of a true sportsman in the broadest, highest and finest sense. He exemplified a keen contender and clean competitor. He was undaunted by defeat. He was aggressive and ambitious to the end.
Sir Thomas’ race winnings – and there were many – were marked by his modesty in victory. In his defeats abroad or in American waters, he demonstrated how one can be a good loser – "the world’s best loser" – and always be a truly great winner.
Thomas Johnstone Lipton was born on May 10, 1850 in Glasgow, Scotland, and eventually became one of the world’s great success stories. He went to work at an early age as an errand boy in a Glasgow bookstore. At the age of 15, he came to the United States as a steerage immigrant but never forgot his homeland. He first worked in a grocery store, then drove a mule streetcar in New Orleans, became a traveling portrait salesman and finally worked on plantations in South Carolina and Virginia.
Sir Thomas returned to Glasgow at age 26, with enough money to open a small grocery store. As his business grew, he opened other stores – first in Scotland and then all over Ireland, Wales and England. To supply these stores, he acquired tea plantations in Ceylon and also purchased coffee and cocoa plantations. A global entrepreneur, Sir Thomas operated a large packing house in Chicago, a bacon curing plant and bakeries in England. He had fruit orchards and factories for making jellies and jams. Within 10 years, he was employing 8,000 persons.
Sir Thomas’ business empire grew, and his stores were in many lands. His name, known around the world as “Lipton’s Tea,” became a household word. At the age of 40, he was a millionaire. Although the tea was recognized for his business success, he was also a man who knew how to crown a life of labor, with a penchant for leisure.
In 1898 at the age of 48, he entered the sport of yachting and challenged for the America’s Cup – that precious and coveted trophy which was first won in 1851 by New York Yacht Club’s schooner, America, in the race around the Isle of Wight. When Sir Thomas entered the fray, the Royal Yacht Squadron, England’s most exclusive club, had already made 10 unsuccessful attempts to regain the prized trophy from its keepers at the NYYC.
By early 1903, Commodore Lucien Blochman of the Corinthian Yacht Club, which became San Diego Yacht Club, knew of Sir Thomas’ respect for sportsmanship and wrote to the tea baron, requesting that a trophy be created in his name for West Coast yacht racing excellence. This exchange soon ushered in a new, prestigious yachting event – the San Diego Lipton Challenge Cup. On July 22, 1903, the spectacular silver trophy arrived in San Diego, compliments of Sir Thomas Lipton, who not only sanctioned the event but furnished the beautiful Lipton Cup, as well. In 1904, SDYC won the first Lipton Cup competition, with Detroit, a sleek, 47.5 foot speedster. Later, when SDYC and the Corinthian Yacht Club merged in 1905, the Lipton Challenge Cup was re-deeded to newly named SDYC.
Although the Lipton Cup proved successful on the West Coast, its namesake had less luck on the East Coast, suffering a series of America’s Cup losses in 1899 and 1901 – five in total. Even with America’ Cup defeats, Sir Thomas was still aggressive and ambitious at over age 80. In fact, in 1931 he decided to mount another challenge for the 1932 races. His efforts were delayed, due to his declining health, and his ambition was finally thwarted by death on October 2, 1931. Sir Thomas never married, but left behind a rich yachting and business heritage.
The history of the San Diego Sir Thomas Lipton Challenge Cup dates back to the early days of yachting on the Pacific Ocean, circa 1900. Not unlike today, it was an era of intense press interest in high-profile sports events and squabbles between the rich and famous. Yachting was a perfect target, particularly the America’s Cup matches of 1893 and 1895 that were beset by a series of negative accusations.
A period of bad sportsmanship at the turn of the last century faded when Sir Thomas Lipton, the tea baron, mounted a series of America’s Cup challenges, beginning in 1899, that gave the event a more ethical flavor. Despite a string of defeats on the race course, Sir Thomas’ avid participation and good sportsmanship made him a popular figure among American yachtsmen and American society, in general.
Sir Thomas’ influence on the sport did no go unnoticed by the officers of the Corinthian Yacht Club (forerunner of San Diego Yacht Club), who were also impressed with this good sportsmanship. The Commodore of SDYC wrote to Sir Thomas in 1902 to request permission for the Club to name a cup in his honor. Sir Thomas not only granted the request, but once again demonstrated his nobility, gifting a trophy to SDYC which became known as the San Diego Sir Thomas Lipton Challenge Cup.
The Cup may have originated as an expression of sportsmanship and goodwill, but competition for the Cup has been marked by controversy from the very first challenge, which took place in the spring of 1904. Rather than building a new boat for the challenge, as the opposition believed, the SDYC group chartered Detroit, a successful boat from the Great Lakes. The losing challengers from South Coast Yacht Club (SCYC) protested SDYC’s race rules on grounds that they were written after the Club selected its defender.
Following SDYC’s inaugural victory, the vocal contingent from SCYC was convinced “they had been had”. The group neatly solved the problem by purchasing Detriot from SDYC and winning the 1905 race. With the accounts balanced, Detriot then disappeared from the series.
The original Deed of Gift mandated that the Lipton be awarded to the winner of an annual series of three races, which were to be sailed in the waters of the Pacific Ocean off San Diego. So in 1906, a crew from the SCYC returned again to San Diego and successfully defended the Cup for the second consecutive year. South Coast wrote to Sir Thomas about changing the Deed, but he replied that the Cup was the property of SDYC; nevertheless, the dissenters finally got their way in 1913 when the Deed was changed. The new rules called for only one race and allowed the defending Club to pick the date and site, anywhere within 200 miles of San Diego (the previous limit had been 10 miles). An increase in interest followed, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that a successful challenge moved the race from San Diego.
While most of the competition has been from Southern California, in 1916 the San Francisco Yacht Club mounted a successful challenge with a yacht called Genevieve; yet, the longest consecutive string of wins by any club was a six-year streak by Newport Yacht Club. SDYC had two separate five-year winning streaks, while Balboa Yacht Club enjoyed one such stretch.
Since its inception, the Lipton Challenge Cup has been considered as one of the preeminent events in Southern California racing, and the event’s history closely follows the history of yachting in this area. In 1937, the Cup was won by Angelita, the 8-meter yacht which won the Gold Medal in that class during the 1932 Olympic Games. In the years from the late 1940s until the early 1960s, the California 32 Class, 1 46-foot boat built by South Coast Shipyard in Newport Beach, was the boat of record. A popular boat among local racers, the Cal 32 was considered a successful Lipton choice for that era.
In the early 1970s, the Lipton Cup joined the worldwide shift to the International Offshore Rules (IOR), and the Cup became a handicap event. In the early 1980s, the single race format was abandoned and a three race series was adopted in its place. By the mid 1980s, the increased expense of competing in the IOR Class led to a decline of interest in the Lipton Cup. As a result, the Deed of Gift was again revised in 1990 to help bolster interest in the Lipton Challenge Cup event and to address a number of other concerns.
The most notable change was the addition of a provision which permits the Cup to be raced in a one-design offshore class, rather than applying the handicap rules as in the previous two decades. The Schock 35 class was selected as the new offshore, one design and was used for 10 years. In 2002, the class yacht was changed to the J/105, a very popular class in the United States. The selection of a one-design class has been instrumental in attracting a large group of evenly matched, highly competitive boats in the Southern California event.
The second and more controversial change was a return to the original concept that the races be held in the waters off San Diego, thus keeping the venues in Southern California and ensuring that the regattas remained in home waters.
These changes helped make the competition more open and fair to all contestants. The “smoke-filled” challenge committee room of old no longer determined the victor. The combined skills of each team became the principal factors for success.
The history of skippers and crews in this event is an illustrious one, including the names of many world-class sailors. We welcome this year's participants and anticipate that this regatta will be an important step in the future of their sailing careers.