In 1956 the British yachtsmen did surprisingly well at the Melbourne Olympics, gaining a silver and two bronze medals. Flushed with this success, a syndicate was formed to challenge for the America’s Cup.
It was the first challenge since 1937, the longest period of inactivity since the America's Cup's inception in 1851. Things had changed. The intervening Second World War and the many changes in its wake meant that it was now far too expensive to use the J-class yachts which had been used pre-war, themselves a small yacht compared to the giants of the 19th century.
The International 12-Metre Class was deemed a worthy successor. This suited the UK: pre-war they had built more 12s than the Americans and some say that it was hoped to make a snap challenge in '57 and not give the US a chance to get their act together. In the event, wrangling over the rule changes and an all-time low in relations between the US and the UK as a result of the Suez crisis resulted in the challenge being made in 1958. By this time the Americans had very much got their act together and selected Columbia from four possible defenders.
Sceptre challenges for the America's Cup
Following a tank testing competition in early 1957 for a suitable 12-metre boat, David Boyd's 'B' model was adopted, and Sceptre was built in Alexander Robertson's yard at the head of Holy Loch, Argyll. She was launched on 2 April 1958 and first sailed on 11 April. Trials against Evaine were held during the summer, before Sceptre was taken to Newport Rhode Island by ship, to prepare for the 17th America’s Cup Challenge against the New York Yacht Squadron’s Columbia (see video clip http://Sceptrepreservation.co.uk/doc/SceptrePrepares.wmv ). Articles in TIME Magazine from July and September 1958 give an idea of Sceptre's crew 's determination to give a good account of itself, and some of the teething problems the boat faced.
Sceptre was soundly beaten, although not so badly as the next UK challenge by Sovereign in 1962, but that is another story. The Americans had better sails, a faster hull and more thoroughly trained crew. This was disappointing for the UK but nonetheless the challenge was well supported and resulted in a revival in interest in the America’s Cup, which continues today.
Several articles appeared in Yachting World, reviewing Sceptre's design, launch and America's Cup series itself:
A Visit to Robertson's Yard
America's Cup - Race Reports
The full story of Sceptre, from the initial stages of her design to the last of the series of races for the America's Cup in 1958, is told by Hugh Somerville in his book "Sceptre".
Sceptre in the 1960s
Sceptre returned to the UK to an uncertain future. Happily she was acquired in 1960 by an enthusiast in Eric Maxwell who had her mast re-positioned, moved aft by no less than 29 inches, quite a lot for a highly tuned racing yacht. She then went on to have several seasons of successful racing in the UK during the sixties and a spell in US as well. In this British Pathe clip, she is seen preparing for a race during Cowes Week in 1960: http://www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=1079
At about this time she also had her counter removed and refashioned - an attempt to make her look more modern and by reducing the overall length by approximately 18 inches – perhaps to reduce berthing fees as well!
This British Pathe clip shows Sceptre being loaded onto a liner in 1967, for the journey to the USA, where she was to help in the development of a new British challenger for the America's Cup: http://www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=44732
Sceptre in the 1970s
In 1971 she was sold to Edward King who intended to convert her to a cruising yacht, happily retaining her full rig and not converting her into a ketch or other cut down sail plan. Unfortunately Edward King died in 1973 before work was completed, in fact really before work had started, although a stern tube had been fitted and a drawing produced for the accommodation plan.
In 1976 she was purchased by Tony Walker of Lytham, Lancashire. Tony was, and still is, a great sailing enthusiast. Prior to buying Sceptre he had completed several GRP yachts to a high standard and had considerable boat building knowledge and practical skills. One of his many yachts was the 30 Square metre Tre Sang. This yacht gave him great pleasure and for many years held the record for the monohull Round the Island Race (the Isle Of Man). His enthusiasm for the Metre yacht configuration with their excellent sailing characteristics drew him inevitably to find a 12 metre, the ultimate yacht. After a false start chasing Sovereign, Sceptre came on the market from the executors of the late Mr King.
Tony single handedly embarked on the mammoth task of converting Sceptre. She was brought by road from the South Coast to Lytham, perhaps an unlikely place for a 12 but it was where Tony lived. The Ribble Cruising Club dock became Sceptre's home for 8 years. Everything from the mast refurbishment to engine installation, two heads, a galley, building of 12 bunks and saloon tables, re-modelling of the cockpit and manufacture of the doghouse became a labour of love. It is almost impossible to imagine the scale of the task facing one man.
The fact that for the next 20 years she would sail around 3,000 miles each season with total reliability and absence of any work, other than normal maintenance, says more than any words could about the quality of the design and execution of the conversion to a cruising yacht.
Sceptre in the 1980s
In Spring 1986 the great day arrived. Sceptre left Lytham, by road, for Glasson Dock, at the time the nearest marina yacht facility which could handle her ashore and afloat. She was quickly commissioned and the first sail was in June. A magnificent occasion, glorious weather and a very keen crew. Suddenly, after years of solitary work, Tony had a great many friends. On that first sail, in perfect weather, she was put through her paces in fine style. Spinnaker up and lee-rail under, a good time was had by all.
The Sceptre Preservation Society
It was clear to everyone that Sceptre was something special. Those who sailed on her were completely overawed, nothing went as smoothly, as fast or as comfortably, nor was a yacht more admired wherever she went. The thrill for the crew was echoed a thousand times by those who saw her sail by with a grace and pace, which epitomised yachting in all its serenity and mystery.
But she was big, perhaps too big for one person to manage, not only the cost but finding the crew and the continuing maintenance. The solution came almost by chance. A group of sailing friends from the neighbouring Blackpool & Fleetwood Yacht Club happened to be on one of their regular cycle rides (one has to do something around the Irish Sea when the tide is out). They reflected that if she was owned by a syndicate all the current problems would be overcome: there would be more crew, more helpers and more chance of organising charters. And so it was that the Sceptre Preservation Society was founded. Eight new members and Tony became joint owners, each owning a share (although two members took up two shares each, making a total of 11 shares).
The Sceptre Preservation Society was an instant success. From 1986 to 2001 the membership changed only a little most years, the odd member selling his share and moving on and regrettably a couple of members passing away. This gradual change was very healthy for the syndicate. In 1994 the 11 Sceptre shares were split to encourage expansion of the syndicate and shares began changing hands; by 2000 there were 17 members of the syndicate, and in 2009 the number of shares was increased to 20.
Sceptre in the 21st Century
New members brought new enthusiasm and the old guard remained to ensure that the spirit of the syndicate was upheld. The last founder member sold his share in 2002.
In 2004 the loose arrangement which had tied members of the Sceptre Preservation Society together, was formalised into a written constitution, giving a more business-like framework to the work of the Society.
In the early years Sceptre was based each summer at Troon on the Clyde and in winter returned to the Lancashire coast, originally to Glasson and since 1991 to Preston Marina. Maintenance was always done by the members who between them had an enormous bank of experience, hands on practical skills and considerable resources of all kinds.
More recently, Sceptre has been berthed at Gosport on the English South Coast, opposite Portsmouth's Historic Dockyard and Spinnaker Tower. Her owners and charterers have had many exciting weekends on the Solent and around the Isle of Wight, and have enjoyed longer trips further afield along the coast, to the Channel Islands and across to the West Coast of France.
During the summers of 2009 and 2010, Sceptre was based at Rhu on the Clyde, and took part in a number of events on the West Coast of Scotland. She was admired at the Crinan Classic Boat Festival in early July, and at West Highland Yachting Week in early August, and has been enjoyed by members of the syndicate and their family and friends on cruises around Mull and the Inner Hebrides.
After spending the summer of 2012 cruising on the Solent and the Dorset and Devon coasts, Sceptre is currently in Cockwells yard in Falmouth for refurbishment of her floor fastenings and other works.