The original event came about when Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany (whose reign continued through World War One before he was forced to abdicate) issued a challenge to anyone willing to race his 158-foot (48.1m) yacht, Hamburg, across the North Atlantic. While transatlantic races had been held before then, the 1905 event was significant for drawing a large number of entries, 11 in total, and is remembered principally for the record time set by the race winner, Atlantic.
Owned by New York Yacht Club member Wilson MARSHALL, the 185-foot (56.4m) three-masted schooner Atlantic was skippered by Charlie BARR (USA), the equivalent in his day to New Zealand's Russell COUTTS. Like COUTTS, BARR was an accomplished America's Cup helmsman who by 1905 had successfully defended the America's Cup three times, without dropping a race. With the merciless BARR behind the wheel, Atlantic sped east, passing the Lizard on England's Cornish coast just 12 days, 4 hours, 1 minute and 19 seconds after departing from New York.
Atlantic's time was set without the luxury of being able to choose the best departure date, in an era before GPS, satellite communications or even effective waterproof clothing - a time when weather forecasting was down to a skipper's gut instinct rather than science.
Since then a few boats have set west-to-east transatlantic passage records, where a yacht leaves at the most propitious time, but the mark has never been bested in an official race. Most notably, the 141-foot (43m) racing schooner Mari-Cha IV, an entrant in the Rolex Transatlantic Challenge 2005, holds the transatlantic-passage record of 6 days and 17 hours.
Starting 21 May, the anniversary running of the Rolex Transatlantic Challenge will see 20 competing yachts racing much the same course as their forebears did 100 years ago: departing from New York, bound for the Lizard and then continuing on to Cowes, Isle of Wight. For safety, the race organizers plan to include a way point in the mid-Atlantic to keep the yachts clear of icebergs.
As with the 1905 event, the Rolex Transatlantic Challenge will be sailed by large yachts, with entries open to monohulls of 70 feet (21.3m) and longer. While the 1905 event was raced purely on elapsed time, in 2005, the entries will compete on handicap, divided into classes separating thoroughbred racers from performance cruisers and classics. The entries include a diverse range of these three types, from the uncompromised Mari-Cha IV, to luxurious performance cruisers such as the 151-foot (46m) Dutch schooner Windrose, which in 2002 set the fastest passage time for a two-masted schooner of 11 days, 10 hours, 25 minutes and 10 seconds, to classics like the 94-foot (28.7m) Fife-designed Sumurun, which in 1997 won the Atlantic Challenge Cup, this race's predecessor.
Sumurun's owner and chair of the Race Committee, A. Robert TOWBIN, gave his reasons for competing in the race: 'The Rolex Transatlantic Challenge allows modern day yachtsmen to compete in one of the world's oldest trans-oceanic yacht races. It is hard to conceive the hardships and perils competitors must have endured in 1905. Today modern yachts are faster and safer, but the one constant remains the North Atlantic, which has the potential to be every bit as ferocious now as it was a century ago.'
The Rolex Transatlantic Challenge concludes with a weekend of activities in mid-June, including the prize giving at Osborne House on 12 June and the Rolex Race Around the Isle of Wight on 13 June.
The Rolex Transatlantic Challenge is sponsored by Rolex and by Moran Towing Corp., Sandy Hook Pilots and P&O Ports North America. The race is supported by the City of New York and Mayor Michael BLOOMBERG. Showboats International is the event's official marine publication and the programme sponsors include Rolex, North Fork Bank and Holland Jachtbouw.