Watson was not born to the sea; he adopted it. With the death of his father, a doctor, when he was 15, Watson was driven into indentured servitude. And yet, his enforced apprenticeship in the Cunard Line shipyard offered him an unrivaled, hands-on training at the forefront of naval architecture of his day. He went on to study wave dynamics with the leading theorist William Froude.
In 1875, he set out on his own. At 22, he designed the 5-tonner, Clotilde which promptly beat William Fife II’s, Pearl, the reigning champion of the Firth of Clyde.
In 1881, Watson’s 38’ 7" ten-tonner, Madge, racing in New York waters, swept the competition and changed the American yachting world’s idea of what fast meant under sail. Deep-keeled, narrow and surpassingly full-canvassed, Madge overran nearly every competitor -- save one, Herreshoff’s Shadow.
But the sine qua non of fevered, Trans-Atlantic rivalry across the Pond, was the America’s Cup, the winning of which consumed both the United States and Great Britain and their yachtsmen’s minds and pocketbooks for the next twenty-five years.
Watson’s first Cup commission -- unrealized -- came in 1886. His second, Thistle, served as Great Britain’s challenger in 1887. In 1889, Lord Dunraven went into battle for Cup supremacy with Valkyrie but the New York Yacht Club reversed her eligibility in mid-Atlantic. No race was held. Watson built for Dunraven twice more, Valkyrie II and III and also designed Shamrock II for Sir Thomas Lipton’s second challenge in 1901. Each time Watson stole winning ideas from his peer and nemesis in the America’s Cup: Nathanael Herreshoff. And Herreshoff stole his.
Watson stood at the pinnacle of his profession; yet never stopped designing fast boats. While he had refused Sir Thomas Lipton’s commissions twice because of the stress of Cup campaigns, Watson couldn’t help but design yet another boat to beat all comers. In 1900, he launched Kariad, a light displacement hull that so dominated the racing circuit in home waters, that she was destroyed after Watson’s death to open the door to a new generation of yachts and designers.
George L. Watson died at the early age of 53, a visionary of his time - unmatched in the splendor of his marriage of air and ocean. His yachts continue to inspire awe: Britannia -- in replica -- sails today in the great classic yacht races in the Mediterranean.