An international playboy with billions of dollars and a serious case of ennui buys a ten million dollar yacht, only to drive it beyond its envelope and past his capabilities, losing control, injuring crew and damaging equipment, all the while nearly escaping death, the tabloids and plummeting stock prices. Sound like a synopsis of The Thomas Crown Affair? It's not.
Larry Ellison: Software Entrepreneur, Grand Prix Yachtsman. 1946 - present
"Larry Ellison seems to be taking some unjust criticism for the way he is running his America's Cup team. If Larry wants to have his whole afterguard sit on the beach and replaces them with Britney Spears, J Lo and Madonna, the odds of his winning the America's Cup would get longer, but I doubt I'd bet against the guy."
-- Peter Huston, professional sailor
What do you get when you add a ruthless businessman to a moderately skilled helmsman, with a healthy dose of funding, plus a desire to get to play with the money he's spending? You get Larry Ellison. You get Larry Ellison biting off more than he can chew in the 1998 Sydney-Hobart Race. But that's typical Ellison: go big, or don't go. You get the businessman who has won the World Championships four times in the Maxi class- a class too expensive for mere mortal owners. You get the tycoon that sponsored an America's Cup syndicate and paid an estimated $85 million for the pursuit of a trophy that cost $200 when it was purchased. You get the magnate that said at an Oracle stockholder's press conference "It's cheap. I'm surprised more people don't do it" without a bit of sarcasm in his voice. You get the egomaniac that according to the Associated Press had a space built into his new super-yacht Katana to hold the Auld Mug.
And like it or not, you get the man who is singularly responsible for a recent resurgence in sailing in the United States. Despite easily being one of the ten richest men in the world, he is making sailing an everyman's sport. Proof?
- After announcing that he was funding the OracleBMW syndicate almost single-handedly, instantly the outcome of every OracleBMW race became the water cooler topic at Oracle. Peter Huston recently wrote
"Consider for a moment that Oracle employs roughly 40,000 people - or about the same number of US SAILING members. I spoke with Oracle employees during the recent Oracle OpenWorld convention - none of who had ever been exposed to the sport prior to the formation of OracleRacing. If the rest of Oracle's employees are only 10% as enthusiastic about OracleRacing as the Oracle employees to whom I spoke, then the sport has 40,000 new passionate evangelists."
- Although he lost to Alinghi (who went on to win the America's Cup) in the Louis Vuitton Cup finals, his new partnership with Alinghi's skipper Ernesto Bertarelli made him challenger of record for the 2007 America's Cup. Ellison responded by making the Golden Gate Yacht Club his syndicate's club. This is significant because the majority of the club is blue-collar sailors from a town that was always in the shadow of wealthier San Diego. San Francisco suddenly eclipsed San Diego and Seattle as the center of Pacific coast sailing, and was now in charge of writing the rules for the most important regatta in the world.
- Sailing on the international level is expensive, even when racing small fiberglass dinghies. This is because racing or practicing every day (a must for elite-level regattas) means the sailor can't hold a full-time job. Most Olympic sailors take leave of absences from their jobs during their training period. Meanwhile bills pile up and accounts trickle dry. By showing that
like a sponsor for a NASCAR driver, Oracle made money by having their logo shown and name dropped every time OracleBMW raced, it became fashionable for companies to sponsor sailors again. The days of having yachts named patriotically like Stars and Stripes, Kookaburra, Il Moro di Venezia, Shamrock, or Sovereign are gone. But if it means yachts of this caliber can still be built and raced, few will complain.
The 1998 Sydney-Hobart Race
The Sydney-Hobart race is run in December, right before the New Year to take advantage of the Southern Hemisphere summer. But the middle of the summer is also Australia's monsoon season. And so while 66 of 115 boats retired and 5 boats sank, Larry Ellison was riding an elevator. Only this elevator was ten meters high and traveling across the water at over 100 kilometers/hour. Ellison has only talked about it a few times. Generally, he doesn't give many interviews; interviews are work, and he doesn't mix work with his hobbies.
"It was amazing. We certainly thought it was possible we wouldn't make it. The waves were 40-feet high. They were vertical. They were walls. If you didn't wear a cable, you'd just be blown off the back of the boat. There were four guys with broken bones. We were driving onto this thing. If you didn't let go of the wheel, it would be pulled off the pedestal. You let go and grabbed back onto the wheel."
Fifty-five sailors were rescued because they weren't wearing harnesses and tethers. Six more weren't so lucky. In four of the coroner's reports, the comment "I make this finding notwithstanding their body was never found" appears.
"It shook up all 24 of us. That crew was the same crew that was on Black Magic, which won the America's Cup for New Zealand in 1995. It's an amazingly professional crew. All those guys were shook up. I've known for a long time that life is glorious and fragile and short. This reemphasized it -- it didn't really change me... We arrive at the dock and everyone sees their wife or girlfriend. There was not a single dry eye among all those very tough guys. It was an amazing moment. I'll never forget the experience. And the explanation contained therein of what it means to be a human being. It was incredible. But philosophically changed? Have I changed my life? Do I do things differently? No. Not really. I sure love those guys though."
Ellison and Sayonara took line and class honors that year, but few remembers who took home pewter, but many remember those who didn't get home. But when a reporter asked Ellison if he was worried about how he would be eulogized after that race, he responded "No, I just thought I just spent a lot of money to sail this race and I’m gonna end up on the bottom of the Bass Strait. What a stupid way to die."
"By the way, the America's Cup isn't always fun, either. It's very much like a job. We have engineers, a regular schedule, and the team is large. There are personnel issues, territory issues, organizational problems... this is just another screwed-up company."
Contrary to popular belief, only two boats get a chance to race for the America's Cup, which only happens every four years. In the meantime is the Louis Vuitton Cup. The winner of the cup earns the right to challenge the defender (the last winner of the cup). Like its namesake, this is a race for the billionaires. Professional sailors who used to run the boats are now becoming just another set of employees.
The billionaires came out of the blocks fast: Ellison and OracleBMW came out of the first round robin 5-3, opting not to pull out the full sail wardrobe or the faster rigging. Their plan was to feel out of what the other boats might be capable in the critical elimination rounds. Their two chief rivals, Alinghi and OneWorld Challenge started 7-1 and 8-0 respectively. Then came the second round robin, with the last place boat in the fleet sent home (Mascalzone Latino). Ellison and the rest of the billionaires knew their positions in the quarterfinals were virtually assured, but the racing was still hard fought: OracleBMW set the pace with a 7-1 mark, with Alinghi finishing with a 6-1 mark and the number one seed in the elimination rounds and OneWorld Challenge intentionally losing races to gain a favorable match up in the eliminations with a 5-3 mark. Nonetheless, a collision course between the billionaires was set.
In the America's Cup challenger series, the elimination rounds are set up in a double-elimination seeded format. The top four boats choose which of the remaining boats they'd like to race, and then they race. The winners become the new top seeds and choose the next series. Each boat races series until it is either the last boat remaining or has lost two series. When two series are raced between two boats, the second is called a repechage.
In the first round of the elimination series, Ellison chose to race Paul Gilmour and fellow billionaire Craig McCaw's OneWorld Challenge. They easily defeated them 4-0, sending the boat from Seattle to the one-loss series, and advancing to the Semifinals against Alinghi, financed by another billionaire: Swiss biotech magnate Ernesto Bertarelli. This series also ended up a sweep, but not in OracleBMW's favor: 0-4. Ellison was sent to the loser's bracket, where they were paired in a rematch against OneWorld Challenge. The irony is that the second round repechage and challengers' finals ended exactly as the two rounds before, a 4-0 win over OneWorld and a 1-5 loss to Alinghi, with few memorable or even close races in the two series. OracleBMW was clearly faster than OneWorld, but her afterguard was no match for the watch-like precision of the Swiss challenge. Ellison's dream of the America's Cup was over.
After the America's Cup
Ellison hasn't abandoned the hunt for the America's Cup. In fact, he's renewed his campaign, and strengthened his afterguard (which was the source of consternation in the 2003 challenge) in preparation as challenger of record for the 2007 challenge. Plus, Ellison has brought several major races using America's Cup yachts, new and old, in owner-driver series like the Moet Cup (sponsored by the champagne company), as an excuse to race ISAF boats more than just every four years. Finally, he has backed up his campaign with another tab in excess of $80 million.
The space for the Auld Mug is still in Katana.
Becht, Richard, The End of an Era: America's Cup 2003 New Zealand. New York: Motorbooks, c 2003
Leibovich, Mark, The New Imperialists. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, c2002