Billionaire Could Bankroll U.S. to Win
VALENCIA, Spain, April 14 — In this gloomy city where the sun hasn’t shone in a week, the 32nd America’s Cup starts Monday. Around the harbor, shore teams are putting final touches on slippery race yachts as sailors confront the jitters. The pressure finally is on. In three weeks, seven of the 11 Cup challengers will be eliminated.
Many crewmen have trained two years or more for this make- Round Robins When: Where: What: or-break month. Then there’s Larry Ellison, billionaire owner of the lone U.S.-flagged challenger, BMW Oracle. Ellison, 62, arrived Friday the 13th from wherever it is that billionaires do their thing and set up shop aboard his per- sonal ocean liner, Rising Sun, anchored offshore.
Ellison hasn’t been on his Cup boat since last June, when he dropped in for one of the preliminary “Acts” staged in the run-up to the big event. In the 10 months since, 11 teams have trained hard, some practically nonstop, to hone their skills and select the best sailor for each of the 17 jobs aboard.
Ellison bankrolls the No. 2rated challenger team. On Monday, he’ll step aboard BMW Ora-
cle and fill a role he hasn’t had time to bother with since last summer. And just what might that role be?
“He drives a fair bit,” said veteran Cup campaigner Peter Isler, BMW Oracle’s navigator. “It’s a little different, having a key crew member come in so late, but as far as we’re concerned, it’s great. It’s his campaign, why shouldn’t he?”
On paper, BMW Oracle’s skipper-helmsman is New Zealander Chris Dickson, a seasoned campaigner who headed two Kiwi Cup efforts and one from Japan before signing on with Ellison for the 2003 regatta. Isler says Dickson calls the shots and any decision to hand over the helm is cleared through him.
But Isler expects the owner to have the wheel quite a bit in upcoming weeks, “maybe even all the time in some races.” Isler isn’t worried. “He’s been sailing a lot,” the navigator said of his boss. “He’s been match-race training with the guys in Swedish Match 40s [a smaller class of boat] in California. He’s staying sharp, and Chris talks to him quite a bit, so he’s definitely in the loop.
“He’s a sharp guy, he asks good questions. It’s fun to have him on the boat.”
Whether it stays fun remains to be seen. In the America’s Cup, where dollars by the million fly out the window every day, the only kind of fun that holds up long-term is the winning kind. There is no second place, as Queen Victoria allegedly was told by an aide back in 1851, when the yacht America stole the silver ewer away from England.
Can a billionaire businessman prance in and hold his own against the best professional big-boat skippers in the world? The evidence is inconclusive. Ted Turner drove his Courageous to a successful Cup defense back in 1977, before the era of professional sailors. Baron Marcel Bich got lost in the fog at the helm of France around the same time.
Kansas oilman Bill Koch was ridiculed all the way to the winner’s circle when he steered America3 in 1992, sharing time at the helm with Olympic gold medalist Buddy Melges. Koch, who by all accounts was close to clueless on the boat, insisted his design team would build a racer so fast, even he could win with it. They did, and he did.
But that was then. No one in the 2007 Cup appears to have a boat significantly quicker than any other in the top half of the challenger fleet. After 15 years of development, high-tech International America’s Cup Class 80-footers have been optimized to the point they are nearly equal in performance. Koch’s first-generation design, by contrast, was a rocket compared with everything else.
Now comes Ellison, with tens of millions of his dollars invested in BMW Oracle and the hopes of American yachtsmen and sailors from his home harbor, San Francisco, riding with him. Can he win?
“He’s done some match-racing on the pro circuit and he beat some boats,” Isler said with a smile. “He’s coming into a practiced, welltrained team. He’s a smart guy. You might not see him at the wheel in the prestart when we race [topranked] Emirates Team New Zealand or [No. 3] Luna Rossa, but against China or Germany, it wouldn’t surprise me.”
Ellison won’t be the only celebrity on the racecourse Monday. New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark will ride on the Kiwi boat as the nonparticipating 18th crewmember. Skipper Dean Barker, asked how he would address the PM, said he wasn’t sure, but he promised to take pains not to douse her. “She won’t be happy to get wet,” he said.
Meantime, actress Demi Moore is scheduled to lend her charm to Sunday night’s prerace party given by Luna Rossa boss Patrizio Bertelli, who runs the Milan-based fashion house Prada with wife Miuccia Prada.
Missing from most festivities for the first time in three years will be Swiss billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli and his Alinghi team. The Cup defenders, who won the trophy in 2003 in New Zealand, participated in all 13 preliminary events leading up to the Louis Vuitton Cup challenge series, but now are banned from the action.
Historically, Cup defenders were barred from all challenger preliminaries, but the rules were changed this time around and many Cup followers now wonder if the door is shutting too late on Alinghi. Using their old, 2003 Cup-winning boat, the Swiss dominated the preliminary “Acts,” as the informal races leading up to the Cup were called. Now they have 21⁄ months to mon-
2 itor challengers from afar while developing their two new Cup boats in private.
As a result, the hurdle of winning the upcoming challenger series looks daunting, but it seems not half as difficult as winning the Cup itself against Alinghi in June.
“Everyone believes the defender will be very strong,” Luna Rossa skipper Francesco de Angelis said on Saturday, “but if the challengers do a good job, they can take the Cup. It’s up to their ability to grow through competition.
“It’s difficult, but it can be done. Otherwise, none of us would be here.”
Larry Ellison, the billionaire owner of BMW Oracle, also will double as a crew member on the U.S. yacht.