Larry Ellison’s vision of the America’s Cup as a high-speed, audience-friendly television event is desperately chasing New Zealand’s yacht design and seamanship.
Ellison’s $100 million campaign with Oracle Team USA is losing its grip on the 162-year-old trophy, needing to win every remaining race in a series with Emirates Team New Zealand off San Francisco to retain the right to organize the next event.
USA won one race yesterday to pull within 8-2 of the Kiwis, who are just one win shy of victory. An American defeat may end the tenure of this edition’s $8 million, 72-foot catamarans that soar above the water on hydrofoils, as well as plans for a professional series tied to the Cup.
“We’re all coming to the realization that this is incredibly cool, and it’s about to go away,” said Peter Isler, an American who sailed on two cup-winning teams.
New Zealand was the first team to use hydrofoils on the big boats, and thus had more experience with how they reacted in upwind and downwind legs and during maneuvers. After Oracle was assessed a two-point penalty before the final for rules violations in preliminary competition, the Kiwis jumped to a race lead of 6-1 marked by better course management that allowed them to maintain control even when the USA took a rare lead on the water. Ellison, 69, even changed tacticians in the middle of the competition.
“This team is a homogeneous group that is sailing for their country,” said Gary Jobson, an NBC TV sailing analyst who won the cup in 1977 on Ted Turner’s crew. “In contrast, Oracle Team USA is made up of a group of international free agents that do not have the national incentive to win for their home country.”
The American vessel’s chief executive officer is from New Zealand, the skipper is Australian and the tactician is British. The Emirates team’s managing director, skipper and tactician are Kiwis.
The world’s eighth-richest person with a net worth of about $40.2 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaire’s Index, Ellison spent more than a decade and hundreds of millions of dollars to capture the Cup, then remade the event with technology. Then the racing started, and his Oracle team has never led in the series, out-sailed by a Kiwi squad financed by taxpayers and corporate sponsors.
“Whoever wins has a duty to get more teams involved,” New Zealand Skipper Dean Barker told reporters this week. “There’s definitely going to be some cost-saving measures.”
A loss on San Francisco Bay would end a Cup shaped by Ellison’s vision and marred by tragedy. Seeking the audiences of auto racing’s Formula One or Nascar, his planners advertised the world’s best sailors racing the world’s fastest boats, costing upward of $100 million to develop and race.
Tiny on-board cameras and innovative television graphics flashed up-close racing to viewers, with vistas of San Francisco as a backdrop. Spectators in waterfront grandstands sat close enough to hear skippers barking commands. Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP is a media sponsor of the America’s Cup.
The competition was marred by a May 9 training accident that killed Andrew Simpson, a British Olympic gold medalist and member of the Swedish team Artemis Racing. That accident, the second involving the new boats after Oracle capsized in October, spurred four investigations, dozens of new safety rules and renewed debate about whether technology had advanced faster than sailors’ ability to use it safely.
The boats were so expensive that all but three of the 15 or so teams organizers expected to challenge for the trophy declined to participate. Grant Dalton, managing director for the New Zealand team, told the New Zealand Radio Network last week that the 72-foot boats were similar to the Concord supersonic jet -- an impressive engineering feat but not economically viable.
Each of Ellison’s previous three Cup campaigns cost between $100 million and $200 million, according to Julian Guthrie’s book “The Billionaire and the Mechanic.” Ellison was quoted by Guthrie as saying he didn’t know what he’d spent and he didn’t want to know. Russell Coutts, chief executive of the Oracle team and the most-successful sailor in Cup history, said the cost of this year’s campaigns were within 5 percent of previous editions.
Torbjorn Tornqvist, the owner of Artemis Racing, said the 72-foot catamarans, while thrilling, were too expensive. He said he supports continuing in catamarans, which can sail quickly in both light and heavy air, reducing weather delays that plagued previous television broadcasts. Returning to the staid monohulls of previous Cups would be a step backward, he said in a telephone interview last week.
“These 72-foot winged cats are the most spectacular sailing boats ever made,” said Tornqvist, co-founder of Geneva-based Gunvor Group Ltd whose oil trading fortune gives him a net worth of about $3.1 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. “The dilemma is how to make it spectacular but also affordable.”
The finals marked the culmination of Ellison’s vision, with multiple lead changes and high-speed action in boats riding above the waves. Its future is in question.
“I’m afraid it’s a matter of funding and economics,” Harvey Schiller, vice-chairman of the America’s Cup advisory board and former president of YankeeNets, the holding company that for a time owned the New York Yankees and then-New Jersey Nets, said last week. “I think it remains to be seen.”
Ben Ainslie, the tactician for Oracle and a four-time Olympic gold medalist for Britain, said switching to monohulls or smaller catamarans wouldn’t necessarily reduce costs.
“Of course what we need to do is bring the cost down to have more teams competing next time around,” he said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean if we have a smaller boat, it’s going to be more cost-effective. It comes down a lot to the people -- that’s one of the biggest issues with the budgets of these teams.”
The New Zealand crew members said the 72-foot catamarans were among the most exciting they’ve ever sailed. Ray Davies, the Kiwi tactician, called racing them “awesome.”
“They’re a hell of a lot of fun, there’s no other way of putting it,” he said. “The boats are very, very cool.”
Some remnants of Ellison’s high-tech Cup probably will remain, particularly the television graphics. Stan Honey, a former Rolex Yachtsman of the Year who developed the glowing yellow first-down line used in American football telecasts, created an Emmy Award-winning system of cameras and sensors that produce virtual reality overlays on television screens showing which boat is leading, the course boundaries, relative velocities and other data.
“I think what Stan Honey and the guys have done is just fantastic,” said Nick Holroyd, technical director for New Zealand. “My hat’s off to them.”