Ellison’s Oracle Team USA Keeps America’s Cup Vision Alive

Larry Ellison said his Oracle Team USA completed the biggest comeback in the 162-year-old America’s Cup after cracking the code to the catamaran.

Oracle yesterday won the deciding race of the regatta by 44 seconds for its eighth straight victory, capping a 9-8 defeat of Emirates Team New Zealand on San Francisco Bay.

Ellison, the chief executive officer of Oracle Corp. and the eighth-richest man in the world according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, said he didn’t need to tell the team anything when it trailed 8-1. He just listened to his helmsman.

“I just listened to Jimmy Spithill,” Ellison said at a news conference. “And he said ‘8-1. You know what 8-1 is? 8-1 is motivating.’ I said, ‘OK. 8-1 is motivating. I’ll just get behind that.’”

The biggest previous comeback was in 1983, when Alan Bond’s Australia II overcame a 3-1 deficit to win a best-of-seven series against Dennis Conner’s Liberty and end the New York Yacht Club’s 132-year hold on the trophy, the longest winning streak in sports.

“It was a very impressive demonstration of what can be achieved when people work very close together in an extreme pressure-cooker environment,” John Bertrand, the winning skipper on Australia II in 1983, said in a Bloomberg Television interview.

Spithill said his team never stopped believing it could rebound, even when trailing during the final race.

“It was a fantastic race,” Spithill, 35, said. “I’m just so proud of the boys. To be facing the barrel of a gun at 8-1 and what do these guys do? They don’t even flinch.”

Ellison’s Vision

The result keeps alive Ellison’s vision for the sport. The regatta featured top sailors racing the world’s fastest boats -- $8 million, 72-foot (22-meter) catamarans with 12-story vertical wings, capable of soaring above the waves on hydrofoils at speeds exceeding the posted 45-mile-an-hour (72-kilometer-per-hour) limit on the Golden Gate Bridge near the course.

“This regatta was the most magnificent spectacle I’ve ever seen on the water,” Ellison said. “These 40-plus-knot catamarans are absolutely amazing. I think a lot of people who were never interested in sailing suddenly got interested in sailing.”

While Ellison said the regatta may return to San Francisco in four years, he’s willing to look at other venues along with changes to the boats and rules to broaden interest in the event.

Economic Study

A study in 2010 by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute said the regatta would pump as much as $1.4 billion dollars into the San Francisco area, with the Associated Press saying that figure was later reduced to $780 million. Telephone and e-mail messages left for Gerrie Porciuncula, assistant to the council’s chief executive, Sean Randolph, for comment on the AP figures weren’t immediately returned.

Team New Zealand spent $100 million, funded by taxpayers and corporate sponsors, on its effort to win the cup for a third time after its breakthrough victory in 1995 and successful defense in Auckland in 2000. Ellison spent more than a decade and hundreds of millions of dollars to win the trophy off Valencia, Spain, in 2010 and Oracle ran another $100 million campaign this cycle. The cost limited the number of challengers in this year’s series to three.

“We’re all going to sit down and talk about what kind of boats we want to use going forward,” Ellison said. “These boats are expensive and we’d like to have more countries competing next time, so we’re going to have to figure out how to accomplish both -- get more countries competing next time but keep it as spectacular as it was this last regatta.”

Changes Planned

Ellison has said he’ll consider smaller catamarans, 45 feet or so, for the next cup, to reduce costs. Harvey Schiller, vice chairman of the America’s Cup advisory board, said this month that organizers are discussing a global series, with cash purses and competitors for the next cup selected from those races by 2017.

Rules for the cup are agreed upon by competitors every few years. There’s no purse and no limit on spending. Engineering is so secret that teams have been caught sending frogmen to sneak looks at rival boats.

Ellison said he’d already received a challenge for the next edition, though he declined to identify the team.

“This regatta has changed sailing forever,” he said.

Tech Savvy

Technology helped salvage Oracle’s series, with the shore crew and sailors overcoming New Zealand’s speed advantage during the early races.

New Zealand led the final race by about seven seconds around the first turn and stayed about one boat length in front of the U.S. team throughout the downwind leg. That lead dwindled to three seconds as the boats reached the bottom mark and started back upwind toward the Golden Gate.

That’s when Oracle found new speed. The boats zigzagged back and forth in front of the city, with Oracle passing New Zealand and edging a little farther ahead each time they crossed. The U.S. executed tacks faster, maintaining about 12 knots through the turns, while New Zealand’s speed sometimes dropped to single digits. By the top turn, Oracle led by 26 seconds and never trailed again.

“We saw today how dominant they’d become upwind,” said Dean Barker, New Zealand’s skipper. “It’s very difficult to accept, a tough pill to swallow.”

Winning Streak

Oracle’s winning streak began after the team exercised its option to halt racing and regroup after it fell behind 4-0 on points. The U.S. squad returned with a significantly faster boat, particularly when sailing into the wind, where the Kiwis had held an edge.

After the Kiwis won two straight races to move within one victory of the title, Oracle took the next seven to force yesterday’s showdown.

“In these boats, it’s a development game,” Spithill said. “We started this regatta slower than the other team, but we ended this regatta faster and that was an incredible team effort and that’s really what won us the cup.”

The team also swapped out tactician John Kostecki for four-time Olympic gold medalist Ben Ainslie from Britain. Spithill, the helmsman, repeatedly praised Ainslie and strategist Tom Slingsby in post-race interviews, saying the three had developed a unique rapport.

Oracle also rode its luck. The U.S. boat trailed in Race 13 by as much as a mile before officials abandoned the contest for exceeding a 40-minute time limit with the Kiwis approaching the finish line.

Narrow Miss

“We missed that race by two minutes or something, which would have closed out the regatta,” said Grant Dalton, managing director for New Zealand. “In the end they were going faster.”

The win extends the unbeaten streak of Russell Coutts, the Oracle syndicate’s chief executive, taking the native New Zealander and most successful sailor in the event’s history to 5-0 in America’s Cup series.

“As long as Russell wants his job, we’re blessed to have him,” Ellison said.

The trophy dates back to Aug. 22, 1851, when the schooner America, sponsored by the New York Yacht Club, defeated more than a dozen of Britain’s fastest yachts in a race around the Isle of Wight. The crew deeded the trophy in perpetuity to promote “friendly competition between foreign countries.”

Moguls including Harold Vanderbilt and J.P. Morgan have since met periodically with the best yachts their fortunes could build to compete for the three-foot silver trophy, known as the “Auld Mug.”

Ellison leaped onto his boat after yesterday’s race and embraced Spithill and Ainslie while the crew sprayed champagne. Then he took the wheel, steering the boat slowly through the fleet of spectators.

“I just thanked them and let them know: You know what you guys did? You know what you guys did? You just won the America’s Cup,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure they knew that.”

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