Oil-Trading Tycoons Fund Battle for Sailing's Greatest Prize

  • Gunvor and Vitol executives bankroll America’s Cup rivals
  • Billionaire Swede Tornqvist and Vitol’s Bake are keen sailors

The high seas have long been a battleground for the world’s biggest oil traders as they spend millions of dollars chartering crude tankers in the quest for an edge in the market.

This month, off the pink-sand beaches of Bermuda, top executives from oil-trading houses Vitol Group and Gunvor Group will bankroll a very different kind of seaborne combat: the 35th edition of the America’s Cup sailing race.

Teams race in the America’s Cup series

Photographer: Behrouz Mehri/AFP via Getty Images

Gunvor Chief Executive Officer Torbjorn Tornqvist’s Artemis Racing is an early favorite to win the right to challenge billionaire Larry Ellison’s Oracle Team USA for the world’s oldest sporting trophy. First, the Royal Swedish Yacht Club’s entry must beat teams from France, Japan, New Zealand and the U.K. 

On May 26 -- the day after OPEC’s next meeting in Vienna -- Artemis takes on Britain’s Land Rover BAR team, who’s founding shareholders include Chris Bake and Ian Taylor, executives at the world’s biggest independent oil trader Vitol.

“It is not surprising to see the highly competitive spirit of commodity traders venturing into sports,” said Jean-Francois Lambert, an industry consultant and former commodity trade finance banker at HSBC Holdings Plc. “The America’s Cup is one of the most prestigious competitions and perhaps epitomizes most what commodity trading personifies: strong leadership over a highly professional and dependable team.”

Torbjorn Tornqvist

Photographer: Stephen Lam/Getty Images

Billionaire Tornqvist, who controls about 61 percent of Gunvor’s equity, is ambitious to topple Ellison, whose team is angling to become the first to win the cup three consecutive times.

“Our long-term goal is to dominate the America’s Cup arena for the next decade and inspire a new generation of sailors,” Tornqvist said on Artemis Racing’s website.

Tornqvist joins a list of race patrons that include legendary U.S. financier J.P. Morgan, who co-owned a yacht that defended the three-foot silver trophy, known as the “Auld Mug,” in 1899 and 1901. In 1983 Australian billionaire Alan Bond’s Australia II ended the New York Yacht Club’s 132-year hold on the trophy, while Switzerland’s richest man Ernesto Bertarelli won the 2003 and 2007 editions of the cup for the Geneva yacht club.

Financial backers need deep pockets. Ellison spent $115 million on his U.S. team’s successful 2013 America’s Cup title defense, according to the Wall Street Journal. This year, Ellison is again bankrolling the American squad and has enlisted European plane maker Airbus Group SE to help with the design of the team’s carbon-fiber catamaran.

Maritime Cultures

Tornqvist’s Artemis is galvanized by the death of crew member Andrew Simpson during a training accident for its previous challenge in San Francisco in 2013. The team has been “dominant in high winds” in racing prior to the start of the regatta, according to America’s Cup Event Authority CEO Russell Coutts, a New Zealander who’s the most successful sailor in the competition’s history.

Tornqvist said the large crews and support staff required for sailing competitions offer some parallels with a trading house, adding that the match-up with Land Rover BAR pits Sweden against another country with a long maritime history.

Both British and Swedish cultures “have a seafaring heritage, which is of course, based in trade,” he said.

Like Tornqvist, Vitol Executive Director Bake is an accomplished sailor, leading his Team Aqua to five championships on the RC44 tour. Vitol CEO Taylor is better known as a philanthropist and supporter of the arts, chairing the Board of Trustees of the Royal Opera House in London. Both Bake and Taylor declined to comment for the story.

Closing Gap

Rotterdam-based Vitol, which trades more than 7 million barrels a day, is not a sponsor of the British team.

The Land Rover BAR team is skippered by four-time Olympic gold medal winner Ben Ainslie, who helped to mastermind Oracle’s comeback from 8-1 down to win 9-8 against Emirates Team New Zealand in San Francisco four years ago. The U.K. squad is trying to recapture yachting’s most prestigious race for the first time since the inaugural race was staged in 1851 off the Isle of Wight on England’s south coast.

Land Rover BAR will be the first British team to challenge for the trophy in 16 years. Organizers claim it’s the hardest trophy to win in sports with just four nations having captured the prize: Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland and the U.S.

“We’re a new team and we’ve been on the back foot playing catch-up, but I believe we’ve really closed the gap on the others,” Ainslie said in an April 26 statement. “We are in it to win it. Those are our expectations, but we know how tough it will be.”

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