The America’s Cup Tacks Back Into View
Less than six months before the next America’s Cup regatta begins in a Spanish port, the top sailors with the only American-backed syndicate got a breathtaking reminder that victory will mean more than merely spraying Champagne and hoisting the silver trophy.
If BMW Oracle Racing can return the America’s Cup to the United States for the first time since 1995, the next regatta will most likely be sailed with a spectacular backdrop including the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, Coit Tower and the Transamerica pyramid.
“This is the greatest natural amphitheater for sailing, perhaps in the world,” the software mogul Larry Ellison said during the recent Allianz Cup, a stop on the World Match Racing Tour.
Ellison and others with BMW Oracle Racing know what it is like to have 80-foot America’s Cup sloops, with mainsails as big as Boeing 747 wings, tacking along the San Francisco waterfront.
Three years ago, BMW Oracle Racing and America’s Cup winner Alinghi of Switzerland sailed an exhibition regatta there, with spectators watching from the shore and nearby buildings. It was mostly smooth sailing, except for when a massive container ship steamed through the course, leaving the rich guys no choice but to yield the right of way.
“A lot of people said, ‘Oh, you couldn’t race the America’s Cup in San Francisco Bay,’ ” said Gavin Brady, a New Zealander who lives in Annapolis, Md. “I think this would be one of the coolest places to run the America’s Cup.”
When Cup races are held offshore, boats can be separated by hundreds of yards, making it hard to tell who is in the lead.
On San Francisco Bay, “It’s like going to a Nascar race on a small track,” Brady said. “There’s no big straight. They can’t get far enough away from each other, just bumping and crashing. ‘Which side of Alcatraz is he going to go? Geez, he went on the other side of Alcatraz!’ The whole thing would be an awesome spectacle. It really would change the face of the America’s Cup.”
Dreams are one thing. Then there is reality.
“First we have to win it,” Ellison, the chief executive of Oracle Corporation, said.
To claim the oldest trophy in sports, BMW Oracle Racing will have to top 10 other challengers in the Louis Vuitton Cup beginning April 16 in the Mediterranean off Valencia, Spain, then knock off Alinghi in the America’s Cup matches beginning June 23.
Ellison and his skipper, the New Zealander Chris Dickson, say BMW Oracle Racing is in good shape three and a half years into a four-year campaign. After 12 regattas that have filled the gap since the 2003 America’s Cup, the America team is ranked second, right behind New Zealand, the hard-luck loser in its home waters three years ago.
Then known as Oracle BMW Racing, the American-sponsored crew made it to the Louis Vuitton Cup finals before losing by 5-1 to Alinghi, which went on to sweep New Zealand.
That campaign had its share of upheaval. The intense Dickson was banished from the boat for a time because of friction with teammates. When Ellison reinstated him, there were some races when Dickson replaced Ellison in the brain trust at the back of the boat.
“I think that’s all behind us,” said Ellison, who sometimes steers the America’s Cup boat, which has a crew of 17, in addition to one observer. “Chris is the boss. He’s the CEO of the syndicate. As it became very clear in the last campaign, I was on the boat at his pleasure. He’s the boss and we all salute.”
Alinghi set the stodgy America’s Cup on its stern by becoming the first crew representing a landlocked country to win sailing’s biggest prize, taking it to mainland Europe for the first time. With billionaires like Ellison and Alinghi’s Ernesto Bertarelli dominating the sport and budgets zooming past $100 million, sailors like Dennis Conner have been priced out.
“I certainly wish Dennis was still in it,” Ellison said. “I wish there were two or three or four American teams. But it’s becoming a global sport. Teams obviously have to have sailors and engineers from all over the world on the team. Even if you’re wealthy, it’s expensive for an individual. Ernesto Bertarelli and I are both wealthy, but we’re still relying on sponsors for supplying the majority of money to do this.”
That is why the German automaker BMW, which is contributing millions in cash plus engineering know-how, now has top billing in the syndicate’s name.
“You bet,” Ellison said with a laugh.
The crew of BMW Oracle Racing, representing the Golden Gate Yacht Club, is loaded with Kiwis. Over all, though, the syndicate’s 150 employees are from 16 different nations.
“If you focus only on your home market, as others have, maybe you don’t get there,” Dickson said. “We’re in a global game, we’ve got a global team and we’re taking on the best the world can offer.”
Ellison and Bertarelli are committed to modernizing the America’s Cup from its clubby days. They want to make it more TV-friendly by shortening races — which can be two-hour snoozefests if one boat gets a big lead — and better explaining a sport that can be confusing, elitist and at times, boring.
“It’s a tremendously exciting sport, if you understand what’s going on,” Ellison said. “Our job is to present it to the average viewer in a coherent and understandable way. It will enhance the sport and increase its popularity.”
If organizers do a better job of that, Ellison said, it will draw more sponsors and money, which would allow more American teams to compete.
The New York Yacht Club once enjoyed the longest winning streak in sports, holding the America’s Cup for 132 years.
But Americans have almost become nonfactors since Conner lost the Cup to New Zealand in 1995 off San Diego.
“I’m a Kiwi, but I think I know Americans well enough to know that they will absolutely love BMW Oracle Racing if we can win that America’s Cup,” Dickson said.
“The Cup hasn’t been in the United States for a long time,” Ellison said. “It’s called the America’s Cup. It would be nice to see it in America.”
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