By Angus Phillips
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 2, 2007
VALENCIA, Spain -- Sir Thomas Lipton, the Irish tea merchant who raced for it unsuccessfully five times from 1899 to 1930, dubbed the America's Cup "surely the most elusive piece of metal in all the world." He was among many well-heeled yachtsmen to try in vain to win it over the last 156 years.
Now comes Larry Ellison of San Francisco, high on the list of the world's wealthiest men and latest in a long line of powerful seekers of the Auld Mug.
Ellison, 62, with a net worth that Forbes magazine reckons is $21.5 billion, is the United States' latest best hope to bring the America's Cup back to America. The way things are developing at the 32nd Cup defense here, he has a decent chance. He's stepped away from Oracle, the software company he founded in 1977, to sail for three months on BMW Oracle, the high-flying Cup entry that's been lighting up the competition in early challenger trials that determine who will face the defending Swiss-based champion next month.
Ellison is the only owner in the 11-boat challenger field who sails on his own boat -- the only American boat in the field. That leads to some puzzlement among business associates back home, who wonder how underlings on the crew address him. "It's funny," Ellison said the other day. "People think they call me 'Mr. Ellison.' "
In fact, when he steps on the 80-foot Cup boat, he's pretty close to the bottom of the pecking order. To skipper Chris Dickson and everyone else aboard, he's just plain Larry, even if he is footing much of the bill for the $150 million-plus effort. If he fouls up, they may preface their remarks with an expletive, and often do.
"I got it from Chris today," Ellison said after an impressive win on the water. "We were in a tacking duel with Mascalzone Latino and I grabbed the protest flag to wave at the umpires when Mascalzone tacked too close. I forgot to do my job and turn the trim tab. When Chris went to turn the wheel, he said, "Larry, what the [bleep], get on the [bleeping] trim tab!
"He was right and I knew it. That's the way it is. He's the skipper. He calls the shots. Nobody gets mad, nobody feels hurt."
This is Ellison's second attempt to win yachting's grand prize. He backed the Oracle campaign for the 2003 Cup in Auckland, New Zealand, made it to challenger finals but lost, 5-1, to fellow billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli's Swiss entry Alinghi, which went on to win the Cup. Dickson was skipper then, too, but it was not a happy boat.
The campaign was marred by crew dissension evident to outsiders even though everyone on the Oracle team denied it. Three years later, Ellison concedes it wasn't fun.
Several crewmen didn't want him on the boat at all. "They didn't just want me off the boat," Ellison said, "they wanted me out of New Zealand. They wanted Chris off, too. New Zealand was a disaster. The team voted Chris off the boat and then they went on strike. The chemistry was awful."
That team was melded from several sources and the mix didn't work. This time, Ellison named Dickson director of the program from the outset and gave him free rein to assemble a team from scratch. Dickson, a native New Zealander, pulled together a squad of mostly Kiwis who blended well.
Yet Cup followers, mindful of the toxic environment on Oracle in 2003, believe the same sort of breakdown could occur this time, given the well-known, fiery personalities of Dickson, Ellison, tactician Gavin Brady and strategist Eric Doyle, all butting heads in the back of the boat. Ellison says it won't happen. "We can't implode," he said flatly. "We respect each other. We like each other. A mistake is just a mistake -- it happens."
Of course, it's easier to get along when things are going well and at the moment things are going very well for BMW Oracle.
Although poor weather has canceled America's Cup racing an unprecedented eight times since the regatta opened April 14, BMW Oracle is outclassing most of the competition and is tied for first place in the standings with Italy's Luna Rossa.
Things are going so well, in fact, that Ellison agreed to a rare interview, his first in over a year, according to his public relations aides, after a run of victories last week in the opening round.
"We have a happy billionaire," chuckled mastman Jamie Gale, a strapping, 280-pound New Zealander, after one day of twin victories.
"Did he say that?" marveled Ellison. "That's funny. I guess he means me."
Ellison, born to a 19-year-old single mother, was raised in Chicago by an aunt and uncle who'd lost their nest egg in the Depression. He's a college dropout with a knack for math. He started Oracle with $2,000, shepherded the company to dominance in computer software and programming in the booming 1980s, then nearly lost it all in 1990 when accounting errors surfaced. Bankruptcy threatened but by 2000, Oracle was back on top and Ellison was battling Microsoft's Bill Gates for recognition as the world's richest man.
These days he seems content to be simply one of the richest. His toys include Rising Sun, the 450-foot super-yacht where he stays, anchored just off the beach in this Mediterranean seaport, with his fourth wife, romance novelist Melanie Craft. Ellison is rarely seen around town, preferring to spend off hours tending to business and relaxing on the massive, private ocean liner.
He's fit and tanned, with flecks of grey in a distinctive, Van Dyke-style beard. He has worked to stay sharp, sailing around San Francisco on weekends for the last year with Brady coaching him, but when he arrived here this month to go racing, he hadn't been aboard BMW Oracle in almost a year. The crew, meantime, had been training full time.
As a result, Cup observers think BMW Oracle gives something away when he takes an active position in racing. Vincenzo Onorato, the Italian shipping magnate who bankrolls Mascalzone Latino, is a world-class sailor too, but he stays off his Cup boat. "I'm not big enough to take the place of a grinder," he says, "and not good enough to drive."
Ellison concedes that at times his presence could affect performance. "I'm not going to replace a 270-pound grinder," he admits. Mostly he takes care of trim tabs, backstays and other small but critical jobs in the back of the boat. Other times he steers, but only when Dickson lets him.
"I won't get on the wheel if the race is in jeopardy. But I really enjoy it. I go if he asks me to, and as a rule, we do okay when I drive. But if it's a hotly contested race, I'm off. This is about winning the Louis Vuitton Cup [given to the winner of the challenger series] and then the America's Cup. I would never do anything to jeopardize that."
Some races, Ellison steers as much as half the time. So far there have been no complaints, no rolled eyes, no halfhearted endorsements. "Larry's a great driver," Dickson says. "He's fine," navigator Peter Isler says. "No problem," says Brady, the tactician.
Twenty years ago, 13 challengers gathered in Fremantle, Australia, for the first defense of the America's Cup outside the United States. The New York Yacht Club held the trophy for 132 years before that. Back then, challengers represented their homelands
Dennis Conner became the first American to lose the Cup in 1983 but won it back four years later, opening new avenues for commercialism and ushering in sailing's professional era.
As challenger of record, Ellison had a lot of input into the Cup format that's being followed here. He and Bertarelli, the Cup's holder, met extensively to map out strategy to develop the program. When asked what he sees as the future of the event, Ellison said, "more commercialism," and compared it to Formula One motor racing.
Ellison and Bertarelli hatched the idea of holding 13 "acts" leading up to the event over the last three years, giving mid-level entries a better chance to showcase their programs for corporate sponsors.
Along the way, Ellison says his own interest in winning yachting's top prize evolved. "At first," he said, "it was just about me wanting to take the next step in sailing. I'd won the Maxi World Championships five times on Sayonara [his former offshore racing boat] and this was the next logical step. I found out it's a lot harder to win the America's Cup than the Maxi Worlds."
One of the first "acts" after the 2003 Cup was a showdown between Alinghi and Oracle in Newport, R.I., where Marcel Bich and Ted Turner, Conner, Bus Mosbacher and other sailing legends left their marks. "We were racing close to shore and I heard people chanting, "Go USA! Go USA!," Ellison said.
"I don't want to be too, I don't know, but it sends chills up your spine. I realized I was representing my country. And now, that's really the central point of the campaign. It's the America's Cup. Let's bring it back."
To do so, and capture the world's "most elusive piece of metal," BMW Oracle must vanquish 10 rivals in the challenger series over the next month and a half, then beat Bertarelli's Alinghi in a best-of-nine Cup match starting June 23. It's a tall order.