Ellison Finds Out the Hard Way That Love Hurts

By Angus Phillips
Sunday, May 27, 2007

Larry Ellison loves sailing, but after getting his ears boxed in the America's Cup, he may have second thoughts. Sometimes, love gets in the way.

The San Francisco software billionaire hired his beloved skipper Chris Dickson to run the BMW Oracle campaign that collapsed in Valencia, Spain, last week. The pair go way back. It was Dickson who steered Ellison's 80-foot Sayonara safely and victoriously to Tasmania in the scary 1998 Sydney-Hobart Race, when five boats sank and six lives were lost.

Ellison said he thought he was going to die in that storm-swept debacle across Bass Strait and credited Dickson with pulling him through. He subsequently gave up offshore racing to focus on the Cup, saying, "I know my limits," and hired Dickson to steer his Cup boat in 2003, then made him chief executive of BMW Oracle in 2004, with a generous budget of close to $200 million.

The two finally parted Friday, when Dickson resigned four days after a shocking collapse on the race course. Oracle, favored to get to the challenger finals and a strong contender for the Cup, was drummed out of the semifinals, 5-1, by Italy's Luna Rossa. Oracle never led at a turning mark. Ellison took Dickson off the helm for the last race.

The long knives were flashing even before he got the boot. The volatile, secretive skipper is not beloved among sailors. "He's good when things are going well," said Peter Lester, his tactician for most of the 1995 Cup at San Diego, "good sailor, good boathandler, good skipper. But when things start to go pear-shaped, he loses it."

"The boat's not losing these races," Geordie Shaver, bowman on Oracle in the 2003 Cup in Auckland, New Zealand, said pointedly when Oracle went down 4-1 in the semis after Dickson committed two fouls in prestart maneuvers, effectively ending the race before it started.

So who is the man sailors call "Dicko" and how did he work his way so deeply into the affections of Ellison, who didn't get his billions being softhearted? Here's a theory: Larry Ellison loves sailing and love follows no reason, which sometimes leads to dire results.

I had an hour sit-down with him a month ago, when BMW Oracle was still riding high on a wave of wins in preliminary racing. An hour with Ellison is like an hour with Madonna or the president; you just don't get that kind of access. But he was talking about what he loves and when his publicist tried to interrupt, he waved her off.

Ellison comes from nothing. He was born to an unmarried teenager in the Bronx, grew up in a two-bedroom apartment with relatives on the South Side of Chicago and dropped out of college. He started his business with $2,000. When he moved to San Francisco to chase his fortune, he saw sailboats on the bay and was intrigued.

"I started sailing Lido 14s," he said -- dinghies he could rent -- then moved up to an Islander 24 and started racing Wednesday nights. "I couldn't afford it," he said. "It was, 'What should we have this week, dinner or a new winch?'

"For me it was very romantic. I read in National Geographic about sailing around the world -- the romance, the freedom, the harmony with nature. But I had a job, so I couldn't do that. I started racing because racing makes you better, and I'm competitive by nature.

"I had slow boats that didn't win. The first boat I ever had that won anything was Sayonara."

And whom did he pick for a skipper? Dickson. "He's the main guy," Ellison said. With Sayonara he won five maxi world championships, several offshore races including the 1998 Sydney-Hobart, then it was on to the Cup.

While Ellison paid the bills, he lacked time to devote to the program. Dickson built an empire to fill the void, culminating in his appointment as CEO. The program lacked for nothing -- the best designers, boatbuilders, sailmakers, engineering help from BMW, computer expertise from Oracle, a winter training site in New Zealand and on and on.

But a key question unanswered till the end last week was whether the crew had the chemistry to win the big one. Dickson hired Cup veteran John Kostecki to call tactics but Kostecki quit. Helmsman Gavin Brady quit when Dickson decided to steer, then Brady came back as tactician. Ellison was rarely around to practice his roles in the afterguard, which included steering. The crew, it seemed, lacked cohesion.

BMW Oracle presented a formidable front in public. The sailors, from bowman Brad Webb to massive mastman Jamie Gale to navigator Peter Isler, mouthed the same platitudes: Dicko's doing a great job, Larry's a terrific driver, things are going well. It sounded, in hindsight, scripted. Then Oracle ran into a meat-grinder called Luna Rossa, and the script came apart.

By Race 5, when Dickson imploded and threw away the race on prestart fouls, Luna Rossa had the advantage in every aspect. Helmsman James Spithill, at 27 nearly 20 years Dickson's junior, dominated the starting box; the tactician, five-time Olympic medalist Torben Grael, looked clairvoyant in predicting wind shifts; Luna Rossa was fast upwind and equal downwind, at least after Oracle changed to a bigger rudder after race two. Sailhandling was impeccable.

Suddenly, Oracle was fighting for its life. Judging by the body language on board, it was not a happy place to be. All eyes were on the skipper, and they shot daggers.

What next? Ellison has said he wants to keep going. Sir Thomas Lipton made five tries at the Cup before giving up; Alan Bond was on his third when he won with Australia II. With a personal fortune of more than $20 billion, Ellison can afford it.

Dickson's gone, that seagoing love affair is over. Ellison needs no advice from me, but I'll offer it anyway. Next time, find someone to run the program who is quiet, smart and self-effacing -- the kind of person you'd hire to run a company. The quest for the America's Cup may start as a love affair, but to win it or even do well, is a business. Big business. If anyone knows big business, it ought to be Larry Ellison.

* * *

Cup racing resumes Friday off Valencia as Luna Rossa faces Emirates Team New Zealand in best-of-nine challenger finals for the Louis Vuitton Cup. The winner advances to the Cup match June 23 against Swiss Alinghi. Racing can be seen live at 8:30 a.m. on the Versus cable channel.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company