What do you do after you've made more money than you can spend and you're in your 40s and want to have fun?
Neil Bergt thought he'd try sailing, so he bought a fancy crusing yacht. There wasn't enough excitement, so he bought a fast, fancy yacht last year and went ocean racing. Within months, he's bought a bigger, faster, fancier yacht and decided to circumnavigate the globe at the first U.S. entry ever in the most arduous, perilous ocean race of all, the Whitbread 'Round the World.
He told his hired captain, Mike Farley, to put together a crew of 11 for the Whitbread and start making preparations. Farley, an old hand at ocean racing, called some serious racing cronies and outlined the plan.
They wouldn't go.
"I told him, 'You're going around the world in a Swan 65? Great, have fun,'" said Ted Allison, who had been aboard the British boat King's Legend in the 1977-'78 Whitbread.
Bergt's million-dollar Swan wasn't enough boat for the hottest racers. A Swan 65 had won the first Whitbread in 1973-'74, and Swans had taken three of the top five places in the second race. But times change fast on the ocean-racing scene. New designs had passed the Swan by. If Bergt was to get the best crew, they wanted more boat.
So he bought a still faster, fancier yacht. He bought Flyer , the winner of the 1977-'78 race, a custom-designed aluminum Sparkman and Stephens 65-footer. He sent Farley to Holland, where the boat lay, to have her completely rebuilt, including an entire new stern section, all new rigging, new winches and a sail plan redesigned from ketch rig to sloop.
Now he has his crew.
Bergt renamed his boat Alaska Eagle in honor of the rough-and-tumble state where he made his fortune. Last week, he flew an international crew of 12, including a French chef, in from around the globe for a reception at the U.S. Senate. Alaska's congressional delegation and other VIPs were there to munch crab legs and salmon and wish him well.
It is not uncommon in yacht racing for a newcomer to spring fully grown on the scene. Ocean racing is a nice athletic outlet for millionaires. All it takes to create a winner is a talented crew, a great boat, a lot of money to campaign the boat and some organizational expertise. Wealthy, self-made men are among the few people in the world who can put together all four.
What is a little unusual is a prerace reception of the sort Bergt organized. Usually such celebrations are reserved for the completion of a difficult campaign.
"He's leaving himself wide open to embarrassment later," said a veteran yacht-watcher.
If so, it's nothing new to Bergt, a plunger.
He's chairman and owner of Alaska International Industries, a conglomerate with interests in oil drilling, heavy construction, insurance, hotels, land development and an airline. All is sponsoring the Whitbread effort to the projected tune of about $1.2 million.
Bergt never went to college. He worked through high school in Anchorage and bought a milk route when he graduated. He made, he says, $1,800 a month on his milk route by working 3 a.m. to 7 p.m. six days a week. With his milk profits, he bought an airplane, became a commercial pilot and parlayed that into ownership of AII's predecessor, a freight airline company.
Bergt flew into Washington last week on his company's private Israeli-built jet. In his suite at the Hotel Fairfax, he talked about how he came to be the first American to enter the Whitbread: "I think I'm the greatest student of the Whitbread there is, other than the participants themselves," he said. "I've read everything I could get my hands on about it since I read the officials account of the first race in 1974.
"If you're really involved in ocean racing, the Whitbread has to be the ultimate challenge. People ask me, 'Why do you want to go?' I say, if you like ocean racing how could you not want to go? It's like playing football and not wanting to play in the Super Bowl."
About 25 entries are expected in this year's Whitbread, which begins August 29 in Portsmouth, England. The race is run in four legs, with three-week layovers in Cape Town, South Africa; Auckland, New Zealand, and Mar del Plata, Argentina, and the finish in Portsmouth. It takes about eight months.
Allison, one of two Whitbread veterans on the crew, said the race "offers everything you'll ever see in ocean racing. In 26,000 miles, everything that can happen will happen, from dead calm to raging storms."
The crew left for Holland after the Washington reception. The boat, which none of them has sailed, is due for launching June 15, when Bergt will join the others. They'll test sails and practice through the summer. Bergt has hired the former director of the Alaska pipeline to run his company.
Now it's only a question of perseverance and luck. Where will the first American Whitbread racer finish?
"We are going to win," said Bergt, characteristically.