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Ships Of Fools For sheer fun, it's hard to top the spectacle of billionaires behaving badly in the America's Cup qualifying now under way in New Zealand

Dec. 09, 2002
Dec. 09, 2002

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Dec. 9, 2002

Ships Of Fools For sheer fun, it's hard to top the spectacle of billionaires behaving badly in the America's Cup qualifying now under way in New Zealand

The boats, if these computer-sculpted splinters can be called
watercraft at all, are utterly charmless. Hoisted out of the
water at the end of the racing day and just before they're
shrouded in secretive skirts, they are revealed as mostly mast
and keel, the carbon-fiber hulls functional only to the extent
that they can carry 17 crew members and remain seaworthy. The
monstrous bulb below the waterline accounts for 80% of the boat's
weight, counterbalancing the acreage of high-performance sails
high above. No amount of iridescent epoxy in between can
camouflage the ugliness of its desperation: Gotta go fast.

This is an article from the Dec. 9, 2002 issue Original Layout

This New Zealand spring, as the boats are towed each morning out
into Auckland's Hauraki Gulf (yes, towed; instruments this finely
tuned for speed shouldn't have to commute), the desperation is
reaching an old but still comic level. As it was 151 years ago,
when some ex-colonists stormed England with a plan to sandbag its
sailors in high-stakes racing, the America's Cup is home to a
wealthy rabble of rampant egos who enjoy an attention-grabbing
tussle. Chartered as a "friendly competition among nations," the
event has once again collapsed into aristocratic rivalry, all the
more entertaining for its nakedness of ambition and level of
skulduggery.

Last week six of the original nine syndicates were still vying
for the chance to challenge New Zealand, the reigning Cup holder,
in February, and by week's end that total was down to four.
(Though who will get the fourth spot still awaits a hearing to
assess the protest lodged by Team Dennis Conner against the
OneWorld syndicate, but more on that later.) The qualifying,
called the Louis Vuitton Cup, is unduly complicated, its saving
grace that it has reintroduced the word repechage to the sporting
vocabulary. (Look it up yourself.) All you need to know for the
moment is that of the nine challengers, there seem to be as many
working definitions of clinical megalomania on the water as there
are boats.

The ridiculousness is multinational. (Why would France enter its
HAZMAT-colored Le Defi Areva, with full-on nuclear-power
sponsorship, in nuclear-free New Zealand? So it could get rammed
by a boatful of Greenpeace activists? Which it was. Well done!)
The boat, oddly wind-powered, was mercifully eliminated two weeks
ago anyway, but nobody does tycoons-in-TopSiders better than the
Americans. With the residue of the new economy still seeding
vanity projects, the Americans had a delightful flotilla--three
separate campaigns, all cheerfully eccentric in the best American
tradition.

What else could this be, anyway, but a stab at nouveau nobility?
Yachting has never been a sport for the masses, but now it's
become the last refuge for our techno-royals. Some campaigns cost
upward of $80 million, and while there is sponsorship galore (the
boats are now dolled up like floating NASCAR shillery), most of
that has to be ponied up by moguls.

And what fun that provides for the rest of us. Larry Ellison,
whose Oracle wealth has fueled an enormously entertaining bravado
("Whatever I want, I get," he once said. "That's the beauty of
being worth $26 billion. I thoroughly recommend it"), chugs
around Auckland's harbor in his 244-foot yacht, Katana, and
snipes away at the competition. Paul Allen, whose Microsoft
holdings have allowed him to dabble in sports he might not ever
have had an interest in (yachting, for example), shows up in his
301-foot Tatoosh, and soon enough, rumors circulate that Ellison
has commissioned plans for a larger yacht.

As all the billionaires are more or less self-made, the ego is
understandable, even enjoyable. Although the Auld Mug, sport's
oldest trophy, is supposed to be what it's all about, something
much more elemental is really going on. Look up and down
Syndicate Row, a sort of gasoline alley along the side of
Auckland's shiny-new Viaduct Basin. One high-tech boat garage
after another looms, one grander than the next, until you get to
favored Alinghi, the Swiss team backed by Ernesto Bertarelli,
heir to a pharmaceutical fortune. Forgetting for the moment that
Bertarelli's yacht, Vava, moored nearby, is a paltry 150-footer
(and forgetting, most of all, that Switzerland is a landlocked
nation; how does he get home in that boat?), your breath is taken
away by the size and scale of his pink-colored base of operations
(dubbed the Geneva Hilton)--said to cost a flabbergasting $2
million compared with about $500,000 for his equally rich
neighbors.

But then, it's yachting's oldest story: My dock is bigger than
your dock.

For scale, to establish a reference point, we start at the very
first dock on Syndicate Row, Team Dennis Conner. Because he alone
is not a billionaire, the legendary Conner is cast as the last of
a dying breed, the amateur sailor getting by with duct tape and
plenty of Scopoderm. Well, compared with Ellison's Oracle BMW
Racing team and Craig McCaw and Allen's OneWorld syndicate,
Conner's is indeed a bargain-basement entry. Team Dennis Conner,
representing the New York Yacht Club (but not funded by it), has
a budget of just $40 million, less than half the going burn-rate
of his billionaire colleagues--"the Bees," he calls them.

Conner launched his latest crusade in July when he introduced his
two Stars & Stripes boats in Long Beach, Calif., whereupon one of
them promptly sank when it lost its rudder. He makes no apology
for his penny-pinching entry, though, insisting his experience in
eight previous Cups (he's won four) more than makes up for the
skimping he has had to do on development and prep time and
manpower. (His 70 men do the work of Ellison's 150.) But he has
no illusions about what an additional $10 million would mean.
"I'd be faster," he says.

But just because Conner is not a billionaire doesn't mean he's
particularly reasonable. Preparing for a quarterfinals repechage
duel with higher-seeded OneWorld two weeks ago (O.K., repechage
means second chance, as some defeated boats get another shot to
vie for a spot in the finals), he paused for an interview in the
sponsor tent, alongside the sponsor yacht, next door to the Team
Dennis Conner gift shop, which was beside a little museum of his
watercolors and a collection of historical scale-model America's
Cup boats (which were charming, ropes and planks everywhere). The
overwhelming impression was, this is what Brian Wilson would be
like if he owned a 12-meter racing yacht.

Conner may be the shrewdest sailor to ever put zinc oxide on his
nose, and he clearly knows how to raise money (although he is not
particularly discerning; his main sponsor is Computer Associates,
which is being investigated by the SEC for alleged financial
malfeasance). Still, his joy in this ultimately hopeless
competition is unsettling.

"I have everything I need," says Conner, bulkier than in his
heyday and no longer a helmsman or even a crew member. "I've got
two nice boats, and what a story, when one of them was on the
bottom of the ocean four months ago. It's just a thrill to be
here, son of a fisherman, competing against four of the world's
richest men. What a story! What an event!"

He is keen about the history of the Auld Mug and is untroubled by
the billionaires who would buy it out from under him. Whether
it's the Prada team drastically cutting its boat in two for
mid-challenge alterations, or Alinghi stealing away New Zealand
skipper Russell Coutts for a reported $5 million, it's all the
same to him. "It was always about wealth, from the beginning,
going to Europe to flex American muscle. Sir Thomas Lipton spent
$50 million on revenge [in numerous Cup tries in the early
1900s]. And lost!" He lets that sink in, then slaps his bare
knee. "And if you win, you get nothing!"

The idea delights him. "I gotta be moving," he says and jumps up,
to schmooze a donor, to consult the weather, to devise a tactic
for his helmsman. "I was on the cover of TIME," he reminds you,
and away he sails, a beached boy now.

The America's Cup is unrivaled in its attractiveness to
crackpots, the richer the better, of course. Sir Frank Packer,
the media mogul who bankrolled Australia's doomed challenge 40
years ago, was once asked for the motivating themes in his
campaign. "Alcohol and delusions of grandeur," he said. As this
group does not seem to be a particularly hard-drinking bunch (a
few of the billionaires--including Bertarelli and, when his
skipper allows him, Ellison--have remained fit enough to take
their places among the crew on their boats), it is left to
delusions to explain participation.

Bruno Trouble, a Louis Vuitton spokesperson, who skippered for
Baron Bich in 1980 and has been around America's Cup sailing for
a quarter-century, thinks it's all about a last stab at
immortality. "If Larry Ellison wins," he says, "he will be part
of history, like Vanderbilt. He will escape from the years on
earth. [There are] not too many means to do that."

If immortality is at stake, no reason to go after it
halfheartedly. But for Ellison, a lifelong sailor, the event is
also a platform for his grandiose and combative personality. He
first sparred with Prada, which had accused Oracle of spying on
its boatyard from behind mirrored windows. (Oracle folks said the
sun was in their eyes.) When Prada went to court--a no-no in
America's Cup rules, lest the event forever be decided by
litigation (though it often is anyway)--Ellison requested a
forfeit.

That was just a warmup. Ellison seems to particularly relish the
presence of OneWorld, which he has somehow cast as a business
rival--for the moment replacing his obsession with world's
richest man Bill Gates--as well as a yachting opponent. Always
the provocateur, he's tweaked the team for its environmental
theme ("You'd think if they want to help the oceans, they'd spend
$85 million on the oceans, instead of a boat," he told The New
York Times earlier in the season) and its Microsoft technology
(its e-mail is "riddled with viruses").

This is somewhat bewildering, as OneWorld has a very distant
relationship with Microsoft. "Well, not one at all," says
OneWorld spokesman Bob Ratliffe, who maintains the official
attitude of puzzlement. (Unofficially, the attitude is something
else.) "I mean, Paul [Allen] has been gone from Microsoft for 20
years."

Ellison, in the fashion of old-time tycoons, enjoys the
spotlight, appearing in his black Armani at press conferences
when he can, often to say how busy he is with Oracle work on
board Katana (or even in one of the sponsor cars, which are
tricked out with an Internet connection). And, until he left New
Zealand following Oracle BMW's survival of the quarterfinals, he
was almost always a source of some bombshell, whether it was
icing one skipper, Paul Cayard, in favor of Kiwi Chris Dickson,
replacing Dickson with Peter Holmberg after crew protests and
then, after a troubled beginning in the round-robin, replacing
Holmberg again with Dickson (after which the boat won 11 straight
races). It was even news when Dickson, enjoying his maritime
authority, kicked a surprisingly agreeable Ellison off the boat
altogether. Ellison liked to steer the boat on upwind legs during
leads. But who needs a part-time front-runner?

Ellison's swagger has been especially hard to endure for
OneWorld, a likably earnest group, which insists on the purity of
the event, hits all the right notes environmentally and generally
behaves in a modest fashion. Its boss, McCaw, is pretty
low-profile for a billionaire, not pretending to be a sailor for
one thing, or king of the world for another. But the group has
had its problems, beginning with the decimation of McCaw's wealth
in the last two years ago. According to FORTUNE, his net worth
went from $13 billion to $1.8 billion. (His XO Communications
baby went bankrupt.) Suddenly America's Cup boating began to seem
like an extravagance (just in case you were wondering exactly
when an $80 million boat race starts to seem like an expensive
idea). He put the assets up for sale and was ready to dry-dock
his dreams.

But Paul Allen, whose wealth was better protected by Microsoft's
share price, stepped in for his Seattle buddy. He first wrote a
$10 million check, and then some more, until he became a 50-50
partner in the scheme.

OneWorld has set itself up as an Oracle alternative, which is to
say, it's on the side of the angels. At Oracle's base there is a
row of nine BMWs, parked nose out. At OneWorld, staffers putter
around on electric bicycles.

OneWorld did rankle Conner when it got to pick its opponent--by
virtue of its record in the quarterfinals--and chose his boat
over the Italian or Swedish entries in last week's repechage,
thus ensuring that one American team would be sent home. (It was
a good call, however; OneWorld swept Stars & Stripes in four
straight races.) Even so, OneWorld presents sailing as a
loss-leader in its true mission to save the world. It has
calculated the amount of emissions from its various chase boats
and has planted, in exact remedy, 10,000 trees on the slopes of
an island volcano. And every night crew members wash the boat's
$40,000 sails with collected rainwater, to further spare the
environment.

They would probably be more lovable, for all that, if Allen
weren't tootling about the gulf in Tatoosh (bought from McCaw),
one of the world's 10 largest motor yachts, a full 57 feet longer
than Ellison's, one-upping the Oracle man's onboard basketball
court with his own afterdeck helipad. Between Tatoosh and Katana,
there aren't enough trees in all the world to absorb the maritime
pollution.

OneWorld can afford to look ridiculous; that's the prerogative of
the rich. But to look sinister, as it did when it admitted having
knowledge of New Zealand's 2000 design, was perhaps fatal to its
p.r effort. Part of the problem stems from OneWorld's lavish
spending; it brought in lawyer Sean Reeves, who worked for New
Zealand in 2000, to be its rules advisor, and hired Laurie
Davidson, who had designed New Zealand's boat. (The business with
Reeves ended badly. OneWorld fired and sued him amidst bitter
recriminations.) OneWorld insists it tried to do the right thing,
self-reporting its violation, and it was penalized a point in an
earlier round for its indiscretion. But now Conner's
just-defeated team wants OneWorld disqualified altogether. A
hearing will be held on Dec. 6 and 7 to sort the whole mess out.

Good thing for the intrigue, because the event, unfortunately, is
not much fun--or even very possible--to watch. A bunch of party
boats leave the harbor every morning, charging about $45 a
person, and linger in the shadows of islands around the Hauraki
Gulf sidelines, although what there is to see is anybody's guess.
This is a sport without a visible finish line, remember, so a
certain seafaring sophistication is required. Otherwise, it's
just boats going back and forth.

Plus, it has sport's most confusing vocabulary--unless you were
born to the yachting life. Does the following passage of
authentic America's Cup gibberish send chills up and down your
spine? "We had a bad tack right up toward the first beat. We were
pretty close to the starboard layline. It was unfortunate, but we
just had a bad tack and were forced to go back and clear a sheet,
which put us pretty close to the mark.... " O.K., how about
discussion of an "unseamanlike luff." That raise your hackles? It
should. It cost one billionaire a penalty point.

There is--once in a while--the spectacle of two Kevlar-coated
bows plunging through the brine at the (invisible) finish,
seconds apart after two hours of racing. But even so, what's the
excitement? Is it a triumph of technology, ordained on a naval
architect's drawing board years ago? Or is it a spectacle of
seamanship, a helmsman shrewdly anticipating his opponent's
tactics? Or, as these billionaires must themselves believe, is it
just a matter of checkbook sailing? The four contenders who were
still in the hunt at week's end, Oracle BMW, Alinghi, Prada and
OneWorld--assuming the latter survives its hearing--all have the
curiously identical advantage of nine-zero backing.

So it's a little hard to cheer for. But what everybody can
appreciate is the naked yearning, the unapologetic ambition, the
desperation of ego. America's Cup is the ultimate demonstration
of desire, what's left when every appetite's been fully
satisfied. And guess what? You still want more! Nowhere else is
the human condition this transparent, writ quite so large, than
way down under in the Hauraki Gulf.

COLOR PHOTO: NIGEL MARPLE/REUTERS CAPTAIN QUIXOTE Conner has maintained a cheery loopiness even as he battles his more heavily funded foes.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY GUIDO CANTINI, SEA & SEE/AP TECHNICAL KNOCKOUT Oracle BMW (right), backed by Ellison's deep pockets, helped eliminate the boat funded by Italian cellphone company TIM in the second round.COLOR PHOTO: ROB GRIFFITH/AP ORACLE OF AUCKLAND Ever the provocateur, Ellison has stirred things up from aboard his 244-foot yacht, Katana.COLOR PHOTO: DEAN TREML/AFP [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: ANTHONY P. BOLANTE/REUTERS SIZE MATTERS Allen showed what the competition is really all about, one-upping Ellison with his 301-foot yacht, Tatoosh.COLOR PHOTO: DAN NERNEY [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: NIGEL MARPLE/REUTERS DRUG MONEY Pharmaceuticals billionaire Bertarelli has spent wildly on Alinghi to bring the Cup to landlocked Switzerland.COLOR PHOTO: GUIDO CANTINI, SEA & SEE/DPPI [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: DEAN TREML/AFPCOLOR PHOTO: GUIDO CANTINI, SEA & SEE/DPPI HELL FOR LEATHER Prada, headed by Patrizio Bertelli (inset), took Oracle to court, a supposed no-no in America's Cup.COLOR PHOTO: ROB GRIFFITH/AP (INSET) [See caption above]
McCaw is pretty low-profile for a billionaire, not pretending to
be a sailor for one thing, or king of the world for another.
"Whatever I want, I get," Ellison once said. "That's the beauty
of being worth $26 billion. I thoroughly recommend it."