Out-of-control boats, courtroom drama, defecting crew members — the stage is set for this
year’s America’s Cup regatta to be the most controversial and dangerous yet.
Out-of-control boats, courtroom drama, defecting crew members — the stage is set for this year’s America’s Cup regatta to be the most controversial and dangerous yet.
by Christopher S. Stewart
“We’re going to war,” says a BMW ORACLE crewman as I climb aboard the team’s stealthy black 90-foot trimaran for a rare preview of software tycoon Larry Ellison’s new weapon.
The pale November sun is just up, burning away the last skeins of San Diego fog that hang over the harbor. I’m in full team storm gear, clutching a narrow piece of netting that’s been stretched among the three hulls, acting as a deck. An internal engine roars to life as crew members raise and trim 6,800 feet of main sail. A 10-man army, all in Gore-Tex and wraparounds, talk in clipped voices over earpieces. The multimillion-dollar carbon vessel creaks, as if awoken, then accelerates.
It’s been called the Death Star, a Sea Monster and sometimes just the Machine, but officially it’s BOR 90, short for BMW ORACLE Racing, and it can reach upward of 50 mph — three times faster than previous America’s Cup boats. When Ellison, the self-made founder of Oracle, had it built, he obsessed over speed. It had to be fast enough to wrest the 159-year-old America’s Cup trophy away from his nemesis, Swiss biotech billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli, and his equally devastating 90-foot catamaran, Alinghi 5, this February.
Today is just a test, but it happens to be one of the most important to date — the crew is going to take the monster out on one of its longest runs. They’ll head 30 or so miles down into Mexican waters, and sail straight back upwind to see how it rips.
The boat’s helmsman, James Spithill, scans the slate blue horizon through “defense forces” sunglasses that scroll real-time performance data. He’s stocky with red buzz-cut hair and, at 30, he’s the youngest to ever steer an America’s Cup boat. He’s been in three other Cups before, but this one is different. “There’s been nothing like this [boat] ever before,” he said to me before we left the harbor. “If it capsizes, it would probably kill someone.”
Ellison himself is nowhere to be found, though. Although he will be aboard for the race, he knows better than to take the helm this time around. “Oh, I’ll be on the boat,” he explained later. “I’ve always been on the boat in the races. I drove a lot in New Zealand. But I’m certainly not going to drive this boat”.
The BOR 90’s technical specs and performance data are a heavily guarded secret, but Spithill’s broad smile says it all. He, and the rest of the crew, are clearly pleased with how the boat’s performing. It’s race-ready. All he will say is that it “reacts like a plane”.
It’s an expression of pure power and bravado. Its inorganic angles are an aggressive insult to nature. Almost everything is carbon. The platform is 90 feet by 90 feet at the waterline — the size of a baseball diamond. The main sail is twice the size of a 747 wing and made of almost 60 miles of carbon thread. The 195-foot-tall mast is as high as a 20-story building. As the wind takes hold, we go faster, the scud missile–shape hulls rise up, one at time and at some point, I realize this monster doesn’t exactly sail — it flies.
With few design rules, the rivals have created to two giants — one a trimaran, the other a catamaran. For the first time, the winches will be driven by engines instead of men, shedding crucial pounds. Cup traditionalists may be unhappy, but speed addicts and adventure nuts will be thrilled. Bertarelli told me that it was impossible to predict what would happen. “The safety will be in the hands of the race committee,” he said.
We zoom over the jagged water, picking up speed. There are eerie groaning sounds as the mast absorbs enormous loads of energy — at times the equivalent of about 40 cars stacked on top of one another.
After about a half hour, my ride is over, and I step onto a shadow boat. I spend the next few hours observing the power of the BOR 90 from a safe distance.
Then there’s an explosion.
“Holy fucking shit,” a crewmember screams. “Holy fucking shit.”
Suddenly, the $5 million mast snaps back, and, with the massive sail, collapses and cracks over the stern and into the ocean. Muz is hyperventilating. Guys are screaming. It’s chaos. It is war.
We’re about 31 miles from San Diego, in Mexican waters, the shore out of sight, the southernmost this boat has ever strayed from base. The coast guard doesn’t even know where we are. Luckily, no one is dead or hurt — a miracle considering what just happened.
It’s been a controversial couple of years for the America’s Cup regatta. Not only have Ellison and Bertarelli been fighting a well-publicized court battle over terms of the race, the boats have begun to defy physics and reason. There has never been a Cup this unpredictable or this perilous.
The race slated for February 8 in Valencia, Spain, has little resemblance to its previous incarnations. When it first started in 1851, sailors fleet raced 15 wooden schooners in a “friendly competition between foreign countries.” It was an amicable battle of wits, guile, and, ultimately, sailing ability. These days, technology and egos define the race.
The original rules of the Cup are as open to interpretation as symbolist poetry, but essentially say that a Cup defender picks a challenger of record, and then the two determine race terms — rules, venue, type of boat — for the next race. The other boats are beholden to these rules. But after Bertarelli won the last America’s Cup in 2007 (the race is held about every three years), a year in which Ellison didn’t even make it out of the challenger eliminations, he picked a little-known Spanish yacht club as challenger of record for the next face-off. Ellison quickly pointed out that the Spanish club was a “sham,” a puppet of Bertarelli — it didn’t have any facilities, officers, or recent regattas, all requirements to be a challenger of record. He believed that Bertarelli, whose boat represents Swiss yacht club Société Nautique de Genève (SNG), was trying to rig the race. “[Bertarelli] wanted to cheat,” he told me. “He wanted the jury to work for him.”
So Ellison’s team and the club it represents—the Golden Gate Yacht Club— sued in New York Supreme Court, the official race arbiter, winning the case on appeal and thrusting themselves into the official Cup challenger slot. Most thought this would make way for simply finalizing race terms, but the two billionaires couldn’t seem to agree on anything. Cup rules dictate that if race terms cannot be agreed upon, the competition simply reverts to the rules set out in the DOG and becomes a simple one-on-one between defender and the first challenger. “It’s like George Steinbrenner on one side and George Steinbrenner on the other,” John Rousmaniere, noted chronicler of the Cup, told me. “And there’s no baseball commissioner to bring order.”
A wiry man with an articulated beard and the intensity of a street fighter, Ellison started Oracle with pocket change. Today he’s the third richest man in the U.S., with $22.5 billion. At times he seems to relish the drama, even fan it. In 2007, he famously hired Bertarelli team defector — Russell Coutts — to oversee BMW ORACLE. Coutts, a Kiwi, is probably the best match racer in the world. He owns an Olympic gold medal and three America’s Cups, the last with Alinghi.
“Sometimes when I read the press releases coming out of BMW ORACLE I feel that I am reading the trailer for a Hollywood movie,” Bertarelli told reporters during Alinghi practice sessions in the UAE (which is where he first wanted to hold this year’s race until Ellison argued that it was too close to Iran). Bertarelli, a 44-year-old playboy who inherited his father’s biotech firm and married a former Miss United Kingdom, contends that the DOG regatta was exactly what Ellison wanted all along. That Ellison, who had never been in a Cup final before, wanted to get there without having to face anyone else in an early challenger series. “I imagine that he felt he had a better chance of winning the Cup by using the American court system to eliminate all the other challengers.”
“Get out the saw,” someone yelled from the trimaran. A fog was rolling in as the BMW ORACLE sailors picked up the last pieces of the crackup. After a couple hours, the now beheaded mothership was hooked up to the chase boat so it could be towed into shore — the fallen warrior being dragged off the battlefield.
The upcoming America’s Cup looks certain to be more about the boats than anything that’s happened in the courts. And as scary as it had been to watch that mast come down, I got the clear sense that it was just something that happened along the way to the Cup — just part of the adventure.
The rebuilding begins the next day, and by the end of the week, the team actually transforms BOR. A new mast is fitted and then the main sail is replaced by a 190-foot, 7,700-pound carbon-fiber and Kevlar “wing,” with eight flaps, this time 80 percent larger than a 747 wing. This version of BOR, which will be rechristened the USA in time for the race, is expected to be even faster. As we arrive back into shore that night, I get to thinking: If this crazy, near-lethal ride was just a test run, what will the real red line battle of titans look like? Even though someone could die sailing these monsters at any moment, for these guys, the America’s Cup is worth it. It’s that important.
SAILING EGOS HEAD TO HEAD
EB: With $8.2 billion, he’s Earth’s 52nd richest, having inherited father’s biotech firm and selling it
LE: Self-made founder of Oracle is worth $22.5 billion, making him the fourth richest man in the world
EB: Married to former model and 1988 Miss United Kingdom, Kirsty Roper
LE: Married four times, most recently to romance novelist Melanie Craft
EB: Skis from his Swiss chalet in Gstaad, or hangs out on his 154-foot superyacht Vava
LE: Flies fighter jets — he owns an F5 and MiG29, among others
EB: In a Swiss paper, Bertarelli called Ellison a “loser,” and told him to “stop inventing things.”
LE: Of Bertarelli calling him a loser, Ellison said, “It makes him sound like a frustrated child.”