WikiLeaks for Sailors

How Larry Ellison Can Save The America’s Cup

August Cole
Sep 30, 2013 · 5 min read

When Oracle Team USA defended its control of the America’s Cup during what became a blowout racing series on San Francisco Bay it confirmed a troubling narrative: the richest guys wins. While in sailing that is frequently true, it is an increasingly dangerous theme in America.

Oracle Corp., the American team’s title sponsor and a company with a market capitalization of approximately $154 billion, has become a major player in the open-source software business by acquiring other firms. The open-source software movement was founded on the principles of trust and faith, as well as the long view that we are all better off if we can share our talents. That is an unwelcome view at the pointy end of the world’s most competitive sailboat race and is a departure from Oracle’s original business model.

Oracle’s founder, Larry Ellison, has become one of the wealthiest men in the world, reward for his time at the helm of the Redwood Shores, Calif. company. His wealth affords him the top perch in American sailing. Yet Mr. Ellison should consider applying the open source software movement’s philosophy to his passion for sailing and the America’s Cup. There is no older, or more prestigious, trophy in international sport and certainly no other that can confers such prestige within the conclaves of plutocrats. The world’s tycoons are watching his next move very closely.

The laconic and hard-charging sailors of Emirates Team New Zealand, Mr. Ellison’s opponent in the one-on-one racing series for the Cup, fought to bring the prize back to their nation of 4.4 million people. Their campaign was a popular effort, largely funded by the government, a Middle Eastern airline and a canny move to sell their boat design to a rival team in order to build a faster version. Without hocking their boat design, they would have had no shot at winning.

With Mr. Ellison’s net worth, estimated at $43 billion by Forbes, greater than New Zealand’s per-capita GDP, no such sacrifice was needed for the American team. New Zealand’s loss is a source of national sorrow. More so because of the way Oracle Team USA steamrolled through the Kiwis’ seemingly insurmountable lead of 8-0 in the series. The triumph of one of the top 1% of the 1% over the “rest of us” was fulfilled on a perfect fall day in San Francisco.

If the America’s Cup is to survive that narrative must change. Mr. Ellison is the perfect person to do it and the answer is right in front of him. He ought to give away the plans for his boats to help make the America’s Cup what could become a more competitive open-source event.

Mr. Ellison’s investment in his America’s Cup campaign reportedly ran north of $100 million. Few individuals can manage that kind of outlay, let alone entire countries debating about how to care for the old and sick or how small can they shrink their military.

A good chunk of that money was spent on developing and building a pair of extraterrestrial racing catamarans so fast the entire crew wear crash helmets. At first glance, the boats are hard to relate to, even for a sailor, until you watch them sail at two to three times the speed of the wind. They beautifully skim above the choppy water on a blade-edge of control, with potentially deadly consequences if mishandled even for an instant. It is a metaphor that should not be lost on the race’s viewers in San Francisco, marveling at how so few can spend so much.

What ultimately gave Oracle Team USA such an edge over Emirates Team New Zealand was its savvy band of designers and engineers on shore. Sharing their knowledge with the wider sailing world could have enormous benefits that last far beyond the next America’s Cup cycle. The possibilities to post online everything from detailed design specs of the Cup-winning USA-17 catamaran to the thousands of secret structural analysis models are limitless. Other teams could join in. Mr. Ellison would be making a grand gesture that has never been seen before in this sport, or any other. Think WikiLeaks for sailors, hosted on Oracle servers.

There are many reasons to do this.

If the Cup is to remain relevant more nations must challenge for the trophy. It is too expensive a gambit now, and risks getting out of hand, perhaps only topped by the cost of an American presidential election campaign. If Mr. Ellison is truly enamored with the blazing fast catamaran designs he has pushed to the fore, then he will need to find a way to draw more rivals without bankrupting them. Nothing should be more disappointing than a drought of challengers scared off by the cost of an America’s Cup campaign.

Beyond the narrow world of jibs and keels there would be wider benefits. Science, technology, engineering and math education efforts could get a needed boost, not just in the U.S. but also in sailing-mad nations such as France and Australia. This would offer a hands-on and applied way to virtually play with some of the most interesting machines, and materials, available on Earth.

In San Francisco, a town now accustomed to jaw-dropping prosperity, the celebratory Champagne is by now no doubt flat. Criticism, however, continues to bubble over. From his perch it must have been be easy for Mr. Ellison to duck the venom of the race’s critics but in victory it will be tougher. San Francisco has had plenty of doubters, and their voices are no quieter. “Sea Monster: There’s Only One America’s Cup Winner. But There Are Many Losers” read a headline on SFWeekly.com. In certain corners of the competitive sailing world, such as popular Web site SailingAnarchy.com, you can find deeply disappointed sailors stewing that a rich man’s game is now off limits to mortals audacious enough to try and reach for the Cup.

Mr. Ellison is now a steward of something much bigger than the America’s Cup itself, or even the future of competitive sailing. The American public is familiar with this obscure sport in a way that it has not been in a long time thanks to the excellent TV coverage. Yet our country is also more sensitive to grating issues of income and wealth inequality than it has been in a long time. Mr. Ellison has proven an able businessman and winner of the America’s Cup. What he wants to do with his prize as he considers how he might secure a third victory will say quite a bit about the future of our country.

    Written by

    Writer and analyst focusing on national security issues. Into books, bikes and boats. Adjunct fellow at American Security Project. Boston.

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