Can’t Look Back

How Larry Ellison revolutionized sailing

Win or lose the America’s Cup in 2013, Larry Ellison was going to revolutionize the game. It’s not incidental that his corporate hospitality suite, overlooking the finish line of the fastest sailing races ever seen, was trademarked as the Innovation Lounge. Having won the Cup three years before, Ellison was positioned to set a new course for an event associated with blue blazers and stuffy drawing rooms. Why not something a little closer to the X-Games, for example?

Roll back the clock a month from today, or even a week, and it looked like a bad bet. The racing kicked off as a dud (we’ll come back to that) and then, in the main event, Ellison’s team went down eight races to one in a first-to-win nine match. Down under, in New Zealand, where the team was on the verge of a David versus Goliath victory, the country was riveted. Ellison’s hometown populace in San Francisco was indifferent, disappointed, or even hostile, having been promised much more than was delivered.

Then improbably, Oracle Team USA began to win . . .

And anyone can understand a comeback story. Going into the eighteenth day of competition, the score now stands at 8-8. The Kiwi nation is stunned. The shores of San Francisco Bay are lined with spectators. It’s a new game and a new conversation.

Yachting traditionalists now may pine for the elegance and grace of the boats of yore, but they are the same people who predicted that you could not hope for close one-on-one competition in boats as fast as the 72-foot catamarans competing now on San Francisco Bay. Four lead changes on one leg of one race dispensed with that argument and justified Ellison’s faith in turning the engineers loose to, need we say, innovate. Now the results are in. Ellison won some bets and lost some bets. His organizational structure for the 2013 defense of the Cup was pretty close to what you would see in any incubator with a lineup of startups, not all of which are fated to succeed. The event struggled midway, to such an extent that one long-term player tagged it as an “epic fail.”

In the end, however, the racecourse dramas were on a par with anything in sport. Ellison moved the ball, and the future will not look like the past.

A year ago, members of the New Zealand team that challenged the USA for the Cup were predicting that they would return the competition to slower, more traditional single-hulled boats, should they win. Then the Kiwis stole the march on the competition as the first to “fly” the double hulls of their catamaran above the water on hydrofoils, adding 10-15 percent to the top end of performance. Their skipper, Dean Barker, a former auto racer, went beady-eyed on the thrills of sailing at near-freeway speeds and declared, “Foils are the future.”

Eillison’s yacht, background, and Emirates Team New Zealand. Photo by Jan Pehrson

Meanwhile, every race of the 34th match for the America’s Cup—dating to 1851, the oldest international competition in any sport—produced reams of data released open-source to any and all. The ethic was very 21st century San Francisco, brand new to the America’s Cup, and it went one better on Ellison’s announced intent to reinvent sailing as a television sport. For that purpose, Ellison relied upon a man who had navigated his championship-winning ocean racers, a man who happened to be at sea, navigating a round-the-world sailing record, even as Ellison stood on a podium in 2010 accepting the America’s Cup.

The name is Stan Honey. In the sailing world, Honey’s place in technology is generally glossed as, “The man who invented the yellow line for football.” Silicon Valley insiders have a fix on him as cofounder, along with Ken Milnes, of Etak (which pioneered vehicle map displays) and then of the computer graphics company, Sportvision. Honey and Milnes years ago sold Sportvision, but they employed the company’s resources to develop their Liveline technologies for the 2013 America’s Cup broadcast—achieving such precision that the race committee and the umpires seized upon it to create an unprecedented, electronically defined, electronically monitored racecourse.

ACEA/Gilles Martin-Raget

With Liveline positioning the raceboats within a tolerance of 2 centimeters, there was no more need for race officers to sight across the starting line to catch and penalize a boat that crossed before the countdown reached zero. The factor of human error was removed. Umpires, who once followed in motorized chase boats, waving flags to signal a penalty or clear a penalty, moved to a video booth to read the race course with precision, plus review capability.

Tick the box on that startup, Success.

The electronic capabilities had been there for decades, but it was the business software guy from the valley who pulled the trigger to make it work. The technologies that appeared in 2013 on the fastest raceboats ever seen had also been around for decades, but no one had ever put serious time and money into development. Risky calls? There were plenty of people who were convinced that Larry Ellison was ruining the America’s Cup.

Hitting Bottom

Controversy dogged every step of the road to the sailing in 2013. Change at the professional, high end does not come easily in a sport that is primarily amateur and traditional, and San Francisco Bay as a location for the racing was both inspired and challenging. The daily breeze in the Golden Gate is legendary for its reliability, and television cameras love the backgrounds. That’s all good, but the city by the bay is notoriously fickle in its leftish politics. Despite some carping about “a billionaire’s boat race,” however, the populace proved surprisingly embracing. The prospect of an economic stimulus in the depths of a recession helped drive that conversation, which still had to weave its way through a thicket of environmental review and bickering over who gets what. The man on the street (if he was paying attention at all) soon was thoroughly confused by a barrage of headlines about complicated lease-back deals on port property. That dragged on for two years with Ellison represented by his newly created (and unprecedented) America’s Cup Event Authority, ACEA. Think of ACEA as a startup charged with negotiating sponsorships, selling advertising, and becoming a profitable sports-marketing company. Not to drag this out, just trust me on this one, we can tick that box, Fail.

Then, on May 9, 2013 the news ticker exploded with more-understandable but over-hyped stories about the horrible dangers of sailing.

How bad could it get?

The first boat built for Sweden’s Artemis Racing broke up in the midst of a capsize. Every sailor knows that a multihull can overturn, but the expectation is that the structure will survive. In October, 2012, Oracle had capsized its first boat, without injury, but in its own crash Artemis folded up and trapped Olympic medalist Andrew Simpson in the wreckage. With Simpson’s death, the conversation with the public and the media swerved toward an assumption that first-generation examples of the new Cup boats were inherently unsafe. At least one editorial writer charged Ellison with creating death traps.

That’s how bad it could get.

In truth, all seven of the AC72 catamarans built for the 2013 America’s Cup are prototypes. Like every Cup boat, Artemis was built to fine tolerances of low weight and high stress and, like OneAustralia—a monohull boat that cracked in half and sank in 1995—the engineers goofed. With tragic consequences this time, that’s the risk of pushing the limits. Critics were in a hurry to tick that box, Fail, but first—

Summer of “Racing”

In banners, in ads, at every turn the home town public was promised the spectacle of a full summer of racing. That too came a cropper. Only three challengers showed, and only one was fast enough to matter. Here’s what you need to know:

An America’s Cup match is a two-boat contest between the defender, who won it the last time out, and a challenger. Since 1970, it has been the norm for multiple challengers to sail eliminations to decide who wins the right to challenge. It’s a contest on many levels.

From the beginning, when a Yankee schooner cheekily named America outsailed the best that Britain had to offer—at the height of the age of sail, when Britannia ruled the waves—technology has been as important to the competition as the sporting aspect. Having already experienced the potential of a multihull powered by a hard wing rather than a sail on a mast, Ellison and Sir Russell Coutts, the CEO of his wholly-owned Oracle Racing team, took that pioneering route for the 2013 racing. They started with a blank sheet of paper and created a “box rule,” a set of formulas that ensure a boat of a certain size and character, leaving room for the designers and engineers to interpret the details to suit themselves.

To understand the wing, think of 1920s aircraft technology—a wood frame with canvas stretched over it—and translate that to cored-carbon tubing with a plastic film heat-shrunk over that. Compared to a sail on a mast, the wing can be designed to an ideal shape, with hydraulically-actuated articulating panels making it as much as 40 percent faster.

Italian challenger Luna Rossa hoists its 131-foot wing. ACEA/Gilles Martin-Raget

The wing proved a difficult and expensive engineering hurdle, however. Wings had been around in sailing, but not on this scale, and the design threshold contributed to the sparse turnout of challengers.

When two months of eliminations began in July, the result was bizarre. Artemis Racing, still building its replacement boat, was absent. Team New Zealand and the Italian entry, Luna Rossa, either raced each other or sailed around the course alone to collect a point in the standings.
Luna Rossa was no match for New Zealand, and the second Artemis boat, when it eventually debuted, was no match for Luna Rossa.

One-boat “races” made the event look, simply, stupid, and Ellison’s high-stakes bets on revolutionizing the event were looking no better. That was the state of affairs when the America’s Cup match opened on September 7 between Oracle Team USA and the only challenger that ever had a chance of getting that far, Emirates Team New Zealand.

And the Kiwis were tough. In a first-to-nine series, they sailed to match point, a score of 8-1. Their sail-crazed island nation iced the champagne, then Ellison’s team went to school, made changes to their boat, picked up some techniques from the Kiwis, and won the next race. Or you could say, they iced the Kiwis.

On the water, another innovation, the Ellison-seeded but independently-operated America’s Cup Race Management, continued to run the races with uncompromised precision and fairness. Tick that box, Success.

And Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill won the next race, and the next, and the next and next and next and the score went to 8-8 and suddenly this thing had story. There’s nothing confusing about a comeback, and here came the cheering crowds and the American flags and a whole new outlook. Yes, the 34th match for the America’s Cup had a sputtering start, but this was the real deal. The racing excitement that Ellison, Coutts and Spithill had promised for July and August arrived late, when the chips were down.

The competition has been riveting. The citizens of San Francisco turned out and the world tuned in. Australian yachting journalist Rob Mundle checked in to declare, “Thanks to Larry E and his visionaries, AC34 is the greatest image changer, and interest grabbing moment, our sport has ever seen. The public interest in Australia in a match that doesn’t involve OZ is unprecedented.”

A one-race, winner-take-all match looms for Wednesday. That silence you hear is a collective holding of the breath.

Tick the big box, Success. Out of a long, difficult incubation comes a new look for the future of sailing. He wasn’t on the raceboat, but this was Larry Ellison’s America’s Cup.