Cast Off, Characters!

John Tayman
22 min readJun 21, 2015

IF EVERYTHING PROCEEDS as planned — not that it ever does — late on the afternoon of July 7, in the Mediterranean waters fronting the ancient Spanish city of Valencia, one middle-aged man’s $100 million, four-year-long campaign to win the America’s Cup will explode in his face. Precisely to whom this will occur has yet to be decided. Word along the waterfront identifies several good candidates. Larry Ellison, the billionaire software magnate behind the American entry, BMW Oracle, is a popular choice. Another is Patrizio Bertelli, the head of the Italian effort and the C.E.O. of the design house Prada, his boat’s main sponsor. Then there is Ernesto Bertarelli, an elegant 41-year-old billionaire from Geneva who is the current holder of the Cup, which his team, Alinghi, wrested away from New Zealand in 2003.

The good life in Port America’s Cup. [Gillian Laub for The New York Times]

One man happily exempt from this specter of sudden heartsick, however, is Xavier de Lesquen, a former French naval officer who, as the executive manager of China Team, oversees that nation’s fledgling effort to win the oldest trophy in sports. Cup dreams tend to sour swiftly, with stunning, tearful finality, and it is considered bad juju to prognosticate. Even so, several outcomes are already certain. By the time you read this, China Team will have taken its lumps and been eliminated from the competition, transforming de Lesquen’s role from that of participant to interested observer. China’s departure will have surprised no one, not even de Lesquen. The campaign started tardily and was woefully underfunded; for every dollar that a superteam like Alinghi or BMW Oracle had to spend, China had only a dime. Lacking the wherewithal to build a team from scratch, the Chinese absorbed a French team, taking possession of most of its assets. These included an America’s Cup-class racing yacht, a support staff, several French crew members and de Lesquen. Because China is home to few world-class yachtsmen — and those who might be said to qualify were focused on the Beijing Olympics — it took some effort to assemble the 17-man crew required to sail an America’s Cup yacht. Officials of the Chinese Yachting Association fanned out across the country and plucked unsuspecting sailors from provincial teams. After congratulating the young men for having achieved their theretofore unknown dream of competing in an America’s Cup, the officials hustled them off to Valencia, where they bivouacked in communal flats and communicated with their teammates, who are primarily French, via translators. “I think our Chinese friends are a little bit homesick, yes,” de Lesquen admitted when I visited Spain in April. “It’s a very strange thing for them.”

Lowering the spinnaker aboard Sweden’s Victory Challenge.

De Lesquen is fair-skinned for a sailor, with a nest of peach-colored hair and the bemused look of a man uncoupled from all expectations. This is his third go-round in the America’s Cup, and he exudes a charming (and useful) Continental unflappability. During its first months in competition, China Team was comically inept: snapping spars, ripping sails and bungling the most basic racing strategy. Once, while enjoying a rare lead, the boat’s bowman tumbled over the side and vanished, prompting the race announcer to cry, “There he goes!” Of late, though, de Lesquen’s men had begun to find an awkward rhythm. “Every day we gain a lot,” he said. “They are learning.” Though he wasn’t expecting any victories in the upcoming Louis Vuitton Cup, the round-robin tourney that would decide who challenges Alinghi for the Cup, de Lesquen could report to his Chinese backers that their campaign was proceeding well, all things considered.

De Lesquen led me on a brief tour of China Team’s base, which sits at the southwest edge of Port America’s Cup, the venue built by the city of Valencia for the event. Each team maintains a base, in which they work, eat, train and entertain. China’s is the most humble: a latticework of iron scaffolding shrouded in plastic sheeting. Within this greenhouse are a series of stacked metal shipping containers, of the type used on ocean freighters and by international smugglers, although in this instance they serve as the team’s lockers, offices and kitchen. Atop the base is an outdoor terrace with a dragon-themed bar — an homage to the team yacht, which they call Longtze, or “son of dragon.” The name, the team literature says, evokes “speed and elegance at the same time.”

Perhaps the kindest thing that can be said of China Team’s facility is that it commands a fine view of the other bases. After we had climbed to the roof, I joined de Lesquen in gazing out over the harbor. Directly across the water stood Alinghi’s base. Had it not pre-dated China Team’s base, the Alinghi facility would seem to exist simply to mock it. Approximately the size of a small urban mall, it contains a basketball court, cinema, bandstand, gymnasium, gift shop and multilevel hospitality area known as Club Alinghi, which is furnished in a Euro style familiar to anyone who has ever received a catalog from Design Within Reach. The base cost almost as much as China Team’s entire budget.

In hopes of winning the 32nd America’s Cup, which begins on June 23, Ernesto Bertarelli and his Alinghi syndicate will spend an estimated $135 million. Larry Ellison and BMW Oracle will spend $175 million, much of which comes from Ellison personally. Patrizio Bertelli’s Prada team, known as Luna Rossa Challenge, will spend $135 million, and Emirates Team New Zealand will spend a relatively modest $100 million. By July 7, one of these four teams will hoist the America’s Cup, having expended a combined $545 million — almost $100 million more than it costs NASA to mount a space shuttle mission.

De Lesquen turned from the view. An afternoon breeze had arrived, lofting a flock of cocktail napkins toward the sea. China Team’s base was not yet complete; the thin plastic walls kept peeling free, and base security remained a strand of rope clipped to a plywood desk. But de Lesquen appeared untroubled. He stood smiling on the roof in the sun. “At the end of the day,” de Lesquen announced, “this is a nice place to be.”

. . .

The America’s Cup has always been about money, even before it was the America’s Cup. Origins of the contest trace to a taunt, made in 1850 by a now forgotten English merchant, which asserted that British boats were better than American boats. The merchant, so the story goes, dared anyone to prove otherwise. When this challenge reached the ear of John Cox Stevens, a millionaire and the first commodore of the New York Yacht Club, he assembled a syndicate of peers and hired a 31-year-old boat builder named George Steers to build the swiftest yacht possible. Seeking to stoke Steers’s competitive fire — or perhaps simply out of sheer deviousness — Stevens’s syndicate shifted its economic risk onto the naval architect. Payment for the $30,000 yacht, the contract stated, was conditional upon the boat’s being “faster than every vessel brought against her,” in the United States or in England.

Undaunted, Steers fashioned a yacht unlike any seen before. At the time, design theory held that a ship should have “a cod’s head and a mackerel’s tail,” meaning that the bow should be round and blunt and the stern narrow to a point. Steers reversed these conventions. His ship — which would be christened America — showed first as the blade of a sword, thickened gracefully at its midpoint, then fattened to a well-balanced finish. Also, British yachts of the era were typically rigged with a multitude of small, squarish sails made from flax, a troublesome material that required continual dousing with seawater to tighten the weave. America, in contrast, sported massive, asymmetrical sails constructed of machine-woven cotton duck, which more easily caught and held the wind, supplying the boat with astounding power. When Steers’s masterpiece glided into English waters, the reaction of the British fleet was, as The Times of London reported, like one that “the appearance of a sparrowhawk in the horizon creates among a flock of woodpigeons.”

On August 22, 1851, America entered the Royal Yacht Squadron’s annual regatta, challenging 14 boats on a 53-mile race to circumnavigate the Isle of Wight. It was hardly a contest. Though America became entangled in its anchor chain at the start, within 90 minutes it had outdistanced the field — at one point building a seven-and-a-half-mile lead. America crossed the finish line alone, untested, as a band played “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

Almost before the music faded, however, the unsentimental syndicate sold America to a British Army captain, earning a $1,750 profit. The trophy that Steers had won for them — a homely silver ewer that would become known as the America’s Cup — was carried to New York and unveiled at a celebration in Astor House, where it was displayed among roast quail and dessert crafted in the shape of the America. No one bothered to invite George Steers.

In the years to follow, the trophy remained mostly forgotten. The syndicate’s members discussed melting it down and recasting it as medals they might wear while lounging in their club, but the scheme never developed. Eventually, the surviving members gave the trophy to the New York Yacht Club, yoked to a deceptively clever document known as the Deed of Gift, which stated that “this Cup is donated upon the conditions that it shall be preserved as a perpetual Challenge Cup for friendly competition between foreign countries.” A variety of other reasonable-sounding requirements were set forth, none of which seemed especially onerous until it dawned on the careful reader that the Deed’s net effect was to rig the game in favor of whoever holds the Cup — a wily bit of odds stacking that enabled the N.Y.Y.C. to retain the trophy for 132 years.

“The reason this sport is so unfair — and there’s nothing fair about it — is because it’s a winner-take-all game,” explained Bill Koch, a self-described nerd from Kansas who spent $68 million to win the Cup in 1992 aboard America3. “The winner gets the Cup, gets to set the venue, gets to pick the racecourse, gets to select the umpires and gets to select the judges.” The rules have been made slightly more fair since Koch’s campaign, but he does have a point. If the Deed of Gift was bound to the Lombardi Trophy, for instance, then the Indianapolis Colts could demand that the next Super Bowl be played in 2011, at Yankee Stadium, using flag-football rules, and be officiated by members of the Manning family.

An M.I.T. grad, Koch once did the math and determined that any one challenger has only a 5 percent chance of stealing the Cup from the defender. (“It’s just crazy!” Koch shouted.) Yet despite these odds, a certain class of people will seemingly spend anything, and endure anything, in the attempt. Ted Turner, who won the Cup in 1977 aboard Courageous, described the experience as “the closest I shall ever get to heaven.” Sir Frank Packer, another media titan who sought the Cup — twice, without success — blamed his costly quest on “alcohol and delusions of grandeur.” Baron Marcel Bich, the inventor of the Bic pen, spent an estimated $4 million of his fortune, only to end up as the lone competitor ever to become lost during a race. (After being towed to safety, Bich punched a cameraman documenting his rescue.) The baron made three more runs at the Cup, losing ingloriously every time, but he reportedly considered his investment well spent, as it offered a nifty branding opportunity for his line of disposable pens and razors. (Such marketing tactics do have their limits. Yves Rousset-Rouard, who headed a French campaign in 1983, likely saw little benefit to his signature product, a series of soft-core motion pictures featuring an adventuresome young woman named Emmanuelle.)

In the end, the rationale for competing in the Cup remains personal and even egotistical — which, fortunately, tends to ensure the presence of oddballs in the mix. One favorite among Cup cognoscenti is William Henn, whose Galatea sailed in 1886 with a crew that included a raccoon, dogs, cats and a monkey named Peggy, who assisted in the lowering of sails and also served as team cheerleader, racing to the bowsprit and screeching and jumping with delight whenever Galatea took the lead.

If one thing is missing from this America’s Cup, it’s the enlivening presence of a truly eccentric character like Turner or Bich or Henn. The person who comes closest is Ellison, a complex man with an intriguing irascibility. (During the lead-up to the 2003 Cup, his skipper actually booted him off the yacht.) But he’s too seldom seen around Port America’s Cup to truly engage the masses. A week after I departed Valencia, Ellison finally joined his team for its stretch run. Precious few locals ever got a good look at him, though. “Larry’s feet never touch the ground,” a BMW Oracle team member explained. “He goes right from the chase boat to the yacht and then back onto his own yacht.” (His own yacht being the $200 million Rising Sun, which at 453 feet is too long to dock in Port America’s Cup.)

Ernesto Bertarelli, Alinghi’s owner and deckhand.

As reigning champion, Ernesto Bertarelli is more visible. To date, however, he has failed to exhibit any memorable quirkiness, beyond, perhaps, being married to a former Miss United Kingdom. Bertarelli is slender and fine-featured, with perfect skin and a tan deep enough to touch bone. In 1996, he took over Serono, his family’s pharmaceutical firm, which had grown rich by developing the fertility drug that enabled the birth of Louise Brown, the world’s first test-tube baby. Bertarelli steered the company into the American market, doubled its sales and then, earlier this year, sold the company to Merck for more than $13 billion. He is personable and polite. But he has never caught fire in the public imagination the way some of his flamboyant predecessors did. People magazine covered Bill Koch’s rollicking chase for the Cup. Bertarelli’s 2003 campaign was the subject of a case study by Babson College’s William F. Glavin Center for Global Management.

“You gotta be willing to spend your last penny,” Koch told me, explaining how to make a splash. “And you gotta be willing to put every conceivable effort in it and be willing to sacrifice everything to win. It led to my divorce, and it led to my 6-year-old son hating sailing. And it’s basically a silly sailboat race, and its only importance is in the minds of the participants.”

. . .

Like many sports subcultures — curling comes to mind, as does biathlon — professional yachting can seem inscrutable and slightly ridiculous to outsiders. It’s a sport lacking a fan base, failing even to command the attention of the approximately one million amateur sailors in the United States. Few people wake in the morning with the thought, I need to see some sailing. When the Outdoor Life Network (now Versus) aired portions of the 2003 America’s Cup preliminaries, the broadcast garnered a dismal rating of 0.1: fewer than 60,000 people. (Although, to be sure, that tiny audience is very wealthy and a desirable demographic to team sponsors and to advertisers.)

Even before he won in 2003, Bertarelli was contemplating ways to increase the Cup’s popularity. One bothersome aspect of the sport was that it vanished from the public eye for years at a time before magically reappearing, like a cloud of cicadas. Working with Larry Ellison, Bertarelli began to systematically modernize the sport, in part by remaking it in the image of other, more visible professional sports. He added 13 regattas, known as “acts,” to serve as a sort of four-year-long regular season. (And also to keep the yachts, which function as floating billboards, in front of the cameras.) These 13 acts lead to a playoff, called the Louis Vuitton Cup, from which a challenger emerges to duel the champion in the America’s Cup.

Just as the N.B.A. and the N.F.L. administer all aspects of their respective sports, Bertarelli created A.C.M., America’s Cup Management, to coordinate promotion of the America’s Cup, strike television deals, arrange revenue sharing and oversee the venue, which, for the first time, was put out to bid. (Valencia beat out Naples and Marseille, among others, by promising to spend 500 million euros on the event.)

It is said that Bertarelli won his Cup — and with it the ability to reconfigure the sport — mainly by hiring the best match racer in the world to be his skipper. This was Russell Coutts, a lantern-jawed New Zealander who had won the trophy in 1995 (skunking Dennis Conner in the best-of-nine event) and again in 2000. Following Coutts’s second victory, Bertarelli reached out to him, saying he was interested in buying one of New Zealand’s yachts. The two hit it off and soon after met in a New York City hotel room, where Bertarelli offered Coutts a job. By checkout time, Coutts had agreed to skipper Alinghi, for a salary reported to be $5 million a year. New Zealanders responded to Coutts’s career move by branding him a traitor, plastering anti-Coutts billboards in Auckland and issuing death threats. Coutts answered with a five-nil thrashing of his former team.

Though the two men have since had an ugly falling out — reportedly over control of A.C.M. — the poaching of Coutts rearranged the economics of the sport. “All of a sudden it became the big leagues,” explained Peter Isler, BMW Oracle’s navigator and a veteran of four campaigns. “And not just for the Russell Coutts and Dennis Conners and those types of folks, but for the grinders, who were all of a sudden in six figures.” America’s Cup sailors now command as much as $1 million a year, a pay scale that allows wealthy campaigns to corner the market on elite talent, while handicapping poor campaigns.

In theory, such concentration of free-agent skill makes for better racing (at least in matches between wealthy teams). But it also dilutes a campaign’s identity. Should they face each other in the America’s Cup, BMW Oracle, the American boat, will likely have only three Americans aboard, including Ellison, and Alinghi, representing Switzerland, will probably have only one Swiss sailor — Bertarelli. Meanwhile, more than half of the remaining crewmen on the two boats will hail from New Zealand. “For most teams here the national image is less than the sponsor images,” said Isler, an American. “But I would say to all those who cry, ‘Crass commercialism, nationalism is gone,’ you’ll be the first one on the parade when the Cup comes home.”

The type of Cup fever that manifests as a parade, however, is rare. Most people simply understand too little about the sport to become infected. The teams, well aware of this dilemma, put a premium on newbie education. In Valencia, BMW Oracle maintains a sort of classroom at its base, where visitors receive instruction in boat building, match racing and the various responsibilities of the crew. (Quick lesson: imagine the team as characters in a Pixar film, with the nimble bowmen scampering the foredeck and shinnying the mast; mammoth grinders cranking the winches; and alert and clever members of the afterguard, the boat’s brain trust, driving the yacht and orchestrating it all.) The atmosphere is intended to be one part Epcot and one part ESPN Zone, although the kid-pleasing experience suffers when it’s time to learn more about Larry Ellison. “As client/server computing becomes increasingly popular,” we are told, “Oracle rolls out Oracle Version 5 . . . one of the first RDBMSs to operate in the server mode.” At this point the class usually abandons Larry and makes for the Alinghi base, where the educational offerings include an America’s Cup arcade game and a full-scale simulator yacht that bucks and pitches and yaws.

And for most spectators, Alinghi’s simulator is as near as they’ll get to the action. Last month, in a charity auction, a Chicago businessman paid $102,600 for the right to ride aboard the BMW Oracle yacht during an America’s Cup race (if the team makes it that far). As this suggests, proximity to the sport’s central drama is usually determined by the thickness of a person’s wallet. For $750, fans can purchase seats on one of the spectator boats operated by A.C.M., which bounce along in the distant wake of the competitors. A private yacht ensures a better spot in the spectator flotilla, and one can be chartered for the duration or, of course, purchased outright — although berthing fees at the Port America’s Cup “superyacht” marina can approach a million dollars.

The easiest route to a decent vantage point is to own or be employed by a sponsoring corporation, which can land you on a team’s hospitality boat. One afternoon, I finagled my way aboard Alcor, the 115-foot yacht that BMW Oracle uses for entertaining, and spent an impossibly pleasant day on the water, eating tournedos of Argentine beef and drinking champagne, while the captain kept us within spitting distance of the racers. Such plums are portioned out to high-powered executives or to whatever celebrity ambles through Valencia — Demi Moore was a recent recipient. On other teams they serve as management perks, used by a sponsor to reward star performers. After scoring an invitation to the Alinghi hospitality boat, I found myself surrounded by several dozen mid-level managers from UBS, the Swiss financial-services firm that sponsors Alinghi.

To prepare the bankers for their role as America’s Cup fans, Jochen Schuemann, Alinghi’s sports director and one of its helmsmen, gave a seminar on match racing. Schuemann, a commanding three-time Olympic gold medalist, loomed over a small whiteboard, carefully diagramming match strategy and the tactical geometry that a skipper might employ during a race. Fifteen minutes into this tutorial, one of the bankers shot up his hand.

“Which is starboard again?” he asked.

. . .

“Alinghi” is a nonsense word, invented by Ernesto Bertarelli as a child. In past interviews he has said that he simply enjoyed the sound it made. Of late, he claims the word is a brand, connoting freedom, determination, partnership and cutting-edge technology. (As you might suspect, Bertarelli is a business school graduate.) Because brands require visuals, Bertarelli commissioned a logo in the form of a stylized letter “a,” its serif stretched into a pair of circling yachts, representing the portion of a match known as a pre-start. America’s Cup racers attach an almost mystical importance to the pre-start. Often described as a boxing match, it more closely resembles a game of musical chairs with mixed-up rules: rather than sprinting to the center when the music stops, the boats break frantically for the starting line, each hoping to nab the side with the better wind.

As the current champion, Alinghi did not participate in the Louis Vuitton Cup, having earned a sort of bye. Thus its last opportunity to compete one-on-one against the competition was in a series of races held in Valencia almost a year ago, known as Act 12. In one of Alinghi’s last matches of this act, it happened to face New Zealand. Most veteran Cup handicappers I spoke to in Valencia believed that New Zealand would win the Louis Vuitton Cup, and thus meet Alinghi in a rematch of 2003. Should New Zealand win back the America’s Cup — and with it the Deed of Gift — the speculation is that the team will undo the many changes made by Bertarelli over the past four years. This subtext injects a certain zing into contests between the two teams, and the Act 12 pre-start featuring the two boats was typically dramatic.

Dean Barker, a 34-year-old Tom Brady look-alike, skippers New Zealand. In 2003, Barker helmed the New Zealand boat when it lost the Cup; lately, however, he has had success, winning half of his races against Alinghi. With less than 60 seconds remaining in the pre-start, and the boats circling warily, Barker abruptly tacked, taking Alinghi by surprise. He swept behind the Swiss boat, timed the starting gun perfectly and secured the favored side of the course. Alinghi broke for the line as well. Soon the boats, as the race announcer described it, were “stuck together like a piece of bungee.”

Brad Butterworth, an avuncular New Zealander who had been Russell Coutts’s second-in-command and is now Alinghi’s skipper, inched closer to Barker. (Bertarelli, by the way, is a runner/grinder on the boat — a situation roughly analogous to Mark Cuban playing power forward for the Dallas Mavericks.) The skippers carved their way upwind, pursued by a chaotic armada of spectators. When they rounded the windward marker, New Zealand held a lead of eight seconds.

Alinghi in pursuit of Emirates Team New Zealand, in April

In racing, the object is not to go fast, exactly, but to make your opponent go slow. One weapon skippers use to achieve this is their boat’s wind shadow: the pie-shaped wedge of disturbed air that spills off a yacht. On upwind runs the leading boat uses this weapon to spoil the trailing boat’s air. On downwind legs the advantage flips, and the trailing boat tries to steal the leading boat’s wind. What typically follows in such situations is a tacking duel, a spectacular stretch of action in which one boat veers wildly, attempting to break free of the other. A duel can require as many as 50 tacks in a single leg, rocketing grinders’ heart rates to 200 beats per minute and severely testing a crew’s stamina. Boats also suffer horribly, struggling to remain intact as their massive sails fight the 20-ton keel. Yachts signal their distress with a loud array of cracks and pops, and with long, mournful moans. “They really cry for help, these boats,” said Christoph Erbelding, an engineer with BMW Oracle. (After a ride aboard an American boat in 2003, Robin Williams remarked that the sound was like that of “an old man trying to have sex.”)

Races are 14 miles, with four roughly equal legs. They last about 75 minutes. Alinghi and New Zealand clashed for almost an hour, speeding down the course, rounding and fighting their way upwind, then rounding a final time. In theory, an America’s Cup race tests the skill of the crew (on the upwind legs) and the speed of the boat (on the downwind runs). But the reality is more simple, as Koch explained: “Only fast boats win. And the team that wins is not the most brilliant, but the one that makes the fewest mistakes.”

As it prepares to defend the Cup, Alinghi drills six days a week, on the water and in the classroom, learning how to react to every conceivable racing situation. Team members practice a method of speaking on the boat, using specific syntax and shifts in tone to signal changes in tactic or an increased level of urgency. They codify a system of making decisions, so that if the strategist clinging to the mast 90 feet in the air spots a stain moving across the water, his message that the wind is about to shift will speed without error through the crew’s nervous system and arrive at its brain. “Nothing’s taken for granted,” Alinghi’s John Russell, a boat builder, told me. “Everything’s checked off, everything’s looked at, everything’s investigated. It’s a pretty clinical kind of a team.”

All the while, Alinghi’s scientific advisers — a Ph.D.-laden bunch from Geneva’s renowned Ãcole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne — works to replicate George Steers’s feat from 146 years ago. (“It’s a technology contest,” one Cup veteran said. “As it has been since 1851.”) The trick is to build a boat forever on the verge of breaking. “To make it as light as possible,” BMW Oracle’s Erbelding explained, “but as strong as possible, too.” Teams construct their boats to suit the conditions that historically prevail at the venue. But weather is increasingly fickle and forecasting imprecise. In 2003, New Zealand staked the Cup on a boat designed to sail best in light wind and flat water. Conditions, however, turned out to be atypically harsh. During the first race, New Zealand’s boat took on so much water it almost sank. In the fourth race, the mast snapped. In the fifth race, the spinnaker broke. Alinghi arrived in Auckland with a boat that happened to be better for the conditions as they existed at that fleeting moment. Because of this good fortune, Bertarelli won his Cup.

Ten minutes offshore of Valencia, Alinghi and New Zealand entered the final leg of their match. Barker had fought Alinghi through three-quarters of the race, and still held a boat’s length advantage. Both crews struggled to find hidden speed. “Expect kitchen sinks and all sorts to be thrown!” the announcer said.

The boats had sailed far to the opposite sides of the course, hunting clear air. Now they turned toward each other, roaring at full power toward a likely collision.

“Last-chance leg!” the announcer cried. “What happens now?”

Bertarelli was poised at his station, calmly focusing his breath before the final charge.

“Here they go!”

Alinghi bore down on New Zealand from the starboard side, the boats almost close enough to touch, Butterworth pressuring Barker to make a move. New Zealand jibed to block, but Alinghi countered perfectly and slid smoothly past. New Zealand’s crew scrambled to regain its advantage. Races hinge on the most minor of miracles — a shift of wind, a slip of a hand. Barker’s boat began to slow.

“Crew error!”

A moment later New Zealand’s spinnaker spilled its air, sagging sadly from the mast. Alinghi sped across the finish line. “That’s the first time the pressure has gotten to the New Zealand team,” the announcer said. “Brilliant sailing by Alinghi.”

. . .

The America’s Cup is the only sport in which a team, if it fails to win the championship, often ceases to exist. (Imagine 31 N.F.L. teams disbanding after the Super Bowl.) Historically, only about one in 10 campaigns continues after a loss. The others vanish, their accounts emptied and syndicates dismantled. Cup historians speak of a “curse of the America’s Cup.” Men who failed in their quest have lost their families and their fortunes. At least two have committed suicide. “It’s such a public event,” Bill Koch explained. “And when you lose, it breaks you.” Larry Ellison has said, “All these guys are not exactly having fun. This is extremely stressful stuff. It is a lot more fun to watch than it is to do.” One team’s psychologist told me, “It’s four years of their lives. And it all comes down to whether you win a race or not. That’s a terrible thing.”

Early one morning in Valencia, I went to see Bertarelli at the Alinghi base. He was seated at a low white table set with fresh strawberries and cream, orange juice and croissants. Bertarelli didn’t eat anything, merely sipping his coffee while he piloted a strawberry on a plate.

“The last time,” he said, “winning the Cup was a bonus. This time there is no other alternative but winning. No matter how well we would have done in regard to many other aspects of our campaign, we would still be judged a failure. It’s what makes sports what it is. It’s binary — you win, you lose. Here, you win, you’re on top of the world. You lose, you’re nothing. You’re gone. You don’t exist anymore.”

Bertarelli’s summary seemed a little dire, as did the other all-or-nothing sentiments voiced by those teams who truly expected to win the Cup. It got me wondering. A few weeks after I left Valencia, I sent an e-mail to Xavier de Lesquen, to see how he and his Chinese friends were faring. His reply arrived in the middle of the night. “Part of the team has left,” he wrote. “We keep at Valencia a core team of people to operate the base and welcome the guests. Maybe some days of sailing on Longtze with guests. . . .

“As far as I am concerned — In Valencia until end of the AC, then jump to Brittany, my home place, to enjoy the life in my small house in front of a lonely beach with my old wooden dinghy. . . .

“Kind Regards! Xavier.”

Originally published at The New York Times Magazine on June 3, 2007.