May 17, 2013, 6:33 p.m. ET
Larry Ellison's Dangerous America's Cup
The new boats have made the race life-threatening—and have dumbed down the sailing.
By G. BRUCE KNECHT
Last week, an Olympic gold medalist died in San Francisco Bay while training for America's Cup, the world's most famous sailing competition. British sailor Andrew Simpson's death is the latest evidence that the current competition is fundamentally flawed.
Billionaire Larry Ellison's ambitions for the America's Cup have always gone beyond winning, which he did in 2010 with his Team Oracle. The America's Cup winner determines the ground rules for the next competition, and Mr. Ellison created a new class of large but lightweight double-hulled vessels that are powered by solid "wing" sails. He hoped the supercharged catamarans would catapult the 162-year-old event into the modern age and transform it into a spectator sport fit for TV.
In terms of the hardware, Mr. Ellison has succeeded. When the wings and wind are properly aligned, the 72-foot boats—or AC72s, as they are known—literally lift out of the water, supported only by the foils on their daggerboards, the retractable keels that drop down from each of the hulls. The vessels skim across the water at speeds of close to 50 miles per hour.
In October, an AC72 built by Mr. Ellison's team, Oracle Team USA, flipped and was severely damaged. The wipeout came as a surprise to many—but not to the sailors. They already knew that AC72s are dangerous, overpowered beasts that are always skating on the edge of catastrophe.
This risk—plus the massive expense to design and build the boats—is why Mr. Ellison failed to deliver on his promise that more than a dozen teams would challenge Oracle for the cup this year. Only three signed up: Artemis Racing, representing Sweden; Luna Rossa Challenge, bankrolled by Patrizio Bertelli, the owner of Prada and a longtime sponsor of Italy's America's Cup campaigns; and Emirates Team New Zealand, the airline-backed national team.
The fatal accident came when one of Artemis Racing's bows dug into the water and structural elements disintegrated, causing the vessel to fold up on itself and capsize. Mr. Simpson, a 36-year-old married father of two, was trapped underneath.
Artemis has not determined whether it will press on with its campaign. Luna Rossa's Mr. Bertelli says he will leave it up to his crew. "If they told me to stop, that wouldn't be a problem for me," he told Yacht Capital, an Italian sailing magazine, last week. "This Cup with the AC72s is too extreme. They have to realize it and change, revise the rules, everything."
Having written about sailing for the last 15 years, I believe Mr. Bertelli is correct, and that Larry Ellison should rethink the guidelines for this year's race.
Mr. Ellison didn't become one of the world's richest men by holding back from challenges. When I interviewed him for my book about the deadly 1998 Sydney to Hobart Race, in which he sailed, he told me he believed the purpose of life is to engage in difficult competitions to determine how good we are.
But after the Hobart Race, during which six sailors died, Mr. Ellison said there had to be limits: "This is not what racing is supposed to be. Difficult, yes. Dangerous, no. Life-threatening, definitely not." Because of the Hobart Race, Mr. Ellison gave up ocean racing and turned to inshore sailing contests such as the America's Cup. "I decided to focus on a more technical and less life-threatening form of sailing," he told me in 2008.
Yet it is Mr. Ellison who has made the America's Cup dangerous. Until his involvement, beginning in 2000, winning was determined both by the intrinsic speeds of the boats and by tactical decisions about where each team positioned its vessel relative to the opposition throughout the race.
The AC72s are all about straight-line speed. They are so difficult, time-consuming and dangerous to turn that boat-to-boat tactics are less important than simply keeping the monsters under control. Consequently, the enhanced technological sophistication of the AC72s has had the effect of dumbing down the sailing, another reason for Mr. Ellison to reconsider.
The Cup, which is supposed to begin in September after an elimination round in July, would not have to be postponed. Since 2011, the contenders have been racing against each other in much safer 45-foot catamarans. The Cup could be sailed with them.
You're probably thinking that the headstrong Mr. Ellison will never agree to it. You are probably right. Then again, he understands that his legacy will be forever intertwined with the America's Cup. Not long before he became the first American to win it since 1995, I suggested to him that if he prevailed the first words of his obituary might be about sailing rather than his business achievements. He did not disagree. "Oracle could disappear someday," he said. "The America's Cup will not."
Indeed. The best way for Mr. Ellison to secure his position as the founder of the modern-day America's Cup would be to admit that the AC72s are a mistake.
Mr. Knecht is the author of "The Proving Ground: the Inside Story of the 1998 Sydney to Hobart Race" (Little, Brown & Co., 2001).