Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A decade of memories

Ten years ago a sailing team began a journey with ambitions of grandeur similar to every start-up. No IPO was offered, but a mission statement was clearly laid out: Win the America’s Cup.

On Aug. 11, 2000, the sailing world buzzed with word that Oracle Racing intended to challenge for the 31st America’s Cup, slated for Auckland, New Zealand, 2002-03. It had purchased the assets – including the shorebase, race boats, support boats and containers full of equipment – of a former syndicate.

Since then the team has traversed what some would call a long and winding road, others a long strange trip. Either way, it’s been a memorable 10 years for the team now called BMW ORACLE Racing, America’s Cup champion.

Larry Ellison at the helm of Sayonara
A challenger finalist effort in the first showing took a step backwards to a semifinal placing in 2007, but led way to victory on Feb. 14, six months ago in the 33rd America’s Cup Match.

When put into context, 10 years from start up to Cup champion is not all that long. Sir Thomas Lipton and Syd Fischer would be green with envy.

For team founder and afterguard member Larry Ellison and the OTM’s (original team members) – Ian “Fresh” Burns, Tom Ehman, Melinda Erkelens, Mickey Ickert, Brian “Puck” MacInnes, Tim Smyth, Julie Sutherland, Mark “Tugboat” Turner and Brad Webb – still on the roster, it’s been one heck of a ride.

“I think Larry knew it was a big challenge,” said Erkelens, a legal counsel who helped kick-off the team with her husband Bill in the spring of 2000. “You’re hopeful that you can win it quickly, but realistically it takes awhile to get it all working, everybody in place and the right people on the job.”

On the heels of the conference call in August 2000 it wasn’t inconceivable to think that Oracle Racing would have immediate success. Ellison’s motivation for forming the team stemmed from his great success with the maxi yacht Sayonara. Four times the sleek 80-footer won the Maxi Yacht World Championship.

Coinciding with the fourth championship in 2000 was as a sea change in the America’s Cup. The all-conquering Team New Zealand, winners of the 1995 and 2000 matches by a combined 10-0, was disbanding. Suddenly, the Cup seemed up for grabs.

Influential businessmen such as Ernesto Bertarelli and Craig McCaw followed the likes of Patrizio Bertelli into the arena, buying up the best talent, both sailing and design wise, in the world. Some of that talent happened to crew on Sayonara. Fearful of losing his best sailors to other commitments, Ellison did the next best thing. He joined them.

The maxi yacht Sayonara
“There were some members of the crew whom he wanted to keep sailing with,” said Erkelens, who spent many long nights in 2000 and since. “We had a bunch of Kiwis sailing with us that he would be able to keep. Once he realized that he could keep the foreign talent, it didn’t take a whole lot of convincing. He was very excited.”

But the team’s staying power was uncertain in its nascent days. Three months after the public presentation the team was two-boat testing in New Zealand on the Hauraki Gulf when the keel strut of USA 61 snapped and the boat capsized.

“That happened the week before I was meant to start,” said Webb, the bow man. “I’d flown down to Wellington to visit my parents and the news was on the front page of the evening paper. I wondered if I’d still have a job.”

Webb’s reward for his staying power was being the first crewmember to cross the finish line in the second race of the 33rd Match, arms raised in triumph. For Burns, the journey has produced proud moments, such as the two America’s Cup Class sloops for the 2007 campaign.

The man everyone knows as “Fresh” carries memorable moments from two-boat testing.

“We were on the Hauraki Gulf in 2003 and it was clear sailing,” Burns said. “Someone on our boat said, ‘Does it look like there’s smoke coming out of the antenna bar of the other boat?’ We didn’t believe it and kind of wrote it off to atmospheric conditions at the time but, it turns out, the boat was on fire.

“A battery belowdecks had turned over and arced against the hull. Then a crewmember went below to check it all out and he passed out from smoke inhalation. It was an exciting moment,” Burns said in his laconic Australian way.

Burns moved from navigating to the design side because he was always involved with the performance team, working with the designers to improve the yachts’ efficiency. For “Fresh” the win in the 33rd Match is the result of accumulated confidence more than specific knowledge.

“Things have changed a lot in the 10 years,” he said. “We’ve gone from simple computational analysis, store bought products for everything, to having in-house specialists in design and construction and taking it all on ourselves. We don’t hire external contractors, now it’s all done in house.

Tom Ehman (left) and Ian "Fresh" Burns
“You get a much better product that way because there’s no conflict of interest so you accumulate confidence in the people around you to get things done,” Burns continued. “If we’d never worked with Tugboat (Turner) or Tim (Smyth) before, we might’ve never had the confidence in them to build the trimaran. But having worked with them for so long we knew they could do it. That’s been the biggest step forward for this team.”

That accumulated confidence spurred the team to historic heights. It helped create the trimaran USA, featuring a towering wing mast that inhibits it from passing beneath most of the world’s bridges. It also gave the team the focus to become the first challenger in the storied history of the America’s Cup to win a one-on-one Cup match.

That’s not to be confused with the success of challengers such as the Australia II (1983) Team Dennis Conner (1987) or Team New Zealand (1995). They all won the match after advancing through a challengers’ elimination series.

Six months ago BMW ORACLE Racing won the match as the sole challenger, almost 10 years after it was born. Mission statement checked.

The trimaran USA in Race 2 of the 33rd America's Cup Match