AMERICA’S CUP TAKE 35: In Defense of Larry Ellison

6 Jul

Larry Ellison

No, I was not rooting for Oracle Team USA in this just-concluded edition of the America’s Cup. And yes, like many others, I am quite happy to see the Cup go back to Auckland with Emirates Team New Zealand, and I am looking forward to seeing a new chapter open in the ever-evolving story of the oldest competition in sports. But I do not understand why everyone is now trashing Larry Ellison. Most of the post-event commentary I’ve seen would have it that Ellison is almost the devil incarnate, and that but for ETNZ he would have destroyed modern-day Cup competition.

How ungrateful can we be? I’ve never been a huge fan of Ellison’s, as loyal WaveTrain riders will attest, but I do think we need to give credit where credit is due.

Have we forgotten that it was Ellison who spent the vast sums required to thwart Ernesto Bertarelli’s heavy-handed attempt to highjack AC Take 33 by creating a bogus Spanish yacht club to stand as a bogus Challenger of Record? Have we forgotten that it was Ellison’s team that staged what many have termed the greatest comeback in the history of sport in Take 34?

I don’t know about you guys, but I personally found Takes 33 and 34 to be two of the most fascinating Cup cycles in the event’s long history. Take 33 was a true Battle of the Tycoons, in the best tradition of the Cup, both in court and on the water, culminating in what will likely be remembered as the event’s most over-the-top straight-up DOG (Deed of Gift) match. Take 34 saw a collection of the world’s largest foiling catamarans duking it out on the windy waters of San Francisco Bay, with teams climbing learning curves so steep there literally were lives at stake. (Hands on hearts here, please, in memory of Andrew Simpson.)

AC crash

Admittedly, Take 35 was something of a snore compared to its immediate predecessors, but please, let’s maintain some perspective here.

Ellison’s many critics are now complaining as follows:

1) He has undermined the role of yacht clubs in AC competition. Say what? It’s not because of Larry Ellison that yacht clubs have become increasingly irrelevant in modern sailing. It was Bertarelli who made the Cup’s club clause a total joke by creating the fictitious Club Náutico Español de Vela in 2007 to stand as a challenger. It was Ellison who saved us from that scam. Yes, he did game things a bit in cutting his deal with the Golden Gate Yacht Club. But it is a perfectly legitimate club, and the deal he cut saved it from dying.

2) He has undermined the Cup’s nationality clause. Yes, this is a trend he continued, but he certainly did not initiate it. Again, it was Bertarelli, a Swiss yachtsman who had no hope of mounting a purely Swiss challenge, who blew Cup nationality all to hell by hiring Russell Coutts away from Team New Zealand right after AC Take 30 in 2000. And lest we forget our ancient history, American defenders were relying heavily on foreign crew back in the Cup’s golden age. Charlie Barr, the most successful skipper on American boats from 1899 to 1903, was Scottish and many of the deckhands under him were Scandinavian.

3) He effectively betrayed the United States by taking this defense outside the country to Bermuda. But again this is not a trend that Larry Ellison initiated. Once again it was Bertarelli who set the precedent for venue-shopping when he took the Cup to Valencia in 2003. And lest we forget, it was also Bertarelli who proposed that the 33rd defense be staged in Ra’s Al Khaymah, within rocket range of Iran, a notion Ellison had to spend good money fighting in court. Bermuda, which is easily accessed from all of the U.S. East Coast, was, I believe, a perfectly reasonable venue.

4) His attempt to “mainstream” the Cup and get non-sailing audiences interested in the event by introducing foiling cats in a stadium-sailing format has been misguided. Which is true, I believe, but Larry Ellison has not been the only one in the sport promoting this concept. My sense is this is more a Russell Coutts thing than an Ellison thing, presumably, I’ve always assumed, because Coutts is interested in creating more and more lucrative opportunities for professional sailors. Also there has never been any shortage of people who believe Cup competition should somehow become as regularized, and as popular, as Formula One racing.

As to that last point, I have to say we at least had to try this “popular” format, if only to demonstrate that competitive sailing can never be truly popular. The Cup in San Francisco was not the popular draw everyone hoped it would be, and I am sure in the end that will prove to have been true in Bermuda too. We have to face the truth people! Sailing will never be mainstream. It is too technical, too esoteric, and too obscure.

Which brings us to the biggest contribution to the sport that Larry Ellison made during his tenure as Cup defender: he hired Stan Honey and spent the bucks needed to create the video graphics that make sailboat racing truly telegenic. No, this can’t make sailing very accessible or interesting to laypeople, but it certainly has made sailboat racing much more fun for the sailing cognoscenti to watch on TV.

AC graphics

In organizing the next defense I do hope ETNZ will bear all this in mind. To make AC Take 36 a success they need to forget the general audience and create the best event possible for a sailing audience.

And meanwhile all the rest of us need to doff our caps, raise a glass, and just plain say thanks to Larry Ellison.

This article was syndicated from Wavetrain


  1. BP

    I guess Larry Ellison is as good a target as any…. but all in all, I view him more positive than negative. While I don’t claim to know all about the politics and the in’s and out’s of it all, I’m wondering why I’m not seeing more of a critique on the USA team that failed to retain the Cup? Maybe I missed something, or maybe I don’t know enough about the intricacies of racing these big cats, but did it seem like the USA team was not always taking the most direct route with each leg of the race? Many times it seemed like Team New Zealand was right on the mark with their course and Team USA was meandering off somewhere else. I know the wind is fickle, but it seemed to be more than that. Taking the long route is not going to win races, period! Did anyone else notice this pattern?

  2. Stephany

    Congratulations for Larry E for all he has done as a brilliant sailor…Since Sydney Hobart! But not for what he has done to get the AC 34!!Cheap”.JS

  3. Jeremy G

    I am with Mike Ure on the NZ specifications for the next cup. I have loved the innovations which have been manifested on the cats starting in San Francisco, and let’s now reel in back in a little (back to ‘racing improves the breed’?) to large foiling monohulls and guys on the foredeck, handling; no heavy air limit, etc.
    Burling was way too relaxed; we need sweat from more than the cyclist/grinders alone. Haha.

  4. Kenneth Kotovsky

    The article makes some good points about Ellison’s contributions to creating exciting and eminently viewable races, but seems to rely much too much on the argument that he wasn’t the first bad guy in excusing the negatives. The move to Bermuda accelerated the distancing of the team from the country it was supposedly representing and, like free agency and unbridled capital interests in football, made it harder for teams’ fans to identify with and enjoy the performance of “their” teams. Bertarelli’s being first and worse doesn’t make Ellison’s mistakes any more palatable. So, not an arch villain, but not the best citizen either.

  5. Capt. Ron

    Biggest mistake was taking the cup to a venue where everyone knows the winds are light in June! That created a death spiral for the USA TEAM. Stupid decision!

  6. Hendrikus PLM Wisker

    I too have not read or heard ” negative press on Larry Ellison” and I also do not believe he deserves negative comments.
    If you do not agree with the man and his escapades bring a team to the line and race
    Envy is a terrible thing !

    Enjoyed a week in Bermuda, perfect , even that I am a true mono hull off-shore sailor, it was damn exciting to watch .

  7. Richard Chassé

    Thanks, Charles. Great comeback. Personally, I have not read all this rubbish you mention. I do not live in the past. It is why the rearview mirror is smaller than the windshield.

    It is simply, that this time around, the better team (boat, actually) won !! Nothing to do with “youth” or any of that BS.

    In sail racing (or any kind of racing for that matter), sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. It is just that simple. The facts are the facts. Everybody from my vantage point (viewing it all and sharing with my son .. we had a blast), every team gave it their all. Spent a ton of cash. And learned some stuff. And, drew a most formidable crowd for the competition and the sport in macro.

    Piss-off the networks for their trying to gain back their losses.

    On another note, love your boat reviews, just wish they were a bit longer. 😊⚓️

    If I can be of service in any way, just let me know.

    M.100 T

  8. Peter Fynn

    I must say I really enjoyed watching the series and the Cup races on NBCSports even though I could never be like those guys or afford a trip to Bermuda. I sail dinghies. Thanks to Larry for making the great coverage possible. As for those who would like to see sail boats that are like their boats of yester-year, I would only say that Formula One cars are not like your family sedans. There is a place for both and you don’t have to watch.
    By the way, the AC has always been a race for tycoons, nothing new there, and they were real sailors sailing these foiling cats.

    As a suggestion, I would like to see foiling proas in the next Cup in deference to the historical seafaring of New Zealand (tongue in cheek, but wouldn’t it be fun!!).

  9. Chuck

    so interesting to hear this feed back. I think Ellison is a jerk, but like Ted Turner, I think he is a sailor. America’s cup has always been a sport of money. I much prefer a cat over beating and heeling. Doesn’t mean I don’t love monohulls, just enjoy cats more today. Lifting a hull on a performance cat is exciting. Never been on foils but it looks awesome. Gunboats G4 will bring it down to more people.

    I loved watching and I was sad to see America and Team Oracle not do well, unlike the rest of you kiwi wannabes. They are great sailors, but they aren’t feeling sorry for us like you blokes are.

  10. Roger N

    Why not have 2 Americas Cup class races going on simultaneously ……. The speedy F-1 Cats and the ” Other ” boats, a mono-hull type to be decided upon. Countries and teams could pick one or the other ……. or both. Myself, I’ve really enjoyed the newest format, with the speed, fast paced tactical maneuvering, the penalties & multitude of lead changes ,……. but i appreciate the seamanship of the mono’s as well as innovative designs.
    As the ol’ saying goes ……. ” it’s all about the money ” so why not let these billionaires entertain us while the ( hopefully ) enhance and grow the sport of sailing ?? Along those lines, there should be user friendly — free-to-air — TV telecasts, with basic sailing tutorials for the landlubbers and rookies …….

  11. BoathouseJoe

    Interesting to watch for a bit,kind of like those figit spinners the kids have.It’s always been a patrician event which is now the domain of billion dollar corporations…..kid of silly to watch for too long,has little to do with traditional seamanship or boats.

  12. Charles Robinson

    I really don’t understand why some people have time to hate or dislike Larry Ellison???? Let me see he’s extremely intelligent inventive business savvy very very rich, has a great life. Has contributed to many great Endeavors including sailing! Maybe if I had a mind to be jealous of someone he’d be on my list

  13. Ralph Hilbert

    Thanks for your great article on Larry Ellison. I truly agree that he did a great job in getting the American Cup events into the public eve. Even though I am a monohull sailor all my life, I was totally fixated in watching these flying machines perform. I only hope that Larry comes back for AC 36.

  14. Bruce Schwaegel

    Like it or not, sports and the world is changing. Sailing must evolve as well, appeal to larger groups, attract young sailors, inspire non-sailors to want to learn to sail, etc. Failure to do so will have the same effect on sailing as it has in the business world to once successful companies who failed to adapt. Larry Ellison, an avid sailor in his own right, was a breath of fresh air who has inspired millions to take an interest in a sport that they otherwise had little or no interest in. The technology introduced to the sport as well as the new stadium style venues have revolutionized sailing races and resulted in a significant increase in viewers.

  15. Darryl O'Sickey

    The Bermuda venue was fantastic. My wife and I were able to view four of the races in Bermuda and were in the Cup village for the one Team USA won. The locals were friendly and there was no price gouging for drinks, food and memorabilia.
    If we go back to monohulls and no foils I want to see Mr. Ure with his flip phone. Technology makes changes in everything. Now where did I put my buggy whip?
    Thanks for a great commentary.
    Darryl O’Sickey

  16. Eric Posmentier

    I’m with Harv Hauschildt. America’s Cup has become a competition for “tycoons”, as called its participants, and essentially boring to most truly salty sailors. It’s even offensive to sailors who celebrate the expansion of sailing to include lovers of the dance of breezes and canvas but are not residents of the economic stratosphere. Our time is better spent sailing our own modest but totally lovable craft and sharing sailing lore and a beer in the harbor.

  17. Harv Hauschildt

    Like many sailors that keep their cars longer than most people in order to afford their boats and moorage, I for one have totally lost interest in the Americas Cup. I don’t relate to the big Cats and when I think of a foil, I think of double moorage and unimaginable repair bills from hitting the float some that share my cruising grounds.
    I have no opinion about Larry Ellingson as I have stopped following the cup. Before the crazy foiling Cats, I could relate to everything on the boats, today the boats hold nothing for me. This sentiment is held by most of the people I know who sail. Clearly, there is a market for this type of race boat, but not for me. I wish all the crews and owners well, as I try my best to sail like Dennis Connors.

  18. PJ

    Nice summarry, what we have unconciously” think what is going on” has happened..
    The gentlemans sport has been dislocated PJ

  19. Mike Ure

    Well written and an excellent summary.
    I hope we get foiled and planing 60 to 70 foot monohulls with huge sail area.
    No hydraulics. Fixed keel, but moveable internal ballast system.
    Large mainsail that has to be reefed, 109% headsail. Multiple gennekers on proders.
    Gate system, but right angle triangular courses (mirror image) meaning gennekers have to be gybed or changed.
    Relatively short in harbour courses.
    No heavy air limit to racing.
    Get back to sailors sailing.
    Mike Ure

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