Prelude to the Pinnacle

  • Michael Verdon

Brad Webb, a 29-year-old New Zealander, is perched on the bow of USA-76, barking into his headset. “Ten meters!” Webb shouts to helmsman Peter Holmberg. “Five, four, three . . .” As bowman, Webb serves as the eyes of the Oracle BMW boat, which is competing today against Alinghi, a Swiss syndicate that is closing in on USA-76. It is the pre-start segment of Round Robin 2, a preliminary race in the Louis Vuitton Cup in New Zealand, and both boats are attempting to position themselves as close as possible to the starting line for the beginning of the race, which is still several minutes away. Neither vessel’s crew is flinching as the close-quarters maneuvers become a game of high-stakes, million-dollar chicken.

The pre-start, a no-holds-barred jockeying exercise in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf, mirrors the two-year frenzy of preparation that the Oracle BMW team has endured in its quest for the America’s Cup. The Louis Vuitton Cup, which began last October and ended in late January, is the nine-team qualifying tournament that precedes the America’s Cup. The winner of the Louis Vuitton Cup advances to face off in February against Team New Zealand, the defending America’s Cup champion. As of press time, the Oracle BMW team had cruised to a semifinal berth in the Louis Vuitton Cup, demonstrating what it has adopted as its team motto: “An unyielding desire to win the most prized possession in the world of sailing.”

 

Victory is determined early in the races, says Tommasso Chieffi, the boat’s tactician. “Most of the races are won and lost on the first shift call,” explains the 41-year-old Italian. “You can determine who’s won the start not only by who gets over the line first, but by who gets to the first cross, where the wind shifts. Eighty percent of the races are won at the first cross.”

Larry Ellison, Oracle chairman and CEO and leader of the 140-member Oracle BMW team, is an avid yachtsman. He captured the Maxi circuit’s world championships four times aboard Sayonara, his 78-footer, and won the infamous 1998 Hobart-to-Sydney race, where eight sailors died in a storm. Three years ago, Ellison decided to assemble a $90 million racing machine with the lone goal of winning the “Auld Mug,” the ornate silver jug that was first awarded in 1851.

Ellison, a newcomer to America’s Cup racing, selected a large warehouse on the Auckland docks to house his team. The building contains its own sail loft, repair shop, gigantic lifts for moving the boats, and a football field–size barge that serves as its headquarters. Battle slogans on the warehouse walls read, “We will either find a way or make one,” “Mediocrity is self-inflicted. Genius is self-bestowed,” and “Union gives strength.”

Ellison assembled an all-star lineup of sailors, designers, sailmakers, trainers, and administrative personnel. For two years, the corps of hired guns has prepared for the team’s title run. “This is the tip of the iceberg,” says Mike Howard, one of the team’s nine grinders. “There are hundreds of thousands of sailors at the top of their games around the world. Only the best 250 get asked to go sailing in the America’s Cup.”

Howard, 53, is a 6-foot-3, 250-pound former Marine who wa
s an All-American linebacker at the University of Wisconsin and a bodyguard for Frank Sinatra. He grinds the boat’s winches, raising and lowering USA-76’s sails dozens of times during a race. He does his job with such mind-boggling speed that his hands blur like those of a cartoon character. Because the job is so demanding, grinders race only once every three days. Howard explains that the job requires more than just brute strength. “You have to have good muscular fitness and hand speed,” he says. “There’s a lot more finesse in it than you can imagine.”

If Howard represents the boat’s muscle, Chieffi is part of USA-76’s brain. Chieffi is a member of the afterguard (tactician, navigator, and helmsman), the three-member corps that huddles in the cockpit near the boat’s twin steering wheels. The navigator, armed with a laptop and radar gun, gathers speed and distance data. Chieffi, who also tracks weather patterns, uses this data to devise a strategy for the helmsman—who has the final word among the afterguard—to employ. Chieffi was trained as a lawyer, and although he practiced law in his early 30s, he soon found himself back on the water. “I’m getting too old now to do anything else,” he says. “I’ll do this until somebody tells me I’m too old.”

A successful team blends age with youth. Experienced sailors such as Chieffi comprise the afterguard. Positions such as mastman, trimmer, bowman, runner, and grinder require young, energetic, and physically able individuals. Twenty-nine-year-old Jonathan Ziskind (“Z” to his teammates) is the sail trimmer who is constantly adjusting the shape of the mainsail. In light winds, he puts on a rock-climbing harness and shuttles up the mast to hunt for breezes. He was a college sailing champ in Rhode Island and developed a reputation for winning J-boat races. His prowess led to a spot on America True in the last America’s Cup, and eventually an invitation to compete for a spot on the Oracle BMW Team. “It’s more of a trial than tryout,” Ziskind says. “They let you stay for a while to see if you’ll fit in.”

The Long Island native and former schoolteacher aspires to become an afterguard member. During downtime, Ziskind analyzes maneuvers, and he has created a slew of strategy-containing notebooks and binders for each team member. “It’s nice to be able to put my teaching experience to work,” he says.


Ellison hired Webb, the bowman, based partly on Webb’s experience winning the America’s Cup in 1995 with Team New Zealand, skippered by the late Peter Blake. Even that accomplishment, however, was not enough to earn Webb a permanent spot in the sport’s top echelon. In 1995, Webb saved his money to travel to England and race on different boats, then spent the next five years trying to make ends meet. “You do the crappy jobs, the boatyard work, and yacht deliveries,” he says. “Eventually, you get hired on better boats and get paid more. I realized one day that I’d graduated into a professional yachtsman when I looked at my bank account and it wasn’t on the decline.”

The sailors are the public stars of the team, but there is an extensive behind-the-scenes staff inside the Auckland compound. Thirty-three designers are constantly working to tweak the hull and sails. A renowned meteorologist and several Olympic gold medal sailors, in four weather boats, scour the race course five minutes before each race to predict the best side of the course.

At night, the sailmakers work intense 12-hour shifts preparing the sails for the next day’s race. “We inspect the sails thread by thread to make sure that the stitches and webbing—the little things that could cost us a race—are in order,” says Silke Martens, one of the few female sailmakers in the Cup. “You work in millimeters, so you have to be very accurate. The mainsail trimmer might want two millimeters’ curve out of the sail. We roll our eyes, but it always works.”

Back aboard USA-76, the Oracle BMW team is perilously close to a multimillion-dollar collision with the Alinghi vessel. At the last moment, Alinghi changes course and tacks away, but it follows USA-76 closely. Both boats want the right side of the course, where their weather boats have determined the stronger winds to be. Whoever makes it to the top mark first has the best chance of winning the race. A good pre-start is all about tactical maneuvers, and sometimes intimidation: a nautical game of chess. Most of all, it is about getting over the line first. Timing is critical, and if Webb miscalculates and sends the boat over too soon, USA-76 will have to do a 360-degree penalty turn and will most likely lose the race.


Webb looks at his stopwatch: 30 seconds to go. He zeros in on the starting buoy and estimates the distance. He looks back and sees the navigator doing the same on his laptop. He tells Holmberg they need to burn off 15 seconds. Holmberg tacks, holding off the Swiss boat. With 10 seconds to go, Webb can feel that it is time. “Faster!” he yells. “All sails, let’s go!”

In the final, frenzied tack across the starting line, the crew grinds winches and pulls halyards, as the boat heels 30 degrees. The team’s movements are as precise as the TAG Heuers on their wrists. They have been practicing for nearly two years. “Now it’s like clockwork,” Ziskind says. “We don’t even have to talk.”

Harmony, however, has not always existed within the Oracle BMW team. Last February, skipper Chris Dickson was removed from his position after clashing with senior team members. Ellison, who sometimes claims the helm himself, replaced Dickson with Holmberg. Then during the quarterfinals in October, Ellison did an about-face and reinstated Dickson. “We weren’t getting the results, and when you’re a professional sports team, you have to make changes,” Ellison says. “I don’t know any more talented sailor in the world than Chris Dickson.”

At first, Ellison’s decision smacked of desperation. While the Oracle team had lost four of its last five races, Dickson, considered an autocrat, had not practiced with the team for months, and he had never sailed on the new boats. Crew member Stu Argo, a highly regarded Cup veteran, packed his bags and flew home. Other defectors were expected to follow.


Instead of imploding, however, Oracle BMW began winning races, one after another. To Ellison’s delight, the team worked its way into the semifinals. Instead of sidelining Holmberg, Ellison left him at the helm for the pre-starts and had Dickson on as skipper, leaving him the crucial decisions. The strategy worked, giving the team high hopes of winning the Louis Vuitton Cup.

While the move to reinstate Dickson paid off, Ellison’s decision was only one of dozens of difficult choices and sacrifices the team and its members have made. Among sailors, exercise—besides curling a few pints every night—has only recently been made a priority. “You have to understand the sailing culture,” says Stewart Harrison, the team’s trainer. “Fitness has never been of real importance.”

In the spring of 2001, when he was hired to oversee the team, Harrison implemented a rigid fitness program. Harrison, a former Royal Marines special operations officer, ordered the sailors to report to the gym by 5:30 am, four days a week. He also introduced mini-eco-challenges into the training regimen. On one outing, team members kayaked, hiked through a jungle, biked, and completed the routine by pulling a four-wheel-drive vehicle along the beach. “It’s not optional,” Harrison says of his program. “But as a result, these guys are well-conditioned. We’ve seen massive improvements.”

Harrison works with the team’s cooks to maintain low-fat diets for the crew (Webb says he has not eaten ice cream in 18 months), and the team’s medical staff performs regular check-ups on the sailors. Harrison says that drinking alcohol, once seen as a right of all Cup sailors, is limited. “Generally, they’re too tired and they know they have to get up the next day,” he says. “Sailing is a sport that’s been slow to turn to professionalism, but it’s getting there, like rugby did years ago. Now it’s a professional sport with teams.”


As professional athletes, the Oracle BMW team members sometimes see their personal lives suffer. Ziskind’s family lives on the U.S. East Coast, his wife’s family lives in California, and their two-year stay in New Zealand has kept them from regular visits home. Chieffi has not seen his wife and children, who live in Italy, for months. “I don’t really have a place to call home,” says Ziskind.

The team members, separated from their families, have created a family of their own. “Surprisingly, we do tend to hang out together, even after practicing for 12 hours a day,” says Webb. Such camaraderie has brought them close—and close to the America’s Cup. “You train together and you eat together for two years,” says Webb. “You end up being a big family. When the end comes, we’ll all be glad that it’s over. But it’ll be sad all the same.”

From the air, sails billowed, Cup boats are slender, graceful creatures, moving at a steady 10-knot pace up the race course. But on deck, the activity of the 16-man crew is frenzied, the intensity building. The 15-knot breeze in the sails is winding the 25-ton boats up tight, so tight that the carbon-fiber fittings are groaning under the intense pressure. The stays resemble high-tension wires that could snap at any second.
During repeated tacks, the roar of the mainsails is deafening. Alinghi is coming on strong, but USA-76 rounds the top mark first, its immense 500-square-meter spinnaker pulling it downwind. After three laps of neck-and-neck racing, USA-76 wins by just four seconds.

This is only a preliminary race, but such victories advance Oracle BMW through the ranks, giving the team a shot at challenging Team New Zealand in the America’s Cup. Nothing short of winning is acceptable. It is the same today as it was in 1851, when America won the first America’s Cup by finishing first in a course around the Isle of Wight. Queen Victoria, watching the upstart boat from New York make short work of the Royal Navy’s finest, asked an adviser if one of her boats was runner-up. “Your Majesty,” came the reply, “there is no second place.”


Starting a Syndicate
To launch your own America’s Cup syndicate, follow the example of Larry Ellison and first open your checkbook. His Oracle BMW team has spent approximately $85 million on its Cup quest—much of it Ellison’s personal wealth—making it the most expensive syndicate ever. “Larry provided much-needed seed money to get the whole process going,” says Gina Von Esmarch, Oracle BMW’s marketing director. “If you don’t get the money early, you can’t get going on the testing and development of your boats. You may also have to skimp in some areas because you don’t have adequate funds.”

Ideally, you will find a sponsor to complement your personal contributions. However, says Von Esmarch, corporate funding can be difficult to win, especially early in a syndicate’s formation, because corporations prefer to fund competitors with winning track records, whether it is in golf, auto racing, or sailboat racing. Michael Ganal, a member of BMW’s board of management, says the automaker was looking for a third pillar in sports marketing besides golf and Formula One, and sailing seemed like a good fit. BMW signed on at the last minute for a purported $20 million. “We are committed to support this team wherever we can,” says Ganal.

Because of extensive testing—a process that took place early in the two-year campaign and was funded primarily by Ellison—Von Esmarch has seen fewer breakages on the Oracle BMW boats than the America One vessels she worked on during a previous Cup run. The syndicate also used Oracle’s state-of-the-art internal computers to facilitate communication between the designers and sailors, who were often on two different continents.

If you do not want to launch a syndicate, you can purchase a Cup-raced boat for recreational sailing. The International America’s Cup Class San Francisco (415.289.0401 or 866.IACCSF1), which promotes IACC racing, will host four tournaments in 2003 for IACC boats, and it is currently offering 10 former campaign boats for sale. They range from Il Moro di Venezia II ($175,000), which was sailed by an Italian syndicate in 1992, to America One’s USA-61 ($375,000), which lost to Prada in the 2000 Louis Vuitton finals and was used by Oracle BMW as a training boat.


Several 12-meter Cup boats, which were raced for nearly a century before being replaced by 24-meters in the ’92 tournament, have been restored to their former glory and are available for purchase. Many of the 12-meters will compete in a special match race in Newport, R.I., in September. For more information, contact Paul Buttrose, U.S. vice president of the International Twelve Meter Association, at paul@paulbuttrose.com.

High - Tech for the High Seas

Everything about an America’s Cup Class (ACC) 24-meter boat is high-tech, from the strong, lightweight carbon-fiber hulls and rigid 110-foot mast to the Mylar film sails. Each of Oracle BMW’s two $5 million boats required a year of design testing and six months of building.

Initially, the team ran computer program simulations on hundreds of thousands of possible racing situations. Then the team built a dozen one-third-scale models of potential boat designs and sent them to testing tanks. “That lets you see which appendages and hull designs work best,” says James Criner, a naval architect who works with Bruce Farr, Oracle BMW’s chief designer. The team also created a supercomputer and built a special wind tunnel for testing sails.

Criner says that initial design of the Oracle boats began in late summer 2000, but that designers started “burning the midnight oil” about a year later. At the end of 2001, the team handed over the design plans to builder Richard Gillies, who brought special high-tech ovens and a team of specialists from Europe to California to build USA-76 and USA-71. By July 2002, only eight weeks before the Louis Vuitton Cup, the boats were ready for training.


The boats are capable of approximately 12 knots (13.8 mph) upwind and 18 knots (20.7 mph) downwind, so every hundredth of a knot counts. “At this stage, IACC boats are fairly evolved, so you start looking for micro-advantages,” says Criner.

The boats are designed for a course that is 3 nautical miles (3.45 land miles) long, consisting of six legs or three laps around two buoys. The hull topside holds a 16-man crew (and a nonsailing guest at the back of the boat called the 17th man), and every ounce on board is critical, so every sailor has a target weight.

The sails, effectively the boat’s engines, are made by North Sails using the three-dimensional laminate process. Instead of sewing the panels together from flat sailcloth, 3DL molds the sails from a single, seamless piece of Mylar. Carbon and Kevlar threads are laminated to the Mylar to strengthen it. The lightweight sail stretches less than a paneled sail and holds its shape over a wider wind range. A mainsail costs $90,000, and each team is allowed 45 sails over the course of the Louis Vuitton Cup, and another 15 for the America’s Cup.

To stabilize the boat and to match the immense power that the sails generate, the keel weighs 20 tons—five times more than the rest of the boat. The keel is considered by many to be the top-secret weapon of the Cup boats, and the syndicates go to great lengths to conceal the shape of the appendages—fins, bulbs, rudders, trim tabs, and wings—by using gigantic curtains called skirts to hide them when they lift the boats out of the water. “It’s one of the few things you can hide from your opponent,” says Criner, who admits that this shroud of secrecy is part psychological. “It keeps ’em guessing.”

To follow the America’s Cup, visit www.americascup.yahoo.com or www.oraclebmwracing.com

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