Say this for the Guy: he did it his way. Bill Koch, the nerdy, 52-year-old multimillionaire from Wichita, Kans., with only eight years of racing experience, silenced his numerous detractors by leading his America³ syndicate to victory in the America's Cup last week in San Diego. He employed a style that was heretical, unconventional and definitely all his own.
"I don't care what other people did," a jubilant, champagne-soaked Koch said last Saturday after his sleek, 75-foot rocket ship, America³, had closed out Italy's Il Moro di Venezia four races to one. "All that matters is crossing the finish line first. You'll never start something like this if you don't have that sort of resolve. What is it that they say? Fools rush in where angels fear to tread."
Eccentric tycoons have long been part of the America's Cup scene, but few of them have captured sailing's most cherished prize. Koch did it in his first attempt. That's what most galls the smug, insular members of the yacht-racing community, many of whom, regardless of their countries of origin, longed to witness Koch's comeuppance. Quick with his opinions, awkward in his manner, contrarian in his views, the bespectacled Koch was at various times during the competition referred to as clownish, arrogant and zany, and as the Gerald Ford of sailing. The 6'5" Koch was so prone to on-board pratfalls that after twice being bonked on the head by a swinging boom he was presented with a San Diego Charger helmet by a local disc jockey.
But if Koch was a little of all those things, he was also the mastermind, bank-roller and, to the disdain of professional sailors, part-time helmsman of the America³ effort. He shuffled crewmen around like interchangeable parts and generally thumbed his nose at the skipper-as-superstar mentality that permeates America's Cup racing. Koch believed that the only star should be the boat.
Said Dave Dellenbaugh, who did a masterly job of handling the starts as a member of A³'s three-man helmsman rotation, "In the end Bill always did the right thing. You have to judge his approach by the results. He was willing to try different things—sails, designs, helmsmen, crew members, everything—but he was always smart enough to go back to the things that worked."
If Koch's victory was financially Pyrrhic—he shelled out some $55 million of his own money to finance America³'s $64 million campaign—he accomplished precisely what he set out to do: keep the America's Cup in America. A³'s win represents the 27th time in 28 challenges in the 141-year history of the Auld Mug that a U.S. yacht has prevailed, and afterward Koch was quick to wrap himself in red-white-and-blue. "This is a triumph for America, for American technology and American teamwork," he said.
He might have added that it was also a triumph for American stick-to-itiveness, for his own willingness to finish what he had started, regardless of the cost. As Raul Gardini, the head of the Italian syndicate, noted with a measure of admiration, "Bill Koch is a very persistent man."
Going into the series, little was known about the relative speeds of the two carbon-fiber-hulled International America's Cup Class yachts. America³ was narrower in the hull, so it cut through the choppy seas off San Diego's Point Loma like a cormorant, barely leaving a wake. But Il Moro had a better record in light air. What's more, the Italian crew, which had performed so impressively in defeating New Zealand in the challenger finals, was thought to be better than the so-called Cubens. As for the helmsmen, that was supposed to be no contest. American³'s cumbersome three-man rotation—Koch, Dellenbaugh and 62-year-old Buddy Melges—was thought to be no match for Il Moro's Paul Cayard, who was described by the pundits in glowing terms.
In the much-anticipated first race, on May 7, however, the 33-year-old Cayard proved to be decidedly human. Antsy to get a good start, he misjudged the strength of the current and jumped the gun. By the time Il Moro had circled back behind the starting line, America³ had a 30-second lead in a 13-knot wind, conditions the U.S. boat loved. Arrivederci, Paulino. The most exciting moment of the next 2 hours and 21 minutes came when Koch was hammered on the noggin by a runner-block. It knocked him to his knees and left him with a splitting headache, after which he babbled things like "This boat handles like a gorgeous woman!"—further evidence that this America's Cup campaign had gone on too long.
America³'s margin of victory was...30 seconds, precisely the lead Cayard had given the defender by blowing the start. "I was just paying my San Diego Yacht Club dues for the month of May," Cayard jokingly said later. "It's hard to imagine a worse day than we had from all respects."