Ellison, in the fashion of old-time tycoons, enjoys the spotlight, appearing in his black Armani at press conferences when he can, often to say how busy he is with Oracle work on board Katana (or even in one of the sponsor cars, which are tricked out with an Internet connection). And, until he left New Zealand following Oracle BMW's survival of the quarterfinals, he was almost always a source of some bombshell, whether it was icing one skipper, Paul Cayard, in favor of Kiwi Chris Dickson, replacing Dickson with Peter Holmberg after crew protests and then, after a troubled beginning in the round-robin, replacing Holmberg again with Dickson (after which the boat won 11 straight races). It was even news when Dickson, enjoying his maritime authority, kicked a surprisingly agreeable Ellison off the boat altogether. Ellison liked to steer the boat on upwind legs during leads. But who needs a part-time front-runner?
Ellison's swagger has been especially hard to endure for OneWorld, a likably earnest group, which insists on the purity of the event, hits all the right notes environmentally and generally behaves in a modest fashion. Its boss, McCaw, is pretty low-profile for a billionaire, not pretending to be a sailor for one thing, or king of the world for another. But the group has had its problems, beginning with the decimation of McCaw's wealth in the last two years ago. According to FORTUNE, his net worth went from $13 billion to $1.8 billion. (His XO Communications baby went bankrupt.) Suddenly America's Cup boating began to seem like an extravagance (just in case you were wondering exactly when an $80 million boat race starts to seem like an expensive idea). He put the assets up for sale and was ready to dry-dock his dreams.
But Paul Allen, whose wealth was better protected by Microsoft's share price, stepped in for his Seattle buddy. He first wrote a $10 million check, and then some more, until he became a 50-50 partner in the scheme.
OneWorld has set itself up as an Oracle alternative, which is to say, it's on the side of the angels. At Oracle's base there is a row of nine BMWs, parked nose out. At OneWorld, staffers putter around on electric bicycles.
OneWorld did rankle Conner when it got to pick its opponent—by virtue of its record in the quarterfinals—and chose his boat over the Italian or Swedish entries in last week's repechage, thus ensuring that one American team would be sent home. (It was a good call, however; OneWorld swept Stars & Stripes in four straight races.) Even so, OneWorld presents sailing as a loss-leader in its true mission to save the world. It has calculated the amount of emissions from its various chase boats and has planted, in exact remedy, 10,000 trees on the slopes of an island volcano. And every night crew members wash the boat's $40,000 sails with collected rainwater, to further spare the environment.
They would probably be more lovable, for all that, if Allen weren't tootling about the gulf in Tatoosh (bought from McCaw), one of the world's 10 largest motor yachts, a full 57 feet longer than Ellison's, one-upping the Oracle man's onboard basketball court with his own afterdeck helipad. Between Tatoosh and Katana, there aren't enough trees in all the world to absorb the maritime pollution.
OneWorld can afford to look ridiculous; that's the prerogative of the rich. But to look sinister, as it did when it admitted having knowledge of New Zealand's 2000 design, was perhaps fatal to its p.r effort. Part of the problem stems from One World's lavish spending; it brought in lawyer Sean Reeves, who worked for New Zealand in 2000, to be its rules advisor, and hired Laurie Davidson, who had designed New Zealand's boat. (The business with Reeves ended badly. OneWorld fired and sued him amidst bitter recriminations.) OneWorld insists it tried to do the right thing, self-reporting its violation, and it was penalized a point in an earlier round for its indiscretion. But now Conner's just-defeated team wants OneWorld disqualified altogether. A hearing will be held o-on Dec. 6 and 7 to sort the whole mess out.
Good thing for the intrigue, because the event, unfortunately, is not much fun—or even very possible—to watch. A bunch of party boats leave the harbor every morning, charging about $45 a person, and linger in the shadows of islands around the Hauraki Gulf sidelines, although what there is to see is anybody's guess. This is a sport without a visible finish line, remember, so a certain seafaring sophistication is required. Otherwise, it's just boats going back and forth.
Plus, it has sport's most confusing vocabulary—unless you were born to the yachting life. Does the following passage of authentic America's Cup gibberish send chills up and down your spine? "We had a bad tack right up toward the first beat. We were pretty close to the starboard lay-line. It was unfortunate, but we just had a bad tack and were forced to go back and clear a sheet, which put us pretty close to the mark...." O.K., how about discussion of an "unseamanlike luff." That raise your hackles? It should. It cost one billionaire a penalty point.
There is—once in a while—the spectacle of two Kevlar-coated bows plunging through the brine at the (invisible) finish, seconds apart after two hours of racing. But even so, what's the excitement? Is it a triumph of technology, ordained on a naval architect's drawing board years ago? Or is it a spectacle of seamanship, a helmsman shrewdly anticipating his opponent's tactics? Or, as these billionaires must themselves believe, is it just a matter of checkbook sailing? The four contenders who were still in the hunt at week's end, Oracle BMW, Alinghi, Prada and OneWorld—assuming the latter survives its hearing—all have the curiously identical advantage of nine-zero backing.