The boats, if these computer-sculpted splinters can be called watercraft at all, are utterly charmless. Hoisted out of the water at the end of the racing day and just before they're shrouded in secretive skirts, they are revealed as mostly mast and keel, the carbon-fiber hulls functional only to the extent that they can carry 17 crew members and remain seaworthy. The monstrous bulb below the waterline accounts for 80% of the boat's weight, counterbalancing the acreage of high-performance sails high above. No amount of iridescent epoxy in between can camouflage the ugliness of its desperation: Gotta go fast.
This New Zealand spring, as the boats are towed each morning out into Auckland's Hauraki Gulf (yes, towed; instruments this finely tuned for speed shouldn't have to commute), the desperation is reaching an old but still comic level. As it was 151 years ago, when some ex-colonists stormed England with a plan to sandbag its sailors in high-stakes racing, the America's Cup is home to a wealthy rabble of rampant egos who enjoy an attention-grabbing tussle. Chartered as a "friendly competition among nations" the event has once again collapsed into aristocratic rivalry, all the more entertaining for its nakedness of ambition and level of skulduggery.
Last week six of the original nine syndicates were still vying for the chance to challenge New Zealand, the reigning Cup holder, in February, and by week's end that total was down to four. (Though who will get the fourth spot still awaits a hearing to assess the protest lodged by Team Dennis Conner against the OneWorld syndicate, but more on that later.) The qualifying, called the Louis Vuitton Cup, is unduly complicated, its saving grace that it has reintroduced the word repechage to the sporting vocabulary. (Look it up yourself.) All you need to know for the moment is that of the nine challengers, there seem to be as many working definitions of clinical megalomania on the water as there are boats.
The ridiculousness is multinational. (Why would France enter its HAZMAT-colored Le D�fi Areva, with full-on nuclear-power sponsorship, in nuclear-free New Zealand? So it could get rammed by a boatful of Greenpeace activists? Which it was. Well done!) The boat, oddly wind-powered, was mercifully eliminated two weeks ago anyway, but nobody does tycoons-in-Top-Siders better than the Americans. With the residue of the new economy still seeding vanity projects, the Americans had a delightful flotilla—three separate campaigns, all cheerfully eccentric in the best American tradition.
What else could this be, anyway, but a stab at nouveau nobility? Yachting has never been a sport for the masses, but now it's become the last refuge for our techno-royals. Some campaigns cost upward of $80 million, and while there is sponsorship galore (the boats are now dolled up like floating NASCAR shillery), most of that has to be ponied up by moguls.
And what fun that provides for the rest of us. Larry Ellison, whose Oracle wealth has fueled an enormously entertaining bravado ("Whatever I want, I get," he once said. "That's the beauty of being worth $26 billion. I thoroughly recommend it"), chugs around Auckland's harbor in his 244-foot yacht, Katana, and snipes away at the competition. Paul Allen, whose Microsoft holdings have allowed him to dabble in sports he might not ever have had an interest in (yachting, for example), shows up in his 301-foot Tatoosh, and soon enough, rumors circulate that Ellison has commissioned plans for a larger yacht.
As all the billionaires are more or less self-made, the ego is understandable, even enjoyable. Although the Auld Mug, sport's oldest trophy, is supposed to be what it's all about, something much more elemental is really going on. Look up and down Syndicate Row, a sort of gasoline alley along the side of Auckland's shiny-new Viaduct Basin. One high-tech boat garage after another looms, one grander than the next, until you get to favored Alinghi, the Swiss team backed by Ernesto Bertarelli, heir to a pharmaceutical fortune. Forgetting for the moment that Bertarelli's yacht, Vava, moored nearby, is a paltry 150-footer (and forgetting, most of all, that Switzerland is a landlocked nation; how does he get home in that boat?), your breath is taken away by the size and scale of his pink-colored base of operations (dubbed the Geneva Hilton)—said to cost a flabbergasting $2 million compared with about $500,000 for his equally rich neighbors.
But then, it's yachting's oldest story: My dock is bigger than your dock.
For scale, to establish a reference point, we start at the very first dock on Syndicate Row, Team Dennis Conner. Because he alone is not a billionaire, the legendary Conner is cast as the last of a dying breed, the amateur sailor getting by with duct tape and plenty of Scopoderm. Well, compared with Ellison's Oracle BMW Racing team and Craig McCaw and Allen's OneWorld syndicate, Conner's is indeed a bargain-basement entry. Team Dennis Conner, representing the New York Yacht Club (but not funded by it), has a budget of just $40 million, less than half the going burn-rate of his billionaire colleagues—"the Bees," he calls them.
Conner launched his latest crusade in July when he introduced his two Stars & Stripes boats in Long Beach, Calif., whereupon one of them promptly sank when it lost its rudder. He makes no apology for his penny-pinching entry, though, insisting his experience in eight previous Cups (he's won four) more than makes up for the skimping he has had to do on development and prep time and manpower. (His 70 men do the work of Ellison's 150.) But he has no illusions about what an additional $10 million would mean. "I'd be faster," he says.