Rigged to Blow

Larry Ellison's new yacht might prove the fastest (and most dangerous) sailboat ever—if a judge doesn't keep it from racing

Jay Price

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The trimaran—a 90-by-90-foot carbon-fiber behemoth—whipped among Washington’s San Juan Islands three times faster than the wind. Beneath a third of an acre’s worth of taut Kevlar and carbon sails, men in white starship uniforms and close-fitting helmets attended to ropes and cranks arrayed across a netted deck the size of a baseball diamond. The as-yet-unnamed $10 million craft is the latest plaything of Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, and it was designed for one purpose: taking the America’s Cup from Swiss biotech heir Ernesto Bertarelli, a fellow billionaire whom Ellison really doesn’t like.

Back in September, Ellison’s BMW Oracle Racing team invited Outside to Anacortes, Washington, for a look at the boat’s first seaworthiness tests—a predictable formality for traditional yachts but not for one designed to be the fastest sailboat ever built. The combination of a rotating, airfoil-shaped 158-foot mast and an ultrawide 90-foot beam produces an astonishing amount of leverage—upwards of 50 tons of pressure. And if you think of the sail as an engine, this boat has three times as much horsepower as the 2007 America’s Cup entrants.

To counter those forces, the designers relied almost entirely on light, strong graphite fiber. “There are acres and acres of carbon in it,” says Tim Smyth, a veteran Kiwi boatbuilder who helped oversee construction. “I’ve never seen so much carbon go into a boat.” Though Oracle won’t say exactly how much, estimates put the total at around ten tons. For added security, 50 fiber-optic load sensors track the stress and trigger a piercing alarm before the ship is getting ready to break apart.

But a catastrophic crack-up at nearly 50 miles per hour isn’t the only danger on the mind of Ellison’s skipper, Russell Coutts, an Olympic gold medalist from New Zea­land who has a perfect 14-0 record in the America’s Cup and is widely regarded as the best match-racing helmsman alive. When pushed too hard, a multihull can stab the downwind bow into a wave and cartwheel end over end. Flipping a Hobiecat out on the lake might mean a cold splash, but on the huge BMW Oracle boat, it would send crewmen on a terrifying, ten-story plunge into a tangled nest of mast and lines. “If something goes wrong, all you can do is hold on and wait for things to quit falling,” says Coutts.

With the difficulties of sailing such a fickle craft in mind, BMW Oracle also hired Frenchman Franck Cammas, a five-time world champion in 60-foot trimarans, to teach its sailors how to go fast and stay alive. Last spring, during training, Coutts was aboard a 40-foot catamaran that flipped, leaving him with nine stitches in his leg. As a safety precaution at September’s seaworthiness tests, there was an additional launch carrying a doctor and two divers to rescue any trapped crew members, plus two backup divers in case the first pair got snagged themselves.

Even if everything works out on the water, though, it’s what happens on land, and specifically in a New York courtroom, that will determine the new boat’s fate. That’s where Ellison is seemingly trying to force Bertarelli into a one-on-one duel for the Cup using giant multihulls. The rules of the 157-year-old regatta are notoriously vague, but the disagreement is fairly simple. Bertarelli, the 2007 Cup winner, has been trying to get the rest of the teams to conform to his new set of rules for the next race. (Unlike other international events, like the Olympics, the America’s Cup is held whenever the current Cup holder and the challengers agree on a time, place, and type of craft.) Challengers thought Bertarelli was giving himself too many advantages—choosing all of the judges, for example—so Ellison used a special provision to try and force a negotiation of the rules. Then things got personal: Bertarelli called Ellison a “loser” and added, “Larry seems to think he can buy the Cup in court.” BMW Oracle spokesman Tom Ehman counters that Ellison didn’t want a one-on-one race; he just wanted Bertarelli to agree to fair terms for everyone. If all this sounds somewhat familiar, it should. Back in 1988, U.S. skipper Dennis Conner noticed that faster, multihulled boats weren’t specifically outlawed in the terms of that year’s race. So he built his 60-foot catamaran, Stars & Stripes, and crushed Kiwi Michael Fay’s 132-foot monohull, KZ-1. That ordeal also ended in the New York courts, which initially stripped Conner of the prize but later gave it back to him on appeal.

In this legal leg of the Cup, Bertarelli has the lead. In July, an appeals court issued a ruling that would give the Swiss incumbent the control he wanted over the rules. Ellison has already filed an appeal that should be decided in early 2009, but Bertarelli isn’t taking any chances. He’s commissioned his own massive multihulled boat, which could be ready by this winter.

If Ellison loses the appeal, the race will likely not take place until at least 2010, with Bertarelli giving himself every advantage. The new trimaran wouldn’t be raced, but neither would it be a complete loss. It could be retooled to tackle the outright speed record for sailing—nearly 60 mph—or have an event designed around it, Ehman said. But if Ellison wins and he and Bertarelli do go head-to-head, the race’s pre-start jockeying will be spectacular. That’s when two fragile monsters would aim directly at one another and accelerate to a closing speed of nearly 90 miles per hour—the agents of two feuding billionaires.

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