SAN FRANCISCO -- Larry Ellison was a novice sailor in his 20s, fresh to California from his home in Chicago, when he borrowed a small dinghy from the Cal Sailing Club in Berkeley -- a Lido 14 that he describes as no more seaworthy than a Tupperware container. Sailing it way outside the club boundaries, right under the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, he panicked.
Out there -- as his Oracle Team USA would find decades later -- winds can blow at 40 knots. Tides can pull you in and toss you out. Waves roil. Boats break.
"If God lets me back in alive," he said, recounting the story from San Francisco City Hall after winning the 2010 America's Cup, "I will never do this again."
When it comes to sailing, Ellison has been to the brink -- and back.
The journey of the self-made billionaire through sailing's hierarchy -- both San Francisco Bay's and the world's -- has been marked by daring and defiance. Along the way, he has remade the very nature of the 162-year-old international regatta from a graceful highbrow sport to a death-defying drag race. To ensure his control, he famously shunned the venerable St. Francis Yacht Club and embraced the blue-collar Golden Gate Yacht Club down the jetty that now flies its burgee over the 34th America's Cup.
On the eve of the Cup's final match, the epic vision of the thrill-seeker will be put to the ultimate test.
Unlike his past campaigns, the 69-year-old Ellison won't be racing aboard Oracle Team USA's high-tech 72-foot catamaran. He had considered crewing, telling this newspaper last spring he was getting in shape to endure the rigors of the fastest boat in America's Cup history. Ultimately he decided to leave the racing to the young professionals -- but the vision to transform the sport is pure Ellison.
The finals that start Saturday must overcome months of tragedy, hyperbole and scandal to redeem Ellison's America's Cup. If Oracle Team USA loses, Emirates Team New Zealand will strip Ellison of the gleaming silver trophy and move the next America's Cup regatta back to Auckland.
"It's funny, I realized after losing the America's Cup twice, my personality didn't allow me to quit while I'm losing," Ellison told Charlie Rose in a televised interview last month. "After winning the America's Cup, I discovered my personality doesn't allow me to quit while I'm winning. So I'm kind of trapped. I just can't quit."
On the steps of the grand, red-carpeted staircase of San Francisco City Hall in early 2011, Larry Ellison stood in his black turtleneck and sport jacket next to the America's Cup trophy he had just won in Spain. He told then-Mayor Gavin Newsom and the crowd of VIPs that the regatta he would bring to San Francisco in 2013 would be unlike any in the history of the cup. Never before have spectators been able to watch the races from shore.
"We're holding this cup in the San Francisco Bay, the most spectacular natural amphitheater for sailing that God created on this Earth," he said.
"And hundreds of thousand of people will be able to watch these races whether they're from Crissy Field, office buildings in downtown San Francisco, over in Sausalito or anyplace on the shoreline."
What he uttered next, however, would come to taunt him: "I believe we'll have more than 14 teams, 16 teams here representing more than a dozen countries throughout the world."
With the international economy tanking and costs to build the catamarans skyrocketing, only three challengers signed up -- a reality that has soured the event for many of its backers. The challenger series that started in July was marred by the tragic capsize of the Swedish team Artemis Racing, which killed a beloved crewman, and an early boycott by the Italian team Luna Rossa Challenge, which complained the regatta was rigged against it.
And just this week, defending champion Oracle Team USA received the harshest punishment in the history of the cup for improperly adding extra weight to its smaller boats in a warm-up series last year. The defending champion will start the ultimate match on Saturday docked two races.
For Ellison, a man who spent his career getting his way both on and off the water, the event he envisioned has been spinning almost out of control.
But what happens over the next week or so could change all that.
"Larry is really a driven person, white line fever," said Norbert Bajurin, commodore of the Golden Gate Yacht Club and owner of a radiator repair shop. "If he wants to do something, he won't stop until it's done."
Trained on the bay
Ellison, perhaps the most competitive businessman in Silicon Valley, didn't develop his confidence in the boardroom alone. He earned it on the bay.
At the volunteer-based Cal Sailing in the mid-1960s, Neil Larson taught Ellison advanced sailing skills on Thursday afternoons. He taught the young man how to sail the Lido 14 without a rudder, how to sail backward and to hang out over the water by his knees to keep the boat from tipping. He taught Ellison how to capsize, then right himself.
"He was talented and a fast learner," said Larson, who would go on to a successful tech career himself.
If Ellison sailed under the Golden Gate, as he told the crowd at City Hall that night, he didn't tell Larson. "You'd have to be a heck of a sailor to go out and try something like that," Larson said.
Still, he said, he was disappointed when Ellison left the program. While the young man was never one to hang out and barbecue with the sailing group on weekends,"I thought he would be an asset to the club, but he disappeared."
Soon, Ellison was building the company that would become Oracle.
Some three decades would pass before Ellison re-entered the sailing world. In 1994, a neighbor in Woodside suggested Ellison get into big boat racing and referred him to East Bay sailor Bill Erkelens. "A big boat to him was like buying a pair of roller skates," said Erkelens, who presented Ellison a set of plans for the 80-foot Sayonara. "But it turned out to be quite a big thing for him."
On Sayonara over the next decade, Ellison gained both confidence and humility.
In one of his first races, Ellison was reluctant to take the helm in a "maxi yacht" race in the San Francisco Bay against a group of blue-blood billionaires. The other skippers, including rival businessman Hasso Plattner, threatened to race without Ellison's boat if he didn't.
"I think he was just nervous," Erkelens said. "He tended to hire very good people to do their jobs. He wanted everything to go as planned."
But a different reaction proved more powerful, Erkelens said. "He felt they didn't respect him."
Erkelens and the sailing crew convinced Ellison to take the helm.
"He won and won by a lot," Erkelens said. "He really started enjoying it after that."
On board, "he is fully engaged and one of the guys, chitchats, and tells funny stories," Erkelens said. "It's not the business personality people love to hate, the aggressive warrior businessman."
In 1999, Ellison learned a lesson of survival during the infamous Sydney-Hobart race, where a hurricane ravaged 155 boats and killed six sailors. Sayonara limped into the harbor in first place, but the crew was happy just to be alive.
"I think we do things like the Syndey-Hobart because we're ... always kind of curious if we can stack up," he told members of the St. Francis Yacht Club in a speech a month later. "The most important lesson of the race for me is that life is short. Life is fragile."
And Ellison wasted no time.
The very next year he was planning his first bid for the America's Cup, and came to loggerheads with the St. Francis, which everyone assumed would be the team's sponsoring club.
The reason? Control. Ellison wanted it. The club wouldn't allow it. In one conflict, the Oracle CEO wanted to name his boat after his company. Some St. Francis board members considered that "too commercial."
The club balked and Ellison walked -- right down the spit to the Golden Gate Yacht Club, which was near bankruptcy before Ellison arrived.
For both Ellison and Golden Gate's Bajurin, the move has often seemed like a triumph in the years since. Last summer, before all the troubles began, when the warm-up "America's Cup World Series" was under way in smaller catamarans, the two of them stood side by side on the club dock and scanned the packed jetty and crowded Marina Green.
"Look at all the people," Bajurin recalls Ellison saying. "This is amazing. This is what we wanted."
And that's what he wants again, starting Saturday, hundreds of thousands of exuberant fans lining the shoreline watching the best sailors compete in the fastest boats.
But he wants one thing even more. He wants to win.
Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409.