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Rotarians hear tales of America's Cup drama

Oracle Corp. co-founder and CEO Larry Ellison spent more than $100 million in his quest to win the 34th America’s Cup sailing yacht competition. Was it worth it?

Julian Guthrie, San Francisco Chronicle reporter and author of “The Billionaire and the Mechanic: How Larry Ellison and a Car Mechanic Teamed Up to Win Sailing’s Greatest Race, The America’s Cup” (Grove Press, 2013), described the behind-the-scenes drama that led to Oracle Team USA’s comeback victory for a Rotary Club of Los Altos audience Jan. 30.

Guthrie portrayed Ellison’s America’s Cup win as “great narrative with great characters and great drama.”

Ellison said $100 million was too much to spend to lose the race, so there was much relief when he won the race in September on San Francisco Bay.

Bypassing the elite St. Francis Yacht Club, to which he belonged, as a race sponsor, Ellison sought greater control over his boat and team, according to Guthrie. He headed down to the end of the pier, searching for Norbert Bajurin, commodore of the cash-strapped Golden Gate Yacht Club, to become official sponsor of the Oracle team. Bajurin ran his family’s radiator repair shop and loved sailing, but his yacht club was mired in debt and housed in a dilapidated ferryboat.

The unlikely pairing of the billionaire and the blue-collar mechanic resulted in sponsorship, financing, technical expertise and what proved to be a superb team, Guthrie said.

Oracle had the best-funded team in the race, the best sailors and world-class engineers, Guthrie noted. Their yacht’s 230-foot-tall sail proved the largest wingsail ever built on land or sea. New technologies and graphite fibers made this a sort of “space race,” she added, with constantly evolving innovations.

When Ellison’s crew fell behind in the competition, Las Vegas oddsmakers gave them only a 700-to-1 chance of a comeback, but Oracle Team USA beat the long odds, overtaking Emirates Team New Zealand to surprise naysayers with an epic victory. Ellison and Bajurin brought the America’s Cup back to the U.S. for the first time in 15 years and for the first time on San Francisco Bay.

Guthrie said that even though the race was not an economic boon for San Francisco, it transformed a “rich man’s sport” into a spectacle for the crowds who lined the Bay’s shore. The 35th America’s Cup race, scheduled in 2017, is in its planning stages. One of the goals is to limit boats to a smaller size, thus creating a less-expensive race with more contenders.

Guthrie learned a few life lessons while researching and publishing her book. Among them: Never give up, and “no” doesn’t always mean “no” – it took three months before she received her first response from Ellison.

“Life’s greatest lessons can come from the biggest mistakes,” she said, noting how Ellison had previously failed twice to win the America’s Cup by using the wrong boat and the wrong leader.

For more information on Guthrie, visit JulianGuthriesf.com.

Marlene Cowan is a member of the Rotary Club of Los Altos. For more information, visit LosAltosRotary.org.

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