The biggest America’s Cup since 1983?

America's Cup 2013 - OracleThe Americas Cup – in case you’ve had your head under a rock for the past few weeks – was won by the US team, beating the NZ yacht in what’s been billed as an historic comeback from being 8-1 down to winning eight races straight to clinch the title. It’s probably fair to say that this year has been the highest profile race since our own Alan Bond snatched the cup away from the US for the first time in its 162 year history, thirty years ago (almost to the day) in 1983. The famous day that Prime Minister Bob Hawke said “Any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum.

Oracle boss Larry Ellison (we featured his yacht here) was the prime mover in the US, backing a change of venue from the normal course on the open sea into San Francisco Bay, where the race could be watched by spectators on shore. The other change was the introduction of powerful hydroplaning yachts capable of speeds in excess of 80kmh.

The viewing results speak for themselves – the competition was broadcast in 190 countries with 15,000 news bulletins around the world. Over a quarter of the entire population of New Zealand watched the live stream.

Ellison has been a yachtie for a long time, and not just since he made the money to join the club – before he founded Oracle he lived on a very modest yacht moored in Berkeley Marina in California. He had to sell it to raise the cash (pity Aussie Boat Loans weren’t around then to help him with boat finance). Before the race he took a lot of criticism for all the changes, giving him an even greater sense of achievement when the home team came through, saying “this regatta has changed sailing forever.”

Quite coincidentally we’re sure, Oracle held its annual conference at the San Francisco Conference Centre where 60,000 delegates were kept up-to-speed on the competition with live TV coverage beamed into the lounges. Nobody could have missed the analogy between the result on the water and Ellison’s challenge in his business where smaller, faster competitors are chipping away at the number three software company’s position.

Back in 1983 the US yacht faced a challenge from Alan Bond’s Australia II, which had been fitted with a controversial and revolutionary new keel design. The US skipper, Dennis Conner was acutely aware of what was at stake – the US’s unbeaten run of wins since the competition was first held around the Isle of Wight in 1851. The win by Australia II was a terrible moment for Conner, forever etched in history as the American skipper who lost the cup. Many years later though, he came to realise the loss was probably the best thing to happen for the competition and for sail competitions in general.

He said “me losing the Cup in 1983 was the best thing that ever happened to the America’s Cup and the best thing that ever happened to Dennis Conner. Before the win by the Australians, the America’s Cup was only big in the minds of the yachties, but the rest of the world didn’t know or care about it at all. But when we lost it… it was a little bit like losing the Panama Canal – suddenly everyone appreciated it. If I hadn’t lost it, there never would have been the national effort… without that there never would have been the ticker tape parade up 5th Avenue in New York, lunch with the President at the White House and all the doors of opportunity that it opened…”

Let’s hope that the $36M the New Zealand government sunk into the bid turns out to be a similar “investment”.

Image credit: Robert Couse-Baker

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