When Charlie Rose asked Oracle CTO and former CEO Larry Ellison last year why he had to win the America’s Cup yacht race for the second time in a row, Ellison replied, “It’s funny, because I realised after losing twice that my personality wouldn’t allow me to quit while losing. And then after winning the America’s Cup, I discovered my personality doesn’t allow me to quit while winning! I don’t smoke, but I do sail.”
Ellison didn’t get into the boat alongside his US Team Oracle as he did in 2010, but as team sponsor and manager he led the team to its second victory in 2013.
That second victory was actually one of the greatest comebacks in sports history, with Team Oracle USA winning eight races in a row to steal the victory from Team Emirates New Zealand. Ellison made it clear from the beginning that he expected his team to win.
When Team Oracle’s crew walked into their training compound each day, they had to pass the hull of Ellison’s boat that won the 2010 America’s Cup. They did cardio and weight training underneath the boat’s sail.With the 35th America’s Cup scheduled for sometime in 2017, Ellison has victory in his sights once again, proving that total domination of the sport of elite international yacht racing — from winning the America’s Cup to pushing competitors to ditch sailboats for futuristic-looking, advanced vehicles — is a natural extension of his legendary drive to win at all costs.
A Love Of The Sea
Ellison enrolled at a sailing course taught at the University of California shortly after he moved to the state in 1966 at the age of 22. At 25, he bought a 34-foot-long racing sloop, a single mast sailboat, according to About Sports.
I don’t smoke, but I do sail.
Ellison didn’t respond to our request for comment, but he’s previously said that,”I was passionate about sailing and the idea of sailing … the idyllic independence … travelling with the wind.”
He had to sell the boat after a few years because he became too busy building his company Software Development Laboratories, founded in 1977. SDL eventually adopted the name of its flagship Oracle product in 1982. Oracle went public in 1986, making Ellison $US93 million from his 39% stake in the company.
The popularity of Ellison’s enterprise software company allowed him to grow his fortune exponentially. Today, Ellison is 70 years old and worth an estimated $US48.7 billion, according to Forbes, making him the fifth richest man in the world.
His fortune has allowed Ellison the chance to not only buy a Hawaiian island, fighter jet, Bugatti, and luxury yacht, but it also allowed him to get back into sailing.
In the 1990s, he bought a 78-foot racing sailboat he named Sayonara and started competing at a high level. Ellison’s skills as a yachtsman and team leader shined, winning him five Maxi World Championships.
But in 1998, Ellison skippered his boat through a race that was so traumatizing, he swore off open ocean races forever. He won that competition, too, but he told the Courier Mail that he didn’t actually “win,” but just happened to be the first to survive.
That December, Sayonara and 114 other yacht teams entered the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race off the coast of Australia. A hurricane developed during the race, and only 44 boats made it to Hobart. Twenty-four boats were abandoned and 55 sailors rescued. Six sailors drowned.
Ellison told the Courier Mail in 2008 that he’s never forgotten the race. The storm’s winds were so powerful that Sayonara was practically flying — but not in a good way. “After what was a beautiful day on Sydney Harbour the wind got more intense and the skies slowly, slowly darkened and I remember after 12 hours we were further ahead than the record holder was in 24 hours,” Ellison said.
His brush with death may have gotten him to swear off races on the open ocean, but he was far from ending his love of sailing.
In Pursuit Of The Cup
Ellison’s next sailing objective was to win the America’s Cup, a yacht race founded in 1851, which generally takes place every three or four years. He put together Team Oracle in 2003 and partnered with BMW the next year. In both ’03 and ’07, Ellison’s team lost in the America’s Cup qualifying competition, the Louis Vuitton Cup, reaching the finals the first time and the semi-finals the second.
Things got complicated in 2010 leading up to the 33rd America’s Cup, but Ellison’s tenacity brought him victory.
Because Louis Vuitton temporarily ended its affiliation with the America’s Cup for the 2010 race, reigning champion Alinghi from Switzerland could choose its challenger. It selected a Spanish club that was determined by a judge to be fraudulent — a new team created solely for the purpose of keeping the Swiss victorious and having Alinghi agree to keep the race, and its tax revenue, in Valencia.
Ellison was the first in the yacht racing community to file a lawsuit against Alinghi, and after a long and complicated court battle, it was determined that BMW Oracle Racing would be Alinghi’s official competitor in the America’s Cup in a special best out of only three races.
Ellison, in the role of afterguard, led BMW Oracle Racing to two straight wins.
As the challenger, Ellison now had the power to determine where the 34th America’s Cup would be held and what boats were going to be used, and by the end of 2010 BMW stopped sponsoring the team, giving Ellison full control. Ellison decided that the races would be held in the San Francisco Bay, and that instead of a traditional catamaran, the teams would compete in AC72s, which look more like Michael Bay’s Transformers than a sailboat.
Ellison acted as principal backer and visionary for the team rather than an actual sailor, since these 72-foot-long beasts with 13-story-tall, 3,000-pound wings require elite athletes to operate. The boats require five “grinders” in charge of rapidly operating pulleys, and all 11 sailors need to run and jump across a trampoline-like net from side to side of the boat according to where the wind is blowing. The AC72s reach speeds of nearly 50 mph (compared to closer to 15 mph) and appear to fly over the water.
In his 2013 interview with Charlie Rose, Ellison explained that it was all part of his initiative to revolutionise the sport. “We’ve got to modernize it. It can’t be unchanged since 1851,” he said, adding that it will not only keep it exciting but keep it relevant to a younger generation.
We’ve got to modernize [the sport]. It can’t be unchanged since 1851.
Not everyone was convinced. Critics in the sailing community pointed out that a challenger would need to spend $US100 million to compete, a price they considered overblown. And in a training accident in the Bay, Swedish team Artemis member Andrew Simpson died when one of the boats capsized.
And then Team Oracle got caught using illegal modifications to their smaller AC45 models they used in the preliminary competition, America’s Cup World Series. Two sailors were banned from the America’s Cup and Team Oracle started the best of 17 series with negative two points.
The Need To Win
By the end of the Cup, it was hard to notice the controversy preceding it because Team Oracle USA’s win over Team Emirates New Zealand was so incredible.
At the start of the twelfth race, Oracle was down 8-1, putting Team Emirates one win away from humiliating Ellison’s team on his own turf. And then they won eight races in a row, putting them down in history as achieving one of the greatest comebacks in all of sports.
It is notable that Team Oracle’s tactician for races 6-19 was British Olympian Sir Ben Ainslie, the winningest Olympic sailor of all time. The Telegraph’s Tom Cary noted that since it’s a team sport, it’s impossible to measure just how much of an impact Ainslie’s expertise had on the team, but it’s no denying that his “absolutely ruthless” approach played a major role in the comeback.
“All 11 guys on the boat believed we could do it,” skipper Jimmy Spithill told an America’s Cup reporter. “We just wanted it. We knew we could pull it off.”
After the win, Ellison hopped on a powerboat and met the team on its ship. “Do you guys know what you just did? You just won the America’s Cup!” he told the team, the Wall Street Journal reports.
Today the team is preparing for the 2017 America’s Cup, which will be cheaper for entrants and will use the more manageable and affordable AC62s.
After stepping down as Oracle CEO in mid-September, Ellison as CTO has been more focused on developing and marketing Oracle’s cloud computing services.
But when the America’s Cup rolls around, his winning addiction will kick into overdrive and his sights will be set on winning race after race — plain and simple.
NOW WATCH: Business Insider’s Christina Sterbenz spends an intense weekend sailing around lower Manhattan: