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The Billionaire and the Mechanic: How Larry Ellison and a Car Mechanic Teamed up to Win Sailing's Greatest Race, the Americas Cup, Twice

The Billionaire and the Mechanic: How Larry Ellison and a Car Mechanic Teamed up to Win Sailing's Greatest Race, the Americas Cup, Twice

by Julian Guthrie
The Billionaire and the Mechanic: How Larry Ellison and a Car Mechanic Teamed up to Win Sailing's Greatest Race, the Americas Cup, Twice

The Billionaire and the Mechanic: How Larry Ellison and a Car Mechanic Teamed up to Win Sailing's Greatest Race, the Americas Cup, Twice

by Julian Guthrie


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Expanded to include the behind-the-scenes story of the 34th America’s Cup and Team USA’s incredible comeback

Down eight-to-one in the 34th America’s Cup in September 2013, Oracle Team USA pulled off a comeback for the ages, with eight straight wins against Emirates Team New Zealand. Julian Guthrie’s The Billionaire and the Mechanic tells the incredible story of how a car mechanic and one of the world’s richest men teamed up to win the world’s greatest race. With a lengthy new section on the 34th America’s Cup, Guthrie also shows how they did it again.

The America’s Cup, first awarded in 1851, is the oldest trophy in international sports. In 2000, Larry Ellison, co-founder and billionaire CEO of Oracle Corporation, decided to run for the prize and found an unlikely partner in Norbert Bajurin, a car mechanic and Commodore of the blue-collar Golden Gate Yacht Club. After unsuccessful runs for the Cup in 2003 and 2007, they won for the first time in 2010. With unparalleled access to Ellison and his team, Guthrie takes readers inside the building process of these astonishing boats and the lives of the athletes who race them and throws readers into exhilarating races from Australia to Valencia.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802121363
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 04/01/2014
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 534,096
Product dimensions: 8.20(w) x 5.40(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Julian Guthrie is an award-winning journalist and staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle. She is the author of The Grace of Everyday Saints: How a Band of Believers Lost Their Church and Found Their Faith. She lives in Mill Valley, California.

Read an Excerpt


The Southern Ocean

Between Australia and Tasmania

December 1998

Sleek, white, and beautiful, Sayonara sailed toward the Southern Ocean, a stretch of sea that circles Antarctica and is home to the world's most treacherous waves. Larry Ellison, at the wheel of his eighty-two-foot, twenty-five-ton maxi yacht, was doing over twenty knots downwind. Feeling the dense air on his face and watching the humidity press against Sayonara's massive mainsail and spinnaker, Larry marveled, "Even Sayonara isn't supposed to go this fast." His boat began to plane, her bow lifting and the stern skimming the water, an angle the carbon fiber rocket was not designed for and had never done. Something was wrong.

In his red foul-weather gear and gray Sayonara cap, Larry looked at Brad Butterworth, a New Zealander with a gentle smile, thick hair, and a cache of major trophies. "Sayonara doesn't plane," Larry said incredulously. "It's great to go so fast, but this is surreal." They were twelve hours into one of the world's most competitive sailboat races and were sailing so fast they were already ahead of where the race record holder had been in twenty-four hours.

Larry and his team of twenty-two men — a who's who of professional sailors and a smattering of notables, including Lachlan Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch's son — had left Sydney harbor on the afternoon of Saturday, December 26, in the running of the fifty-fourth annual Sydney-to-Hobart race. It was the height of summer in Australia and the sun shone brilliantly on the hundreds of thousands of people who lined the shore to watch the start. Sayonara, with her pristine white spinnaker with the red Japanese sun stamped in the middle — Larry's design — took an early lead in the 628-nautical-mile race due south to the island of Tasmania along the Tasman Sea.

Larry, the fifty-four-year-old cofounder and CEO of Oracle Corporation and a billionaire thirty times over, won the race in 1995 and had driven Sayonara to three consecutive maxi yacht world championships since. He wanted to see just how much better a sailor he had become. It will be an interesting test, he told himself of his second Sydney-to-Hobart. There was a clarity to be found in sports that couldn't be had in business. At Oracle he still wanted to beat the rivals IBM and Microsoft, but business was a marathon without end; there was always another quarter. In sports, the buzzer sounds and time runs out. Quarterback Joe Montana, with fifty-eight seconds left on the clock, throws a high pass to the back of the end zone and Dwight Clark makes a leaping grab with his fingertips, winning the NFC Championship against the Dallas Cowboys. Muhammad Ali endures seven rounds of pummeling by a younger and stronger George Foreman before knocking Foreman out in the eighth round, regaining the Heavyweight Championship of the World title. Michael Jordan nails his buzzer-beating jump shot against the Utah Jazz to win his sixth championship. Game over. Winner declared.

By early Sunday morning, December 27, the second day of the race, Sayonara blazed into the southeast corner of Australia, where the open ocean waves grow bigger and stronger, unimpeded by any mass of land. The wind had built continuously with gusts now approaching forty-five knots (about fifty-two miles per hour) and the sky had grown darker. Before the race the Australian Bureau of Meteorology had issued a gale warning, so sailors knew things could get rough. But Larry and most of the men on board had weathered similar winds in the 1995 race.

Sayonara was getting close to Bass Strait, the waters separating Australia from Tasmania, where the shallow sea bottom kicks up waves like surf and swells hit from all directions. Suddenly, a violent gust of over fifty knots accelerated Sayonara, and Larry angled her farther downwind to ease the pressure on her sails and rigging. But it was too late. The huge nylon spinnaker resembling the Japanese flag was shredded like a cotton sheet. With the wind becoming stronger and less predictable, the call was made to hoist the strongest spinnaker — nicknamed "the mini"— they had on board. "That sail is indestructible," Larry said confidently as Sayonara sliced through the whitecaps.

Stress focused the billionaire daredevil, who did aerobatics for fun, surfed in storms in Hawaii — he once broke his neck and the injury nearly left him a paraplegic — and had taken Oracle back from the brink of bankruptcy more than once. He was the world's fifth-wealthiest person just two decades after facing foreclosure on his own home and having his water and electricity turned off because he couldn't pay the bills. His hobbies, by his own admission, were a constant search for alternative stress. He had the same feeling now aboard Sayonara as when he'd landed his Italian Marchetti jet fighter on the 2,600-foot-long runway of the Bay Area's tiny San Carlos Airport: it concentrated his mind, forcing him into the present; and landing a jet on such a short runway was something his friend Steve Jobs had told him couldn't be done.

Sailing directly south on this Sunday morning, Sayonara was pounded by another massive gust and the impossible happened: the indestructible sail broke. The bronze fitting, with heavy threads almost two feet deep in the carbon fiber, had been extruded out of the spinnaker pole and the mini was swinging through the air like loose laundry. Gripping the wheel, Larry wondered, What kind of force does that?

Sayonara was now entering Bass Strait, ninety-five miles long and twice as wide and rough as the English Channel. Like the Bermuda Triangle, the Bass Strait had a mythical reputation; nicknamed the Black Hole, it was a place where vessels were lost or shipwrecked, where boats were snapped like twigs.

The gale force winds abruptly dropped, and the wind direction slowly clocked around from behind Sayonara to directly in front of her. The storm seemed to vanish as the wind calmed to less than ten knots. Butterworth and Larry, along with Sayonara's thirty-four-year-old boat manager Bill Erkelens, debated putting up the big heavy jib. Larry was in favor but Butterworth wanted to wait and sail Sayonara through the transition zone, the area where the northerly winds were changing to apparently mild southerlies, with only her mainsail up. They waited for ten minutes, until Larry was convinced they'd passed through the worst of the storm front. He made the call to hoist the jib, turned the wheel over to Butterworth, and headed to the navigation station at the back of the boat. He lowered himself into the hatch and took a seat on the cushioned bench before two adjacent laptops and a panel of communications equipment, warming his hands as he waited for satellite images to appear on-screen. As the first of the pictures filled a screen Larry's eyes grew wide. "Have you ever seen anything like this?" he asked.

Mark Rudiger, Sayonara's navigator and a member of the sailing team that had just won the grueling Whitbread Round the World Race, studied the milky images and slowly shook his head.

Looking at the swirling frothy cyclonic cloud with a plus sign in the center, Larry answered his own question: "Well, I have. It was on the Weather Channel and it's called a hurricane. That plus sign is us. We are in the eye of a fucking hurricane."

Back up on deck, Larry heard Butterworth screaming out commands. "It's coming hard guys! Everybody, get that jib down now!" It took about two minutes for the wind to go from under ten knots to back up over thirty. Five minutes later it was a solid fifty knots. Now, the situation was far worse than before. Sayonara was sailing at a speed of ten knots into the wind rather than going nearly twenty knots with the wind. The apparent wind speed over the deck had increased to sixty knots and the boat was heeling — leaning over — forty degrees. It was suddenly difficult and dangerous to move around on deck.

One by one, the men went below, grabbed their harnesses, and scrambled out of the hatch and back up on deck, where they cabled themselves to the boat to keep from being blown overboard. Moving around on deck involved unclipping one of the two Kevlar cables attached to the harness, then clipping on to a new location, then unclipping the other cable, and so on — slowly, methodically — like a rock climber.

Chris Dickson, who was Sayonara's skipper — in charge of the boat and crew during a race — and one of the world's top sailors but a notoriously difficult boss, yelled at the men. Before leaving the dock in Sydney, the New Zealander had made the team go through rig testing and man-overboard drills. The men grumbled, saying it was a beautiful day, and they resisted, noting that Sydney harbor was full of sharks. Dickson wasn't one for excuses. Men went overboard and every bit of gear was tested and retested. Dickson had been in storms, and he had even sailed in hurricanes, but in boats strong enough to withstand the punishment. Asking Sayonara to hold up in a hurricane was like asking a Formula One car to race off-road.

Dickson listened to talk of possibly turning back and abandoning the race. He too wished he were somewhere else. But they were on their own, with no one to help them. Going back would be just as treacherous as sailing forward. With the hurricane upon them, waves like walls pounded Sayonara's sides. Dickson, who had learned to sail as a kid and was the world's match racing champion by the time he was a teenager, started vomiting. Other sailors followed suit.

Larry was sure that there was no turning back and that conditions would worsen as they headed south, going into the latitudes seafarers call the roaring forties. The winds gusted up to sixty-five knots now, with a dissonant, bitter hissing and wailing — far more dangerous than the gale warnings that race officials had issued. The rain pummeled them in sheets. Larry was somewhere he'd never been before. The sky, the sea, the sounds — everything was off, otherworldly. Trying to lighten the mood he told Butterworth, "This is how I choose to spend my Christmas holiday? It's costing me a lot of money to die here in Bass Strait. How stupid is that!"

Larry's boatbuilder Mark Turner, nicknamed "Tugsy" and "Tugboat," had dropped out of school at age fifteen in New Zealand to learn the craft of boatbuilding. Now he was down below making his way around Sayonara with a red marker.

"Tugsy, what the hell are you doing?" Larry asked.

"I'm marking where the carbon fiber is delaminating," Tugsy said calmly, his blue eyes flashing and his cheeks glowing red from being on deck in the wind and rain. "Different layers are snapping and breaking apart. The boat is in pretty bad shape."

"What!" Larry replied in disbelief. "The bow is coming off? That's just fucking great."

Tugsy had been in bad storms before, delivering boats for Larry and others, but he'd never been in a hurricane. Sailors didn't train for hurricanes, because they weren't supposed to be in hurricanes. Sayonara was being slammed, her parts groaning and wailing under the pressure loads. Tugsy, watchful, laconic, and deeply loyal to the boat and to Larry, was going to do whatever it took to keep Sayonara together. From his earliest days he had loved boats, whether images of mangrove rafts or thin-shelled dugouts made from fallen trees and used in man's first voyages on water or the sleek white thoroughbred he was now charged with protecting.

Time slowed, and even blinking felt like a luxury. There was no way off the boat and fear accomplished nothing. The rain stung like needles entering the skin. Larry, usually impervious to motion sickness — he was fond of rolling and looping his jet fighter — started vomiting too. Throwing up repeatedly while trying to steer Sayonara through the storm, he heard someone say, "Are you okay, mate?"

Larry thought to himself, Not really.

The radios were now down and all communications cut off. They had been shorted out by a water leak early in the race. Larry thought about what would happen if the boat got knocked down or rolled. Sailors could be trapped under the boat; water would rush on board. Losing the rudder or breaking the bow would end things. If they sank they'd have at most thirty minutes of life in the frigid sea. Larry, who lived in homes where every detail was perfect, where shoes were removed before entering to protect fine wood floors and minimize dirt, where cars were kept in temperature-controlled garages, where fresh flower arrangements were works of art, was in a world where money could not buy safety. He scanned the black void — not a single star could be seen and even the bow was hard to make out — and he berated himself again: What kind of idiot comes out here to be fish food?

The storm raged through the night and Larry, Butterworth, Erkelens, Robbie Naismith, Joey Allen, and Tony Rae took turns at the wheel, making their way around the yacht clip move by clip move. Mike "Moose" Howard, Sayonara's 250-pound grinder, an All-American linebacker at USC and marine combat veteran, had declared it was combat time with the sea.

Larry knew that the longer a hurricane lasts, the bigger the waves get. At the crest of the forty-foot waves, seventy-knot winds struck Sayonara. Perched at the top of a steep wave, lashed by the wind, Sayonara would free-fall — one, one thousand; two, one thousand; three, one thousand — off the crest and crash-land in a trough as welcoming as asphalt. There, in the relative calm, the wind would drop to forty knots. Then the next wave, another four-story giant, would hit, sending the boat airborne and into the next stomach-turning free fall. Larry watched in awe as Allen and Naismith drilled and patched an aluminum plate to Sayonara's main boom, which had bent like a straw in the storm. Their task was like trying to repair a car while riding a roller coaster.

Thirty-six hours into the storm Larry struggled with dehydration and exhaustion. Trying to sleep only made things worse. As the boat went for another free fall so did the men in the narrow carbon fiber bunks, which could be angled into a V with side pulleys to prevent them from falling out. Larry always kept a stash of Snickers bars and cans of sardines for sailing races, but there was no hope of eating on this voyage. Even a sip of water came back up. In a lighter moment, Larry joked about the perils of trying to go to the bathroom in a hurricane. It was pitch black down below and every time the boat hit a wave he went flying through the air and crashed into a bulkhead. "I could easily have broken my neck," he said. "Now that would have been an embarrassing way to die."

Back on deck, Larry eyed the roiling sea and had an idea. Sayonara was on starboard tack, with the waves crashing into her right side. Larry told Rudiger he wanted to switch to port tack.

"It's a better wave angle and I want to get into the lee of Flinders Island," Larry said, aware that it's the waves that kill sailors, not the winds. "The closer we are to the island, the more the waves will be blocked."

"I'm not sure it's the right thing to do for the race," Rudiger said. "I'm going to have to check with Chris."

"Mark," Larry shot back. "Let me be clear. I want to tack the boat. That means we're tacking the boat. Do you think sinking is the right thing to do for the race?"

Erkelens agreed that it wasn't the right thing to do for the race — it would put them off course for the finish — but it was the best thing to try to salvage the boat, and save lives.

Tacking the boat shifted their course by sixty degrees. The waves didn't get smaller but Sayonara began to take the hits directly on the bow rather than the side of the boat. The pounding was reduced and the ride was less violent. Heading closer to Flinders Island, at the northeastern tip of Tasmania, Larry took inventory: two men had broken bones, a fire had ignited in the navigation station when the electronics got wet and shorted, and his boat was bruised and beaten. But everyone was alive and accounted for. Tacking the boat had made a critical difference.

On the morning of the third day the sun was just coming up as Sayonara entered the Derwent River, an estuary leading to the capital of Tasmania. A salmon-pink light cut through the mauve morning sky. The crew of Sayonara, the first to reach the Derwent, was welcomed by a small powerboat with a man on board playing Scottish Highland bagpipes, the traditional welcome for the winning boat. On this day, the songs were funereal: "When the Battle Is Over," "O for a Closer Walk with God," "Amazing Grace." The wind was a whisper, blowing at less than eight knots. Larry and his crew were in the river valley, and wildflowers, fern, and towering trees carpeted deep-cut canyons with red dirt ridges. The wildflowers in shades of blue, white, purple, crimson, and heather were bathed in soft pink light. Larry closed his eyes for a moment, listening to the somber sounds of the bagpipe and to the waves gently lapping at the sides of the boat. The air was perfectly calm; the waves like a reassuring heartbeat. The glory of life was theirs.


Excerpted from "The Billionaire and the Mechanic"
by .
Copyright © 2014 Julian Guthrie.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Part I

1 The Southern Ocean 3

2 Radiator Repair Shop in San Francisco 14

3 The Island of Antigua 19

4 San Francisco Marina 31

5 Woodside, California 39

6 St. Francis Yacht Club 47

7 The Golden Gate Yacht Club 55

8 The Golden Gate Yacht Club 64

Part II

9 The Hills of Santa Barbara 77

10 Atherton, California 85

11 San Francisco to New Zealand 94

12 Oracle Base Camp 107

13 Redwood Shores, California 110

14 San Francisco Bay 138

15 Newport, Rhode Island 148

16 Valencia, Spain 154

17 South of Market, San Francisco 160

18 Valencia, Spain 166

Part III

19 Woodside, California 183

20 Woodside, California 195

21 Bangkok, Thailand, to Cagliari, Italy 212

22 Anacortes,Washington 232

23 San Diego, California 239

24 Valencia, Spain 245

25 Valencia to San Francisco 266

26 Rancho Mirage, California 271

27 Moscone Center, San Francisco 286

28 Alouis Radiators, San Francisco 290

29 Stanford University, California 294

Part IV

30 San Francisco Bay 305

31 The 34th America's Cup-A Very Rough Start 330

32 The Comeback 367

Epilogue: The 35th America's Cup 399

Appendix: The America's Cup Races 405

Author's Note 409

Acknowledgments 413

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