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As Bill Koch Is Proving, You Can Buy Happiness

May 15, 1992|DAVE DISTEL

Bill Koch, after all those years of frustration, is on the brink of fulfilling a lifelong dream.


Should America 3 wrap up the America's Cup and deliver it to the San Diego Yacht Club Saturday afternoon, Koch will be fulfilling a dream of, oh, maybe eight years.

That's how long he has been sailing, at least seriously.

Eight years?

That pales in comparison with how many years Jerry Brown has dreamed of being president. Maybe Moonbeam should have taken a shining in a different direction. Maybe that will be Koch's next direction.

Ah, the splendor money can buy.

William Ingraham Koch, 52, is about to hit the pinnacle of the sport of yachting. A lot of guys get there after eight years as grinders or trimmers, but he's getting there as a skipper. The difference is that you don't have to pay dues if you pay for the boat.

Koch is not A3's only skipper, to be sure. Dave Dellenbaugh does the prestart chores, Buddy Melges takes over until the reaching legs, Koch zips it through the zig-zag and then Melges wraps it up. However, Koch is a focal point if not the focal point in the A3 afterguard.

And who is to say he is wrong?

Il Moro di Venezia's Raul Gardini, for one, has suggested driving should be left to the professionals. He spent heaven knows how many lire to mount his campaign and the last thing he wanted was to have to drive the damned boat. He goes along as the 17th man and lets Paul Cayard chauffeur him around the course.

However, in the history of Cup racing, the likes of Harold Vanderbilt, Briggs Cunningham and Ted Turner have all opted to drive the boat and all successfully repelled challenging yachts. You pay and you can play in this game.

When all this America's Cup stuff started, Koch was your basic anonymous multim(b?)illionaire with two degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one degree from Harvard, three foundations, six directorships, one petroleum company, one energy company and one corporation that, according to the America's Cup Media Guide, "specializes" in alternative energy projects, coal, oil, composite pipe and real estate. Apparently, Koch has also redefined the word "specializes."

Koch's athletic career, in brief, involved participation in track and basketball at MIT. Of course, an athlete coming out of MIT is comparable to a rocket scientist coming out of UNLV.

Having proven immensely successful at making money, Koch set out to resuscitate his athletic "career" at 43 or 44 years of age. He could have done so by buying a baseball team and naming himself the opening day pitcher. After all, Nolan Ryan was doing quite well. Instead, Koch took to sailing.

A sport like this played into a rich guy's wheelhouse. He wouldn't have to start with dinghies and the like. Instead, he would start with maxi-boats . . . his maxi-boats. All he did was win world championships from 1985 through 1991. Alex Spanos is probably thinking about now that he should have gone into yachting.

The America's Cup was next. Koch had started in the major leagues with success and now he aimed himself and his bankroll at his adopted sport's Super Bowl.

No one took him seriously, of course. Dennis Conner would discard this interloper and send him back to his boardrooms and test tubes. Koch was probably in San Diego for a year before anyone knew whether his named was pronounced Cotch, Cock or Coke. For those who still don't know, it is Coke as in Koch is it.

Koch was perceived as a rich eccentric and he did nothing to discourage that notion. He rented a Point Loma townhouse for $30,000 a month a mere block from $650-a-month apartments, filled the place with Monets, Cezannes and Remingtons and placed bizarre sculptures in his bayfront backyard facing the San Diego Yacht Club.

If his intent was to tweak Dennis Conner, everyone assumed the joke would be on him.

What's more, his syndicate was called America 3, not something with dignity such as America III. That's America 3 as in America-Cubed. His entourage became known as the Cubens, hence the burgee he occasionally flies with a pig and the letters BPYC. That stands for Bay of Pigs Yacht Club.

Tweak, tweak went the geek.

Yes, Bill Koch even looks gangly and awkward on his boat, like a big puppy who doesn't realize he is the master. During the last few days, he has twice been konked on the head. Obviously, it has happened before.

However, money buys time and time buys skills. Bill Koch has acquired some sailing skills, though his art collection still exceeds his skill collection. He is certainly no buffoon on a sailboat.

Come Saturday afternoon, Bill Koch may well be numbered among those who have successfully defended America's Cup.

Just like Vanderbilt, Cunningham, Turner and, yes, Dennis Conner.

That stupid sculpture will be smiling.

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