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The Almighty Water$

Money always made America's Cup run over; now it buys insider knowledge

October 01, 2002|GERARD WRIGHT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Halsey Street starts alongside a saturated sports ground, Victoria Park, and runs downhill, ending as a watery cul-de-sac, with seagulls fluttering and foraging among mounds of trash.

If you judge an address by the companies it houses, this is the most expensive half-mile in the Southern Hemisphere. Gathered here, barbed-wire cheek by key-padded jowl, are the 10 syndicates that will contest the 31st America's Cup, which started Monday night (Pacific time) with the challenger series for the Louis Vuitton Cup.

Over the next five months, sailing syndicates with budgets totaling more than half a billion dollars will be reassembled and sent out to sea from here. Their destinies will unfold in slow motion--the top speed of a 79-foot, 50,000-pound America's Cup yacht is 9 1/2 mph. Often, those fates will be apparent even before each race is underway, since the crucial part of these sailing contests is establishing the best position at the start.

Here, on the other side of the international date line, it's the world of Larry Ellison of Oracle and Otto Plattner of SAP; the place for a meeting of the minds and needs of Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, and Craig McCaw, onetime father of cellular telephone communications. Somewhere in there too, is a lawyer turned $30-an-hour tennis coach. Their common interest is 1 mph of boat speed.

The story starts with money, or the lack of it. In April, 2001, McCaw's companies were losing $15 million a day, by the estimate of Fortune magazine. OneWorld Challenge, the altruistic $75-million America's Cup campaign McCaw had founded in partnership with the Seattle Yacht Club "to win the oldest trophy in sports in the name of the World's oceans" was starting to look like an indulgence.

So McCaw undertook what the London Times called "the world's biggest garage sale." Foremost among the sale items was Tatoosh, a 303-foot luxury yacht, about to be launched at shipyards in Kiel, Germany. Tatoosh was built for $150 million. The asking price was reported to be $100 million.

The buyer was Paul Allen, shortly to become a sponsor of OneWorld Challenge through the commitment of $10 million from his TechTV in San Francisco.

OneWorld Challenge was undergoing further budget cuts. At a meeting in mid-May in Seattle, the syndicate members--sailors, designers, technicians, support staff--were told they were going to have to feel some of the owner's pain.

McCaw, who to that point had spent $30 million, said he would quit the campaign unless they agreed to release him from their contracts and take discounts on their pay.

"At that time, our future looked pretty bleak," says Bob Ratliffe, communications director of OneWorld Challenge and a spokesman for McCaw. "Wages were substantially cut. That was voluntary. We had to make some tough decisions. The team came to me and that was one of the first things put on the table. The guys said they would be proactive."

All except Sean Reeves, the team's rules advisor and operations manager.

Reeves, 41, is a commercial lawyer in Auckland. This was to be his third America's Cup campaign. The first two were as Team New Zealand's rules advisor, the jungle guide every syndicate employs to help it through the thicket of America's Cup rules.

Reeves had shared a desk with Team New Zealand's figurehead and patron saint, the late Sir Peter Blake, who was killed by pirates at the mouth of the Amazon last December, and believed he had a working knowledge of how to run a Cup campaign.

After New Zealand's successful defense of the Cup, in February 2000, there was a scramble by syndicates to recruit its team members. In 26 cases, money won out over national pride.

Russell Coutts and Brad Butterworth, Team New Zealand skipper and tactician, respectively, joined the Swiss Alinghi syndicate. Others would soon be gone, including the rules advisor.

Recollections vary as to the extent of influence Reeves wielded in the recruiting of his former teammates, 12 in all. The pick of them, though, was boat designer Laurie Davidson, 78, with a festering resentment for the lack of individual credit his work had received during the successful Team New Zealand campaign.

New Zealand, population 3.7 million, was at first aghast, and then defiant at the defections.

"There's more where they came from," sniffed an editorial in Auckland's New Zealand Herald.

Sometimes called the Pacific Peso, the currency of Australia and New Zealand fluctuates between 40% and 60% of the U.S. dollar.

Now the defectors were being paid in U.S. dollars. Gary Wright, OneWorld Challenge's chief executive, estimates salaries were increased by 200%-400%, to about $200,000, in some cases, and $1 million or more for senior positions.

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