The Other Oracle
By Kimball Livingston
Malin Burnham is a man I trust, and not only because he wears his Top Siders without socks, proper-like. If he's willing to talk about changes at the America's Cup (Cup in Dubai?) or about the good reasons for retaining the America's Cup Class, or the prospects for and meaning of a US win in America's Cup 32, I'm ready to listen. No one, and I mean no one, knows more about the fortunes of war—in the America's Cup—than Malin Burnham.
Larry Ellison is Oracle software. Burnham is the other oracle.
He's in Valencia to see some racing and some old friends. Burnham has a lot of history with Tom Ehman, who works for BMW Oracle Racing, and so, Burnham has spent a lot of time at the US team camp. That's where a few press people found him for this conversation.
In case you don't know, an introduction:
The youngest-ever Star class world champion (with Lowell North as crew). Helmsman and skipper of Enterprise in the defender trials of 1977. A training/sparring partner of Dennis Conner 1980/83. The man who made it possible for Conner to sail his comeback crusade in Australia. A member of the America's Cup Hall of Fame. Past commodore of the San Diego Yacht Club. Third-generation real estate man. Philanthropist. And he probably won't forgive me for bringing up this line again (I didn't start it) that he is, "the most important man in San Diego."
In spite of all that, people like him.
We were coming straight off BMW Oracle's upset loss to Desafo Espaol, so we had to kick around the chatter in the Spanish and Italian camps that Chris Dickson's American-flagged team had thrown the race to boost the chance of having Spain in the semifinals. Some of the Mascalzone Italiano fans are really fried.
For building interest, there's nothing like keeping the home team in the game, but in whatever that little intrigue is worth, Burnham is an observer like the rest of us. He did go so far as to say, "The Spanish still enjoyed it, didn't they?"
OK, so what of Burnham's first impressions of the scene in Valencia, where something like a billion dollars has been invested on behalf of the Cup?
"There's always been talk that if the Cup went to Europe, it would be a whole new ball game, and it's been that. Europe is more of a sporting continent, and I think Spain has done a heck of a job in creating this venue. A lot of people seem to think that if Alinghi keeps the Cup, this show will move to Dubai [making a hand gesture indicating moneymoneymoney], but would that be gratitude?"
On Larry Ellison's plan to rationalize (my word) the America's Cup:
"I don't think you can rationalize the America's Cup. I see continual change. My dad taught me that in business you have to be ahead of the crowd. I think change is good, but you certainly can't control change unless you are the defender."
On alternative venues:
"From our experience [training in 1986 for Fremantle], Hawaii would be a natural. You have the tradewinds and manageable seas, and it would be wonderful to build up the waterfront in Honolulu, which has gone down horribly. Anywhere you go, if you had to spread out the teams again, you would lose the camaraderie that has built up here. Auckland? There's been condo development on the viaduct, but I gather there is a plan to extend new docks if the Cup returns to New Zealand. San Francisco Bay [Ellison's home waters] would make a fine backdrop, but the racing there is one-sided. The only place to race is along the cityfront, in the Alcatraz Channel, where you have very strong current differentials. And could San Francisco duplicate what Valencia has done? But there might be an ace in the hole, if Larry decided to do something for the city of San Francisco. After all, I've given away 40 percent of my assets to charity."
At this point there was a bit of laughter about Valencia's billion dollar investment, which, depending on the stock market might be about 5 percent of Ellison's fortune.
For the record, Ellison has advocated putting the challenger series on a circuit. Basically, taking what we called the Acts this time around and attaching serious points. You can read about that in Time to Evolve?. So, having once won the America's Cup on foreign soil and brought it to the US, what does Malin Burnham make of Larry Ellison's chances?
"I rate his chances excellent. Nobody has a free pass, but I've always thought the challenger series would come down to Oracle versus New Zealand. I still do."
Preparing for the 1992 defense in San Diego, Burnham oversaw the development of the America's Cup Class. Now some people want to see different boats . . .
"In 1987 there had been considerable talk about going to a new type of boat [from the 12 meter]. I guess one positive thing about Michael Fay's big boat challenge is that we quit talking about a new class and did something.
"The ACC class is good because we see all these boats crowding into one corner of the design spectrum. It's almost a cookie cutter. That means that new teams can come in and do a new boat with confidence. I think that keeping this class for two or three more Cup matches would be a way to control costs. Yes, you can get faster boats. Coutts and Cayard have their plan for a circuit with 70-foot catamarans. But those boats will be speed demons. They're not strategic. And all those thousands of people who were lined up on the breakwater to watch the boats come back from the race—that's the main audience, and they don't know anything about the finer points of sailing."
So in 1983, Conner lost the Cup to Australia II . . .
"By 1984, Dennis had licked his wounds and he finally decided he was ready to go back for the Cup. Dennis wanted to do it for San Diego Yacht Club, but I told him, Dennis, you have an obligation to the New York Yacht Club. You have to go to them first. Well, Bus Mosbacher was commodore then, and they delayed, and then they announced that they were going to interview some other people. That did it for us, so we held a press conference on the grounds of the San Diego Yacht Club. Six people showed up. That was the humble beginning of the Stars & Stripes campaign."
That campaign of course went very well, all the way to a ticker tape parade in New York and a Presidential reception at the White House. It went off–track later, for a while, when plans for the next defense were delayed by differences in the defender camp and a lack of commitment from the city of San Diego. Burnham and Conner took a lot of heat for talking about alternative venues, Honolulu in particular, but Burnham says, "Dennis and I are native sons of San Diego. We didn't want to take the Cup to Honolulu, but we did need to get our own community involved. That's all we were trying to do by talking about Hawaii. But we never did get the community involved, and that's the difference. Look at Valencia. Even the manhole covers in the street have America's Cup logos."
Malin was 17, Lowell North 15, when they trailered a boat cross-country to win the 1945 Star Worlds at Stamford, Connecticut. Malin placed second in 1964 and again in 1965. North won as skipper four times. I'll leave you with this vignette of the different-world of 1945, taken from the Star Class history at 1945 Worlds:
A double header was scheduled on Saturday, with the first race to start at 10 A.M. After sailing for nearly two hours, the leader had not even reached the first mark and the race was called off. Boats for the second race were drawn for aboard the Committee Boat, from which beer and sandwiches were served and the exchange of boats was made. The hours slipped by and still there was not a breath of wind. At a quarter before five a race was finally started. The sun was dipping behind the horizon when they finished the first round and to complete the race within the time limit seemed impossible. To make it worse the last leg was a beat and a starless night had closed down before Bert Williams, leading, hauled on the wind. It was pitch black. The Committee Boat's searchlight played upon the stake boat, while the Coast Guard, tied alongside, rotated their searchlight in an effort to pick up approaching Stars. The head wind kept shifting and it looked as if, after spending fourteen hours in their boats, no one would be able to finish. With less than two minutes to go, however, Bert Williams slid across the line winning the first night race in World's Championship history. Burnham, as usual, was second. Then Cebern Lee just nosed out Etchells for third, giving Seneca Lake its first Gold award. Long into the night, with a failing wind, the Committee Boat stood by as, like ghosts, one Star after another drifted across the line.