A blue-collar yacht club and the quest for the Cup

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The America’s Cup has been and always will be a battle of technology and intrigue and tall egos — players with deep pockets who will go to extremes to find themselves on the winning end.

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Hoisting the Auld Mug has never been cheap. Heck, even losing costs a fortune. Sir Thomas Lipton tried five times and came up short five times. Larry Ellison, founder of software giant Oracle and one of the world’s wealthiest people, spent several king‘s ransoms before finally winning in 2010 on his third attempt, bringing the Cup back to the United States after a 15-year absence.

Although billionaires such as Ellison bankroll their teams and pursue the best talent and the top stars to help them quench the thirst for winning, sometimes a regular guy such as Norbert Bajurin, who’s of Croatian descent and runs a radiator repair shop in San Francisco, can hold the missing piece in this complex puzzle. “The Billionaire and the Mechanic,” by Julian Guthrie — published by Grove Press and due out at the end of June — picks up this story as it started to unfold in 2000.

Ellison was looking for a yacht club to represent in his America’s Cup challenge. Bajurin, the newly elected commodore of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Yacht Club, faced the very real specter of having to close the debt-ridden operation. The fortuitous alliance these two men struck gave Ellison access to a club that sponsored his entry while it ceded all of the control he demanded for running his team and securing the right to defend the Cup this coming September on San Francisco Bay. On the flip side, the deal helped Bajurin put his blue-collar club on a more secure financial footing after languishing in the shadows of the mighty St. Francis Yacht Club for years.

Although Guthrie delves into Bajurin’s life and his father’s tough love for a son who grew up in a country and culture starkly different from that of his own youth in postwar Croatia, she also relies heavily on third-party sources, including Ellison and his shipmates, to weave this narrative. But getting to that point was a formidable challenge for Guthrie, who previously had interviewed the notoriously reclusive Ellison for a story in Forbes FYI before “he built a wall around himself,” as she explains. “It took months to get an interview. Finally I got an email late at night with three words: ‘Happy to talk.’ ”

And talk he did, for hours on end, according to Guthrie, providing his version of history and recounting the heroics of racing high-end sailing yachts with the best supporting cast money can buy, along with digs against nemeses vanquished and those who tried but ultimately failed to win what he coveted most: the “ugly ewer.” A side track of the narrative depicts the emotional side of the ultimate striver Ellison as a close friend of Steve Jobs, who didn’t share his passion for sailboat racing but whom Ellison counted among his close friends, brainstorming and exchanging thoughts during walks that continued until shortly before Jobs’ passing.

Like Ellison, Guthrie, a former news reporter who now writes features and celebrity profiles for the San Francisco Chronicle, is no stranger to controversy and ambition. “I am fiercely competitive. … I want to win a Pulitzer Prize,” she once said in a memorandum to her editor that ruffled more than a few feathers when it was made public.

She weathered that storm and the challenge of writing a book about the world’s most famous sailboat race without being deeply immersed in the Cup or sailing. She watched hours of video and enlisted help from key members of the Oracle team, including CEO Russell Coutts and helmsman Jimmy Spithill. Guthrie brought to life on-board scenes during the races when Ellison was at the helm, assisted by Chris Dickson or Coutts, the two Kiwi lieutenants he was closely associated with during his runs at the Cup.

Larry Ellison (left) and Russell Coutts have worked together since they won the America's Cup in 2010.

Ellison hired Coutts after losing badly in his first two attempts with Dickson in charge and concluded that running a successful Cup campaign is like running a successful business. The only thing that counts is winning; there are no seconds. And if you love to fight, as tennis star Rafael Nadal, one of Ellison’s buddies, suggested, the wins will come.

Make no mistake — “The Billionaire and the Mechanic” is a sailing book and an entertaining one at that. But sailing is just the backdrop for the story of Larry, the billionaire, and Norbert, the radiator guy who had to save a crumbling club and the relationship with his father. Because of that contrast, Guthrie’s tale also appeals to a wider audience than just sailing diehards who live and breathe the intricacies of yacht racing.

One question the book leaves open is when Ellison will walk away. He compares his Cup adventure to a “dog getting on a bus.” In other words, he likes the ride, but he has yet to figure out when and how to get off.

July 2013 issue