Strength at the Point of a Tack

Special to The Times

Oracle needs an edge ... like, a billionaire needs an edge?

Larry Ellison's Oracle BMW Racing team from San Francisco is about to meet Switzerland's front-running Alinghi in the best-of-nine finals of the Louis Vuitton Cup challenger trials for the America's Cup at Auckland, New Zealand, starting Friday.

"They're really good," says Eric Doyle of San Diego, a member of the Oracle crew. "They have some of the best guys in the world and all the pieces in their program. We have to look at ourselves and say, 'Hey, look, they've beaten us five times and we've beaten them once.' "

By four seconds at that, not much of an edge.

Although the sailing tactics and shoreside theatrics are often confusing, even to knowledgeable sailors, no one doubts that, over the last three months, the 11 original challengers have sorted themselves down to the two best teams.

Alinghi has won 21 races and lost three -- none since October. Oracle is 20-8, having lost lately only to Alinghi. Every quarterfinal and semifinal match has been a rout, supporting an internecine exercise designed to have the three American teams eliminate one another.

First, a 4-0 blitz by Oracle kicked OneWorld into the quarterfinals repechage round, where the Seattle team knocked out the New York Yacht Club's Team Dennis Conner, 4-0. Then Oracle, after getting whacked by Alinghi, 4-0, fell back to a familiar pushover in the semifinals repechage and sent OneWorld home for the holidays, 4-0.

Now only the California entry is left standing, but for how long? Alinghi is like Minnesota Fats, showing up once a month to run the table. The Swiss are the only ones who haven't experienced the humility of the repechage process.

Swiss? Well, the heart of the team is skipper Russell Coutts and his cadre of New Zealanders who won the America's Cup at San Diego in 1995 and defended it at Auckland in 2000.

In fact, New Zealand can't lose now. Next month the pretty little Land of the Long White Cloud will have the last laugh, whether it keeps the Cup or not. Even Oracle's skipper is a Kiwi: Chris Dickson, 41, an intense veteran whose return from Ellison's doghouse coincided with Oracle's resurgence after a stumbling start.

As far back as 2001, Oracle seemed to be gagging on an overdose of ego when Ellison, who fancies himself a fair sailor, beached the charismatic Paul Cayard as leader of the sailing team. Then the software mogul exiled Dickson for eight months because of friction on the boat -- an echo of Dickson's hard-driving past.

Cayard, a finalist in the last three challenger trials, remains under contract but out of the mix for reasons still unexplained. Meanwhile, Ellison brought Dickson back when the team lost four of five races in an October slump. Dickson's first move was to replace Ellison with professional talent on the boat, then Oracle reeled off 11 consecutive wins, a streak stopped cold by Alinghi.

So far the onboard TV cameras have failed to reveal Dickson flogging his crew verbally or physically. He isn't telling jokes, but after a race he walks the length of the boat shaking hands and slapping backs.

Doyle, speaking by cell phone as the Oracle boats were being towed in from the Hauraki Gulf after a day of testing, said, "I've never raced with him outside of this, so I don't know if that's changed or not. He's a little more comfortable now in his position, and that's helped him to mesh with the team a little better. A big group like this, you're not gonna please all the people all the time, but I think it's going pretty well so far."

At a recent news conference, Dickson was asked if he were having fun.

"No, I'm not having fun," he said, smiling slightly at the suggestion. "It's hard work out there. It's tough racing. We've got to keep working hard."

Doyle is one of six Americans on the 16-man crew, along with helmsman Peter Holmberg, bowman Geordie Shaver, pitman Matt Smith and grinders Phil Trinter and Brian McInnes.

Oracle represents the Golden Gate Yacht Club on the edge of San Francisco Bay, and if the dream of that laid-back little hangout to stick the Cup in the ear of its upper crust neighbor, the St. Francis, is to be realized, Oracle must find an edge.

Maybe it's Doyle and his magic goggles.

For the last series, Doyle wore strange sunglasses with a tiny control pod on one side that produced information. "That's the heads-up display unit we developed with the help of our partner, BMW," Doyle said.

Technically, it's a BMW Wireless Microdisplay System that can display wind readings and boat performance on Doyle's shades. It was originally developed for Ralf Schumacher's Formula 1 helmet so he wouldn't have to take his eyes off the road.

But Doyle said it had nothing to do with the small elliptical housing on the back of the boat that vaguely resembles a bird in flight and rivals suspect is either a radar device or a weapon of mass destruction.

"I can't talk about the 'goose,' " he said.

The goggles, though, are unclassified.

There are large readout displays near the base of the mast but, Doyle said, "There are always a lot of bodies between myself and the readouts, so I don't have to ask somebody to move. What's really nice, when we're going downwind I can look backward at the [following] breeze and still know whether we're headed or lifted, or what the true wind direction is....

"I'm all over the place," Doyle added. "I'm really the strategist. I look at the true wind speed, so when the guys ask me what headsail I recommend, I can tell them what the average wind speed is. At mark roundings, I go forward and help Matt Smith out [with the various control lines] in the pit downwind and with sail changes and stuff, then come back and try to keep an eye on the weather."

Sailing an 85-foot International America's Cup Class boat is a far cry from his other sailing endeavor. Doyle is a former Star class world champion and Rolex (U.S.) yachtsman of the year. The Star is a 22 1/2-foot, two-person boat. The only instrumentation is a compass.

"Sometimes you get too wrapped up in [the technology], but sometimes you can't sail without it," Doyle said.

It's helpful in the Hauraki Gulf, which Doyle calls "an incredibly shifty place." Others have called it the Southern Hemisphere's answer to the Bermuda Triangle.

Oracle and Alinghi have almost always had it right recently, but others have lost races on questionable basic tactics. It's a constant quandary of whether to seek better wind or try to cover the opponent, like a free safety tracking Jerry Rice's every move.

"This place is so shifty all the time that you can't count on anything, [such as] 'just protect the right' or 'just protect the left,' " Doyle said. "People say, 'Oh, why don't you just stay in phase? Anytime he tacks, you tack.' But that doesn't always keep you between the other guy and the mark."

Nevertheless, Doyle said, "I am enjoying it. [In 1999-2000] I did the [Team Dennis Conner] program, which was a small, close family and kind of struggled: 'Do what you can with what you've got.'

"This was a no-holds-barred approach: 'We'll give you whatever you need to win.' "

Is that enough for an edge? Even the magic goggles can't see the future.

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