Rich Men Sail Big Boats Down Under

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND — The America’s Cup is just getting underway, but another contest, one with billionaire skippers and much bigger boats, concluded here last week.

Yachts owned by Netscape founder Jim Clark, duty-free-stores billionaire Bob Miller, venture capitalist Tom Perkins and former Treasury Secretary William E. Simon were among those competing for the Millennium Cup. Fifty-five yachts, 33 of which are more than 100 feet long, entered the race, the biggest gathering of “super-yachts” in sailing history.

“I just want to beat Jim Clark by more than an hour,” said a half-serious Mr. Miller, whose 145-foot yacht, Mari-Cha III, holds the record for quickest crossing of the Atlantic.

At the starting line, Mr. Clark was at the helm of Hyperion, the fully computerized 155-foot yacht described in Michael Lewis’s best-selling book, “The New New Thing.” Bill Koch, whose syndicate won the America’s Cup in 1992, was a guest on Hyperion, and he tried to encourage Mr. Clark to be more aggressive. “In the Cup, I came this close to the other boats,” Mr. Koch said, holding his palms just three inches apart. “Jim is too cautious. I think he was worried about the $30 million he spent on his boat and the $50 million of impressionist paintings he has on board.”

In fact, not long after the start, Mr. Clark moved up to near the front of the fleet. Mari-Cha III was impossible to catch, but he battled for second place with Velsheda, the 130-foot, J-class yacht that sailed in the 1934 America’s Cup. Hyperion is the most technologically sophisticated yacht in the world. Velsheda was built in 1932. In the end, Velsheda beat Hyperion to the line. “We were close to them — we passed them a couple times,” Mr. Clark said over cocktails after the first day. “But my boat wasn’t built for racing.”

On many boats, the cocktails were flowing long before the end of the race. I was on Itasca, Mr. Simon’s 175-foot power yacht, which he chartered to New Zealanders. At the start, Allan Jouning, Itasca’s captain, fired up a 1,250-horsepower engine to turn a propeller eight feet in diameter. The yacht, which was originally built as an ocean-going tugboat, weighs 845 tons, but we quickly reached our optimum speed of slightly more than 10 knots.

But for most of us, there wasn’t much to do other than watch the other vessels and explore Mr. Simon’s vast yacht, which carries up to 65,000 gallons of fuel, giving it an incredible range of 16,000 nautical miles. It has five staterooms, two vast saloons, even a working fireplace. Members of the 12-member crew ensured our comfort, at one point using squeegees to remove rainwater from the varnished teak rails so our resting forearms wouldn’t get wet.

On the sailing yachts, there was much more work to be done, and some of the owners recruited talent from the America’s Cup teams that already have been eliminated. Paul Cayard, the skipper for America One, sailed on Independence, the 174-foot-yacht owned by Amway founder Richard de Vos. “The bad news is that I’m not in the final — the good news is this is a lot of fun,” said the good-natured Mr. Cayard. “This is a sport that draws some of the most successful people in the world, and it’s amazing to have so many of them in one place.”

We were one of the slowest of the powerboats, but that was fine with me because our top speed was about the same as that of several vintage yachts. As we approached the finish line on the first day, we were neck and neck with Shenandoah, a 140-foot, three-masted schooner that was launched in 1902. When it crossed the finish line just ahead of us, its crew, all of them dressed in white uniforms, stood along the starboard side of the deck facing the New Zealand naval vessel that marked one end of the line.

Peter McHaffie, New Zealand’s Chief of Naval Staff and a member of Itasca’s crew for the day, was impressed. “There’s never been a race like this before — and we’ll probably never see another.”

The yachts anchored in a cove off Kawau Island, an uninhabited wedge of land best known for the mansion built by a former British governor, and the crews prepared for a dinner onshore. New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark arrived by helicopter, although she was held up when her pilot decided he couldn’t land near the tents that had been erected for dinner. Unfortunately for the prime minister, the half-hour delay extended an already generous cocktail hour. “We’ve attracted quite an armada,” she told me as she surveyed the crowd of 900 drink-swilling sailors. She said she hopes that some of them will decide to invest, or at least build their next boat, in New Zealand. But when she tried to speak to the assemblage, most of them were having too much fun to listen. “If this happened in parliament, I would say I would deal with the talkers,” she said, “but in this group, I’ll talk on.”

Over dinner, the contestants bragged about their performances. With a handicapping system that most of them didn’t have a lot of confidence in, many of the owners were less concerned about their overall ranking than with more personal goals. Mr. Perkins was pleased that his superyacht, Andromeda, beat three similar yachts, including Independence, the one on which Mr. Cayard sailed. “This was mostly for fun, but we did very well,” Mr. Perkins said. “And I also get to say I beat Paul Cayard.”

Independence’s owner, Mr. de Vos, wasn’t overly concerned. “I’m not proud of my boat’s speed. I’m proud of how comfortable it is.”

Mr. Miller was happy with his margin of victory over Mr. Clark. “I think he’s sulking somewhere,” Mr. Miller said. “Maybe he’s selling some more of his Netscape shares.”
In fact, Mr. Clark was at the next table, reveling in how much faster his boat was than Georgia, which is owned by John Williams, an American real-estate investor. When he was building Hyperion, Mr. Clark thought it would have the world’s tallest mast. When he discovered that Georgia, which was being built at the same time, would have a 200-foot-high mast, a bit higher than Hyperion’s, he was angry. Later, he said he didn’t care, in part because Hyperion would be much faster than Georgia. “I proved that today,” Mr.Clark said.

Mr. Clark also was talking about the 290-foot boat he’s now planning. “You know, I gave Stanford University $150 million,” he said. “My theory is that I get to spend an amount equal to what I give away on anything I want.”

G. Bruce Knecht, a Hong Kong-based correspondent for the Journal, is writing a book about Australia’s Sydney-to-Hobart Race.