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Sayonara's Headed Home!


  • Sayonara's Headed Home!

    Sayonara, The Beast That Started It All And The Crew Behind It.

    Sayonara leads arch rival Morning Glory in 1996 Big Boat Series

    Having been holed up in Holland Michigan since the 2000 Chicago Mackinac Race, Sayonara, Larry Ellison’s 80’ Maxi is headed home. Her destination, Pier 80 in San Francisco which is currently HQ for Oracle Racing and ground zero for all things Americas Cup on SF Bay until the construction of the new piers on the City Front are complete. Sayonara was the launching pad for Larry Ellison into the yacht Racing World, his 1st foray into serious competition. In a conversation with his neighbor, one David Thomson back in 1994, the subject of sailing to Hawaii was brought up after listening to Thomson’s tales of the Transpacific Yacht Race, Larry was intrigued. David suggested building a Maxi, the largest legally allowed for the race, and without much debate Larry agreed, so long as it was designed to win.

    In the portable office, circa 1996

    Enter Bill and Melinda Erkelens, Bay Area residents & friends of David Thomson, with a passion for sailing running through their veins since early childhood, were asked to manage the program from the inception and building process at Cookson Boats in Dave’s native New Zealand. Bill & Melinda ran the Sayonara campaign from 1994 through 2000 with professionalism and intrigue. Everything from accounting for purchases of the smallest screw to arranging the boat and it’s traveling circus of gear and personnel were tended to with scrupulous precision. Melinda commented in a 1996** interview ”We set our own budget, which must be approved by the owner, then do our best to stick to it.” During that tenure, Sayonara won 5 Maxi World Championships and whetted Ellisons’s passion for competitive yachting at the highest level.

    (**see excerpts from 1996 interview below)

    Ironically it was Larrys’ desire to excel in yachting’s greatest achievements while attempting to dethrone arch rival Hasso Plattner’s “ Morning Glory” record for the Sydney Hobart which ended Larry‘s interest in ocean racing, and the concerted effort in Americas Cup campaigns. The 1998 Sydney Hobart was decimated by an unusually powerful storm with winds of 70 knots and seas upwards of 40’. Too far from land to turn back, and likely hood of helo rescue not possible, Sayonara rode out the storm and sailed to 1st to finish in 3 days and 53 minutes, 35 seconds. During the height of the storm, hunkered down in the spartan interior bunk and watching Sayonara’s hull flexing with every massive impact, and surrounded by some of the worlds best sailors, barely able to keep from chumming themselves, Larry kept saying to himself: “This is a stupid way to die”

    Larry soon thereafter swore off ocean racing all together, and Sayonara, would compete only in buoy events on inland seas and the Chicago Mac, which became her swan song after finishing 1st in the 2000 event,where she was subsequently placed in storage while Team Oracle began focusing on other programs.

    Melinda & Bill on the post regatta checklist

    As part of the Oracle and BMW Oracle Campaigns, Bill and Melinda continued to manage for Larry, but now in slightly different capacities. Bill was elevated to Syndicate Head for the 2003 Campaign, whilst Melinda was promoted to General Council for 3 campaigns, overseeing a miniature army of independent attorneys, culminating in the epic 3 year battle in and out of court with Alinghi which finally resulted in allowing the 33rd Americas Cup to be settled on the water.

    Now with kids in middle school, Bill and Melinda have changed course allowing themselves more family time, and time to sail their own boats, be it the Wylie Wabbit or the Moore 24 yet remain quietly behind the scenes in some of the impressive programs. Melinda accepted the role of General Council for Artemis Racing with long time friend Paul Cayard, which for all intents an purposes, could end up challenging both their old bosses, Larry Ellison and Oracle Racing, both on the water and off.

    Meanwhile Bill has become involved several serious campaigns, serving in a managing capacity off varying levels for Alex Jackson’s 100’ Supermaxi “Speedboat”, A local TP 52 project, a SoCal based SC 70’ and a top contender in the Melges 32 class.

    Without a Sayonara Campaign, the whole Americas Cup 34 in San Francisco may have never happened!

    Looking back at the Sayonara Campaign days and reflecting on its imminent arrival back in the Bay Area, Bill mentions a few of his favorite Sayonara moments:

    “An honor and pleasure to sail with Paul Cayard, Brad Butterworth, Tomasso Chieffe, Ken Reed, Robbie Naismith, Mark Turner (Tugboat, bi sexual boat builder from NZ!) Joe Allen, Rod Daniels, Aimee Hess (now Daniels),Mike Howard, Mike Sanderson (Moose),Tony Ray (NZ), Stan Honey, Mark Rudiger, Steve Wilson- Southern Spars, Morgan Larson, Steve Erickson, Bob Wylie, Curtis Blewett, Ian Burns (Fresh), Dave Hodges, Paul Larkin and Greg Prussia to mention a few…”

    “Working for Larry was great! We had to be responsible with resources but were able to get the best people and best equipment we thought was needed to get the job done. Larry always was appreciative of the hard work and was easy to work with.”

    “Ability to work and sail with my wife! We did Pit together on all inshore events.”

    “Winning the RYC Great Pumpkin pursuit race with Larry’s son driving the boat.”

    “Taking Walter Cronkite and Larry for a sail around SF bay on an Indian summers sunset sail. Walter drove the boat out under the Golden gate with a very big smile on his face! After doing the "classic bay tour Larry asked if he had had enough and Walter asked if we could do it again! Which we did!”

    “Doing Sydney Hobart with Rupert Murdock (after his finger was cut off in the Canon Big Boat challenge a few day prior by the mainsheet block!)”

    “Having dinner with Ted Turner, and his then wife Jane Fonda while Jane took our 1year old son for the night while we were able to hang out.”

    “Ted Turner’s first and only visit to the boat prior to the Fastnet race when all he wanted to see was the head! He sat on it and bounced up and down before saying it would do! Then he left.”

    The workshop, only feet away from the office

    More History and details on Sayonara from Erik Simonson's 1996 interview: Professional Yacht Management, which ran in Sailing Magazine

    After completion and testing in early 1995, she was shipped to Oakland, California and reassembled and put to her real 1st test, the Oakland-Catalina Race, where she bested the existing record by several hours. On board for that ride was Paul Cayard, Geoff Stagg and other AC and Whitbread veterans Joe Allen, T.A. McCann, Robby Naismith and Paul Larkin.

    The results of the ’95 Transpac were a little less heartening, Sayonara placing 2nd to the turboed SC 70’ Cheval and barely squeaking past Pyewacket. “ We were just a little too heavy, Bill and Melinda indicated ”The boat design was not appropriate for the conditions of the race with light winds at the start, the hole in the middle and a light air finish. We really needed to establish a sizable lead during the reaching leg, which would have allowed us some time to give when the winds shift aft, which is where the turbos accelerate” Without the early lead, Sayonara’s hopes diminished.

    After the 95 Transpac, David decided to step aside from the management end and handed the reigns over to Bill and Melinda. The Boat was sailed to San Francisco for that years Big Boat Series where she finished 2nd to Exile, Warrick Miller’s RP 66’ and then shipped to Australia for the 1995 Sydney-Hobart, where she took line honors. After the SH race, Sayonara was sailed back to Auckland for mods to make her more competitive in the buoy racing department and the 1996 Kenwood Cup. Those mods payed off handsomely as Sayonara dominated the Maxi & IMS A division, and then onto San Francisco for the Big Boat Series where she swept the competition in a 5 boat Maxi Division. After the 96 BBS, Bill & Melinda reflected had a few rare slow days where they spoke on the behind the scenes of Professional Boat Management in an article for Sailing Magazine

    In preparation for every regatta the mast is dropped and stripped. Every part cleaned and inspected, parts replaced or lubricated as necessary and then reassembled. Each Harken block and winch is removed, torn apart and cleaned, replacing parts as needed. Sails are inspected and put to bed. Bill’s responsibilities include coordinating with factory reps and vendors, assuring each system is operating to its full potential.

    "Between regattas, we try to improve in each area” Bill says” We ‘ll talk to the sparmaker and see if we can improve the rig at all, or we perhaps we’ll talk to Harken about improving the bearing surfaces of the winches or double check the load on the runner blocks” Melinda adds “ Several month prior to each regatta, Bill will meet with North Sails reps to discuss which sail will be appropriate for the next regatta and whether recuts are needed plus any new sails need to be purchased. Several days of sail test then precede each regatta”

    Lotsa crew means lotsa clothes to deal with

    The Boat has a core crew of between 20 and sails with a crew of 22-24 people. These are primarily seasoned veterans of Whitbread or AC campaigns. Ad ons to compliment each regatta are drawn from a list of applicants which runs 50+. After initial contact by Bill and Melinda, Melinda deals with the personnel issues, contacting each individuals to confirm status prior to regattas, checking arrival times, spouse or guest requirements and coordinating numbers and date with hotels and airlines. In addition to accommodations, Melinda assumes food manager roles dealing with not only onboard food and drink needs, but morning meeting meals, crew dinners for 30-40. The owners guests needs are also on Melinda's to-do list and she makes arrangements for the spectator boat(s) shuttle vans. And at the end of the day making sure the sails have a ride to shore and a van to get them to loft for repair as needed.

    “The Costs of running the program are not carte blanche” Melinda points out” We set our own budget, have it approved by the owner and do our best to stick to it. There are invariably costs you did not expect, such as having to haul out for repairs, but many of the expenses are fixed, so we have a pretty good sense of what the regatta will cost beforehand.

    “Then there is the mountain of paperwork dealing with customs alone” They sigh, ”Shipping parts, sails, gear, crew clothing, cradles and the boat itself in and out of the country can be a real hassle” Getting the crew in gear and assuring they have the right size for each member needs to be done. Then the bond for the boat itself every time it leaves the US, the rating certificates for each regatta, proof of insurance and the insurance itself, which must be continually updated to reflect the race organizers.” All this in addition to the boats tender, a 24’ RIB which must also be documented, insured, and maintained.

    The luxurious interior of Sayonara

    Another aspect of the pre-race agenda is checking out the completion. “Who is sailing on which boats, what their ratings are or may not be so we can give Larry a concise yet conservative evaluation on how we stack up against the other boats for any given regatta” Bill adds.

    The job itself varies in time consumed. In the weeks leading to and following a major regatta, Bill and Melinda are on 7 days a week, and up to 12 hours a day, often taking homework back to their hotel rooms after that to send emails, faxes and calls more efficiently . That schedule will prevail until they actually secure the boat to the transporting ship, then they can exhale and enjoy some time off until they have to meet the boat at its next destination. The one exception to the rule is when the boat is sailed to the next venue, as is the case from Hawaii to SF. “ It’s nice, Melinda comments” because it’s the only time we can escape “The Box”, referring to the 40’ containers which serve as their portable office, workshop and crews clothing boutique. It is then, away from the endless phone calls, the faxes and emails that they can relax, reflect and perhaps enjoy a good book…

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