Silicon Folly: How To Make an "Extreme" Sailboat Race Dull and Deadly

It was going to be the greatest outdoor sports spectacle in history: weird giant sailboats racing against each other in the grand natural amphitheater of the San Francisco Bay all summer long, with hundreds of thousands of happy spectators watching from the Bay's 400 miles of shoreline. At least that was the idea when billionaire and Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, after winning the right to choose this year's location for the America's Cup sailing competition along with his victory in 2010's race, chose the bay instead of the more customary open ocean. Instead, it's a giant flop with "races" that usually consist of a single awkward catamaran bouncing around by itself in the fog.

This billionaire's folly has managed to make front page news a few times, but never for the intended reasons—the Swedish team's boat capsized and killed a crewman in May, Ellison's defending champions returned four trophies last week after being caught cheating, and Saturday's two-boat race featured an idiot's stew with the New Zealand team crashing and the Italian boat "crippled" by mechanical failure.

Sailing used to be the only way to get people and other things across water, but like most amusements of the rich it did not become a sport until it was rendered obsolete by mechanical technology. (Another such example is golf, which tradition says began not as a "game" but as the usual morning ritual of the Scottish landowner searching the bog for knives he'd lost during the previous night's revelry.)

In Silicon Valley, billionaires such as Ellison use sailing as a way to show off their obscene wealth. And within this fake-libertarian outdoor-wear showoff culture, competitive sailing is the ultimate way to burn money while looking rugged. Even though the mogul is not aboard during the races, he gets plenty of photo opportunities beforehand, with his custom Puma team jacket and the salt spray and the champagne.

Because nobody else cares at all about competitive sailing, locals and tourists were encouraged to buy $200 tickets to America's Cup-branded amusements such as oldies concerts (Sting, Weezer, the Doobie Brothers) and to visit three "public access" sites of merchandise shops and concession stands at the usual waterfront spots in San Francisco. Donations have been made to an ecological non-profit to add a sheen of ocean protection to the corporate events. Ellison conned the city of San Francisco out of some $60 million in subsidies and services, even as his fellow billionaires decided against throwing their money at his vanity project. The promised 15 crazy catamarans filling the Bay with action wound up being a trio of lonesome showboats that often raced against nothing but the wind. So few teams actually showed up that longtime America's Cup sponsor Louis Vuitton demanded a return of $3 million already pledged to the event.

Specifically designed to be dangerous and keep the winning advantage with Ellison's $100 million catamarans, the promised spectacular went from flop to tragedy when Team Artemis, one of only four participating in the Cup, capsized near the Bay Bridge. The accident killed one of the sailors—Andrew "Bart" Simpson, who won an Olympic medal in 2008—and reduced the actual competition to just two challengers. The America's Cup race director demanded that the U.S. Coast Guard cancel the permit for the entire event.

In Ellison's quest to make something "extreme" that might appeal to the 99% of Americans who couldn't care less about sailboats, his version of the Cup featured boats so unsafe they couldn't even go for practice runs without catastrophe. Team Oracle crashed their own catamaran last October, a multi-million-dollar screwup that cursed the whole enterprise, which will finally sputter into Wikipedia history next month when (maybe) one of the two remaining challengers goes against Team Oracle.

But even a Death Race bores spectators when the "competition" consists of a single goofy-looking catamaran—of the five official races so far, the New Zealand team won three by default, with the Swedish team licking their wounds and the Italian team either sitting out in protest or unable to sail because of mechanical problems. When Artemis finally got a boat ready to compete again, the team lost every one of its "finals."

If Ellison truly wants to produce a spectacle in the natural amphitheater of the San Francisco Bay, he will announce the 2015 War of the Giant Nautical Robots. Each tech-company team will have its own island to defend—Alcatraz, Treasure Island, Alameda, Angel Island—and each will produce 200-foot-tall amphibious robots that will fight with brute force. Think of that Pacific Rim movie, but without the annoying characters and talking. Just massive, deadly robots, beating the crap out of each other, cheered on by hundreds of thousands of spectators lining the shores and docks of San Francisco and the East Bay, and tens of millions watching on the teevee. You could watch the battles from airplanes taking off and landing, and traffic on the Golden Gate and Bay Bridge would be so much more fun with real Giant Robot wars fought all around you. (Losing teams would sacrifice their CEOs on beautiful LED-illuminated funeral pyre-towers based on the popular "Burning Man" ritual.)

The tech companies that make so much money selling us unnecessary upgrades and spying on everyone for the U.S. government at least owe us incredible spectacles.

Ken Layne, America's favorite watersports journalist, writes the Ken Layne's American Journal column for Gawker every Monday. [Photo via Getty Images.]