Bill Koch back in business

In as controversial form as ever, the 1992 America's Cup winner took part in last week's Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup

Wednesday September 15th 2010, Author: James Boyd, Location: Italy

A surprise entry in the Mini Maxi class at the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup last week was America’s Cup legend, American Bill Koch. The winner of the Cup with America³ in 1992, Koch decided in the spring to charter Tom Hill’s relatively new Reichel-Pugh 75 Titan XV for the Maxi Worlds. This would mark his return to the class after his double Maxi Worlds win with Matador 2 in the early 1990s.

In recent years Koch has been entertaining himself to a degree racing the famous 12m KZ7, Kiwi Magic.

As is his tendency, he had been trying to improve her performance particularly in light airs (should that be allowed on historic vessels such as this?) “I spent a fortune trying to down-wind her and we finally got her so that she was competitive, but she didn’t have a groove, wasn’t properly balanced, etc,” says Koch. “We were lucky enough to win the World Championship and I said I was going to either sell it or give it away. I couldn’t sell it because there were so many 12 metres on the market, and I had a hard time giving it away because anyone who was willing to take it wanted a cash endowment to go with it. So in that case I might as well just put it in a shed and pay rent on the shed.”

In the end they managed to find a new home for New Zealand’s first America’s Cup challenger at the Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, NY, joining other notable but unwanted race boats such as Moneypenny and Genuine Risk.

In his previous foray into the Maxi class, Koch’s took an uncompromising approach to the technical development of his Matador 2, an approach that subsequently won him the America’s Cup. Some might argue that this contributed to the Maxi class’ temporary demise – the Worlds stopped after Koch won in 1991 only resuming in 1995 with the advent of the new generation ILC maxis. Even Koch partly admits this: “In 1992 there was a World Championship and there were supposed to be three regattas. We sailed the first one against a bunch of Italian boats and won every race. Then they didn’t show up for the second! They all quit!” In fact it was probably as much to do with the terminal decline of IOR at this time.

Nonetheless, there was some trepidation in the International Maxi Association upon the news of Koch’s return. In particular his new steed, Titan XV, at 75ft was longer than the class’ 72ft class maximum length limit, and was only allowed to compete as, during Tom Hill’s tenure, she had been grandfathered by the class (she was launched just prior to the maximum length limit being introduced). Knowing that Koch was contemplating modifications to the boat to make her more competitive, possibly to the extent of lopping the old hull off at the deck ready to stick a new one on, as Neville Crichton had been forced to with Alfa Romeo, at the IMA meeting last week Titan XV was outlawed from the Mini Maxi class for subsequent events.

Koch is no stranger to controversy and those in the opposing camp obviously argue that Koch brought this upon himself in trying to get one over on them.

Such problems arise, as was the case with Highland Fling being penalised out of the Wallys last week, because these classes are run by the owners. As Koch puts it: “At this level of sailing, they want more competitors, however they [the owners] still want to win and so sometimes that creates a conflicting agenda. For example, with this boat that I have chartered, they have outlawed it because, as one guy said, if you put that boat in the right hands it could be very dangerous to them.”

There is no perfect solution to this, but possibly the best example is when a class is more of an autocracy, run by one strong well respected impartial individual as is the case of Geoff Stagg with the Farr 40s.

On the positive side, Koch, the techno-wizard, has enjoyed sailing a state of the art 21st century race boat, particularly coming from a 12 metre, although he admits it took some getting used to.

He liked the high level of competition found in the Mini Maxi class, even though his fifth place was lower than he’d hoped for. “I guess we were a little arrogant, because we thought this is a great boat, the biggest one in the class, so we could just pick a good crew, walk on it and do extremely well. But sailing, I’ve found, has always been humbling.”

He enjoys the owner-driver requirement of the Mini Maxi class, having driven Matador 20 years ago. “Everyone used to say ‘why don’t you hire a professional skipper?’ And I said ‘if I put all this money up, I want to get some ego gratification out of it!’ And it was fun to sail against Dennis Conner, Paul Cayard and Chris Dickson and all these big shots. When you won you could brag about it!”

He also likes the wide variety of conditions that typically get thrown at competitors racing off Porto Cervo.

However: “I have gotten a little tired of dealing with on shore politics, because every yachting class I have ever been in, including the America’s Cup all have it - the America’s Cup has in orders of magnitude bigger! But it is involving people and people will connive to get something that is to their advantage. That is part of human nature. All these guys we sail against are all very successful and they are all very good at manipulating things – including me!”

Talk of manipulating things brings us neatly to the America’s Cup. Koch remains a keen follower of the event he won in 1992.

While Russell Coutts has been making all the big calls this week, Koch is in no doubt that ultimately the final decisions are emanating from Larry Ellison: “I think Russell will have a very strong input into it. From my talking with Russell in the past he has wanted to have a very fast big monohull, so I think Russell or I think Larry has had some input into putting the catamaran in. And the reason would be because watching a monohull race is like watching grass grow, it is only interesting to the aficionados. But watching these catamarans race will be very exciting, it will be more like watching stock car racing. The Spanish have a saying that ‘the only beast at the bull fight is the crowd’. So if they want to have a lot of spectators, so that they can raise a lot of money through sponsorship, then they ought to have a boat that is much more exciting than what we have been sailing in the past.”

His view has been influenced perhaps after having given around 200-300 speeches about the America’s Cup and winning it. He picked this up again about three years ago and, perhaps not surprisingly, has found there to be considerably more appetite from audiences to hear about the dirty tricks and catastrophe during past America’s Cups than about a close tacking duel in a particular race between two slow boats. “That gets back to my point – it is Formula 1 and the beast at the bull fight is the crowd. They all want to see it.”

However Koch makes the distinction between himself as a spectator and himself as a competitor. As a spectator he says the cat goes fast, improves the technology, will be interesting to watch and ultimately different. As a competitor he’d prefer monohulls because – simply – that is what he knows, a sentiment shared by the other existing challengers.

So does he see this period as being a necessary chapter in the history of the America’s Cup? “What is the saying? ‘If you don’t study history you are bound to repeat it.’ The history of the Cup has been through lots of controversy and lots of devious activities. So what Bertarelli did is that he just took it to a couple of magnitudes greater levels than had been done before, but there is nothing new to that. In fact I find all the devious manoeuvrings on shore as a spectator a lot more interesting! If you think back on it – how many murders have there been in the America’s Cup? I know of two. How many suicides? There have been two of those. How many bankruptcies – and how many people have gone to jail from it? It is a soap opera...”

With BMW Oracle Racing’s new vision, Koch reckons it will still be the same story, even with ‘independent management’. “They’ll do a pretence for it, but they’ll manage it in their best interests - that is nature. I don’t mean to sound pessimistic. I am trying to be realistic.”

Where next?

Back to his own sailing - if Koch wishes to stay in the Mini Maxi class from here, he needs to find another boat. But as he says: “There are a number of boats for sale, and that is a sign that the class is having trouble and will diminish. The only problem is that all the boats for sale are the ones that aren’t performing well.” So he believes his only option to be competitive is to build new, something that at the age of 70 (in his prime, some would say) he wonders if he is prepared to take on.

It is also a battle between common sense and desire; one Koch knows only too well: “Sailing is like a siren beckoning you on to the rocks! I have built about eight boats, considering the America’s Cup boats, Matador and a few others. It is a fun interesting project, but it is costly and time consuming, so I just have to weigh all the pros and cons of it.”

Ultimately he says that he would like to compete in regattas just a couple of times a year. However there is an added impetus. He has six children and two of his sons enjoy sailing, even though they are at school, in fact a similar scenario to Andres Soriano and Alegre. “Being with them makes it that much more special for me.”

Will he be back? We suspect he won't be able to resist the sirens' calling.

Latest Comments

  • Blackburn 15/09/2010 - 20:15

    Very nice article. The bullfight analogy is excellent.

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