Koch lowers the boom on his chuckling critics

May 17, 1992|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO -- Two years ago, a lot of people snickered when Kansas oilman William Ingraham Koch decided to form an America's Cup defense syndicate.

A few weeks ago, when Koch's America3 advanced through the defender trials to meet Il Moro di Venezia in the cup finals, people chuckled.

Yesterday, Koch had the last laugh.

America3 had met supposedly the best yachting had to offer and had won the America's Cup (4 races to 1).

LIn the process, Koch had turned the sailing world upside down.

Koch, you see, is a Johnny-come-lately, a doctor of science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology who wanted to play on the same field as the big boys of yachting -- Dennis Conner, Chris Dickson, Paul Cayard, all of whom had cut their teeth at a younger age in the America's Cup.

Koch, 52, had started sailing competitively less than a decade ago.

"People have criticized me a lot for not being a professional sailor and only having eight years of sailing experience," said Koch, who is president of Oxbow Corporation, a billion-dollar-a-year energy business based in Palm Beach, Fla.

"My answer is, 'So what?' "

"What matters is who crosses the finish line first."

AGetting to the finish line was not without its bumps, bruises and innovations. But Koch, 6-feet-5, bespectacled and somewhat ungainly, was tough enough to get around the course.

Koch started out in 1984 in maxi-boats, top of the line, 80-foot ocean racers sailed by paid skippers and crews.

By 1989, his Matador had placed second in the Maxi Worlds. In December of 1990, Matador2 won the Maxi World Championship.

In Matador2, a group of naval architects hand-picked by Koch, had produced a boat that rolled over state-of-the-art designs by Bruce Farr, German Frers and David Pedrick.

Simply, Koch has been on a roll since.

"It [sailboat racing] is a mixture of, I would say, 55 percent boat speed, 30 percent skill and the rest is luck," said Koch, who spent $65 million on his cup campaign.

Early on, world class skippers moved through the America3 program as easily as through a revolving door -- Gary Jobson, Larry Klein and John Kostecki came and went, apparently none willing to share the wheel with an amateur helmsman with a Ph.D. in chemical engineering.

Buddy Melges, a 62-year-old boat builder from Zenda, Wisc., remained. Melges, along with a trunk full of Olympic, world and national championships, also brought along the core of his Heart of America syndicate from the 1987 Cup in Australia.

"We came along late in the game," Koch is fond of saying, "and all the time we have been playing catch-up."

But, said Larry Leonard, whose Sobstad sail loft in Annapolis is making 80 percent of America3's carbon fiber composite sails, Koch's campaign got a jump start because of technology taken from Matador 2 in the Maxi wars.

"The biggest speed component is the [hull of the] boat," said Leonard, who was with the New York Yacht Club's America II challenge program in 1987. "So, if you don't have a fast boat, everything else is kind of superfluous."

Koch's design team of Dr. Heiner Meldner, Dr. Jerome Milgram, Doug Peterson, Jim Pugh and John Reichel made certain that America3 was fast.

"We concentrated on technology and on sailing," Koch said. "Sailing is an art, and boat speed is a science.

"You have to marry the two in a happy fashion, and not in discord."

In addition to design innovations, Koch broke new ground in sail construction and hull construction.

His design team produced a heavier boat that still managed to be faster -- just as Matador2 had been in the Maxi Worlds.

Melges, tactician and starting helmsman Dave Dellenbaugh and two 17-man crews provided competitive training, and Conner and Stars & Stripes provided the incentive.

"He [Conner] did it in a number of ways," Koch said. "First, he pushed the hell out of us, which we needed.

"He knocked us off our pedestal when we were arrogant, which we also needed, and he put a lot of psychological pressure on us that we had to toughen up to."

Milgram, of the America3 design team, said that thmodifications made to Koch's narrow, 75-footer for the finals were the direct result of a close win over Conner in the defender finals.

Milgram also said that Il Moro was not the boat the America3 team feared in the cup match.

"We knew we had an advantage on the Italians," Milgram said. "We did not think they would be competitive.

"We were more fearful of the Kiwis, but only because they were an unknown."

The Italian boat, Milgram said, was conventional, while New Zealand had an unproven tandem keel.

But the Kiwis lost to the Italians in the challenger finals with the sort of panic-induced collapse that might have been expected from a cup rookie like Koch.

"We loved being the underdog," Koch said. "Everybody accused me of being a dilettante, and that's fine.

"But that made us just work harder."

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