An Everest-sized determination

SUN JOURNAL

Inspiration: Taking his cue from the mountain's conqueror, an Italian attempts to sail into the America's Cup finals.

February 04, 2000|By Bruce Stannard | Bruce Stannard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- Patrizio Bertelli has carefully positioned a New Zealand $5 note in the center of the notice board in his stark white office. The buff-colored note bears the shy, almost bashful image of a lanky young mountaineer Bertelli admires: Edmund Hillary, the first man to conquer the planet's highest peak, Mount Everest.

The note is there to remind Bertelli of an important principle: the power of one, the notion that an individual with vision, courage and determination can reach apparently impossible goals.

Hillary, a beekeeper, climbed through the Himalayas until he stood on the roof of the world.

"It's worth remembering," Bertelli says, nodding at the note, "that with the right focus, the right attitude, nothing is impossible."

In a sense, Bertelli is climbing his own Everest. His single-minded determination to capture the America's Cup -- sports' oldest and most elusive prize -- has put a $55 million dent in his fortune.

But after four months of steady ascent, he is at last poised for the final assault. All that stands between his Prada Challenge from Italy and the path to the summit is a brash young Californian with a fast boat.

Bertelli's sleek silver boat, named Luna Rossa, trails Paul Cayard's AmericaOne, four races to three, in the best-of-nine match-race battle to decide which will be the America's Cup's 30th challenger. The survivor will race against the holder of the Cup, Team New Zealand, in the finals later this month.

In the 150 years of Cup competition, it is doubtful that two more disparate contenders have gone head-to-head. Bertelli, a cultured, 54-year-old self-made billionaire, is one of the giants of the European fashion industry; Cayard, a 40-year-old professional sailor from San Francisco, is a blunt and sometimes abrasive product of California's go-get-'em, high-tech culture. They have one thing in common: an overriding desire to win the Cup.

Though their guarded compounds sit side by side on the Auckland waterfront, the cultural divide is such that they generally regard each other in wary silence. Occasionally, however, their antipathy bubbles over.

An Italian magazine quotes Cayard as saying, "The Italians have plenty of money, but no [sailing] talent."

That hurt Bertelli. He counters by noting the difference between Cayard and himself. He started a business and built up an annual turnover of $1 billion. Cayard had "only sailed boats," he says.

So what does Bertelli think he is doing, having fun throwing so much money away on a boat race?

He smiles, then answers in Italian. "Every human being needs an adventure," he says. "This, after all, is the motivation behind so much human endeavor.

"You always start off with a spirit of adventure, but then this adventure becomes something concrete. You become rational, pragmatic, effective. That is when you need to become a very attentive observer.

"I have had a passionate interest in America's Cup history for many years. It is for me the greatest sporting event in the world. Actually, it is something which transcends sport. For 1 1/2 centuries, the Cup has symbolized excellence in design and technology and human skill. Surely, these are goals toward which one can and should aspire."

There are those who suggest that the Cup is little more than a marketing exercise. After all, had not Thomas Lipton used his five challenges between 1899 and 1930 to promote Lipton's tea?

"Look," Bertelli says with just a hint of exasperation, "Prada is a world leader in the fashion business. It does not need the America's Cup to be known.

"Obviously, our America's Cup involvement has enhanced brand awareness, but there is no suggestion that it has resulted in increased business. That is not why I'm here. I want to win the Cup for its own sake, not for some commercial reason. No, that's not the way it is at all."

For an illustration of Bertelli's resolve to win the Cup, one needs only to examine the huge spinnakers he has provided for Luna Rossa. The balloon-like sails, which are flown at the bow while racing downwind, capturing the wind's power, are fashioned from an extraordinary ultra-lightweight and strong sailcloth fabric called Spectra, which is made from Cuben fiber. Cuben fiber is used in bulletproof vests.

It was developed in the United States for Bill Koch's winning 1992 America's Cup campaign with America3 (pronounced America Cubed) -- hence the name Cuben. A sandwich of films fused under tremendous vacuum pressure, Cuben fiber is expensive, and manufacturing output is low.

Bertelli's boat has blown out only one spinnaker in more than three months of competition, while Cayard's America One, which uses different fibers for its spinnakers, has destroyed at least eight. Bertelli cornered the Spectra market by buying up the entire stock and placing advance orders for all Cuben fiber produced until after the America's Cup regatta. In doing so, Prada has denied its competitors access.

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