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Oracle’s Ellison Defends ‘Risky’ Tactics In America’s Cup

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Larry Ellison in an interview from his Bay Area compound with CBS News. (CBS)

Larry Ellison in an interview from his Bay Area compound with CBS News. (CBS)

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SAN FRANCISCO (CBS News) — Oracle CEO Larry Ellison is leading and sponsoring the American sailing team in the 2013 America’s Cup competition. The Oracle team won the last race and as such, Ellison was able to choose this year’s location, the San Francisco Bay. The Oracle Team also got to design the boats and set many of the rules.

“We’re competing with other sports to get kids attention. We’ve got to make our sport exciting and we’ve got to modernize it. … It can’t be unchanged since 1851,” Ellison told CBS News about his efforts to update the sport.

Today’s America’s Cup yachts are carbon fiber catamarans propelled by a 13-story rigid wing. The teams have the ability to fly the entire boat out of the water on small feet, in a dramatic-looking tactic known as foiling.

The new, cutting-edge boats are not without criticism and Ellison defends what some call risky engineering and sailing tactics, explaining, “People really criticize professional athletes going into the Olympics. People don’t like change. A bunch of people don’t like the Olympics now because we’ve added skateboarding. … We’re modernizing the sport.”

Modernization has been a pricey process — the estimated cost to mount an America’s Cup campaign in 2013 is over $100 million. And controversy has continued to swirl around Ellison’s envelope-pushing ways after several instances of boats capsizing on the San Francisco Bay.

Oracle Team USA capsized one of its boats last October, but no one was hurt. Tragedy struck one of Oracle’s competitors however. British sailor Andrew Simpson, 36 — nicknamed Bart — was trapped under the wreckage of a crash while racing with the Swedish team Artemis Racing, and died.

“The accident that we had on the Swedish boat was a freak accident,” Ellison said, explaining, “There was actually a structural failure on the boat. … The boat flipped over and Bart Simpson was actually trapped between the two hulls. And we couldn’t find him for seven minutes. We had divers in the water 30 seconds after that boat flipped over. We’ve taken, you know, lots of safety precautions.”

While Ellison said Simpson’s death had a profound personal impact on him, he maintains the sport has not gotten too dangerous.

“I thought about it. … I think we’ve made the right decision. I think to make this sport an economically viable sport, we have to have fast, modern boats. It has to be a popular TV sport. It has to be attractive to be kids. … It has to be a little bit risky.”

(© 2013 CBS San Francisco and CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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