BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : MAY 8, 2000 ISSUE
COVER STORY

Larry Ellison's Brush with Death aboard Sayonara
''We certainly thought it was possible we wouldn't make it''

For Oracle Corp. Chairman Lawrence J. Ellison, competing head-to-head with the likes of Microsoft Chairman William H. Gates III in the roiling software industry isn't enough of a thrill. For extra kicks, he races yachts on the high seas. But when a typhoon struck during a sailing race off the coast of Australia in December, 1998, it was anything but fun for Ellison or his compatriots. Six sailors from other boats died. While the worst injuries sustained on his 78-foot Sayonara were broken bones, Ellison was shaken by the experience. He went on to win that race, and he has sailed competitively since. But he has rarely talked in detail about what it was like to nearly lose everything. We asked if the experience had changed him. Here is Ellison's answer:

It shook up all 24 of us. That crew was the same crew that was on Black Magic, which won the America's Cup for New Zealand [in 1995]. It's an amazingly professional crew. All those guys were shook up. I've known for a long time that life is glorious and fragile and short. This reemphasized it -- it didn't really change me.

It was amazing. We certainly thought it was possible we wouldn't make it. The waves were 40-feet high. They were vertical. They were walls. If you didn't wear a cable, you'd just be blown off the back of the boat. There were four guys with broken bones. We were driving onto this thing. If you didn't let go of the wheel, it would be pulled off the pedestal. You let go and grabbed back onto the wheel.

UP AN ELEVATOR. You'd just bury yourself in the wave. It was like going up an elevator. Normally, the dangerous part of a wave is sliding down the back. You start surfing. You can actually turn side-on and roll the boat. But we didn't have that problem. The back of the wave was so steep that you'd just exit the wave and fall straight down like a ball in an elevator shaft -- one, one thousand; two, one thousand; three, one thousand. Crash! It was like being dropped off a four-story building onto asphalt every 45 seconds. That happened for three hours. It was very bad.

We thought we'd break the bow, lose a rudder. Any number of things could have caused us to sink. We had such a huge lead in the race. We were far off the coast. If we went into the water, the closest thing would have been a Navy frigate 24 hours away. We would have had about an hour of life in water that cold.

There wasn't palpable fear on the boat. You're so busy doing your job that there's no time to think about dying. The end was incredible. No sleep for three days. No eating for three days. You arrive in the Derwent. It's a river on the way up to the capital of Tasmania, Hobart. It's a short sail up there. It's a beautiful sunrise. The sky is pink and amber and Prussian blue. It's gorgeous. There's heather on the hills. It's a Scottish community. A small boat pulls up next to you, and with bagpipes, greets the winner. Incredibly somber bagpipe music is playing. Gorgeous sunrise. Beautiful.

TOUGH GUYS CRYING. It's something I'll never forget in my entire life. The glory, the wonder of being alive. The boat coasts in. The thing about New Zealand sailors -- most American sailors are kind of preppy, wealthy kids, but in New Zealand there are more sailboats than there are cars. Everyone sails. It's a blue-collar sport. These are tough guys -- rugby players, car mechanics. They're professional sailors. They're a little bit older: mid-30s. They were expressionless from exhaustion.

We arrive at the dock and everyone sees their wife or girlfriend. There was not a single dry eye among all those very tough guys. It was an amazing moment. I'll never forget the experience. And the explanation contained therein of what it means to be a human being. It was incredible. But philosophically changed? Have I changed my life? Do I do things differently? No. Not really. I sure love those guys though.

By Steve Hamm in New York

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