Ellison questions safety of America's Cup venue

Software tycoon and sailor Larry Ellison questioned the safety of the Persian Gulf port picked for the America's Cup showdown between his American-based crew and defending champion Alinghi of Switzerland.

Ellison, the Oracle Corp founder and CEO who owns BMW Oracle Racing, said today he's never been to Ras al-Khaimah, United Arab Emirates, which was named last week by Alinghi as the port for the best-of-three race starting on February 8 for the oldest trophy in international sports.

"I don't exactly know what to say," Ellison said during the official presentation of his crew and the giant trimaran it will sail. "I think they picked it because it's very light winds. I'm a little bit concerned because it's less than 160km from Iran, so we're all concerned about the safety of our crew and our shore crew and everyone setting set up there."

Ras al-Khaimah is on the southern end of the Persian Gulf and not far from the Strait of Hormuz, which separates the peninsula from Iran.

"People say, `Oh my God, the Emirates, that's where Roger Federer trains for tennis and that's where Formula One races'," said Ellison, who will sail aboard the 27-metre trimaran.

"Not this part of the Emirates. There's an oil depot, we're concerned about electricity, we're concerned about a lot of things. We're concerned about the proximity to Iran.

"I know a lot of people in the UAE. We like them a lot. Oracle does do a lot of business with the UAE. Nothing bad to say about the UAE at all, but we are concerned about the suitability of this particular venue for a race like this."

New Zealander Russell Coutts, one of the most dominant skippers in America's Cup history, is BMW Oracle Racing's skipper and CEO.

But Coutts said he's not sure how often he'll sail the trimaran, which will be renamed USA once sea trials are completed and a Certificate of Documentation is obtained from the Coast Guard.

Coutts sailed unbeaten through three America's Cup matches, the first two with Team New Zealand and then for Alinghi in its 5-0 win over the Kiwis in 2003. He was fired by Bertarelli and sat out the 2007 America's Cup, when Alinghi successfully defended the Cup with a 5-2 win over Team New Zealand.

Coutts is 14-0 in America's Cup matches. Before Race 5 against Luna Rossa in 2000, he took himself off the boat and let understudy Dean Barker steer in the clinching race.

Also today, BMW Oracle Racing named Australian Jimmy Spithill as helmsman for its races with Alinghi.

Spithill will be sailing in his fourth America's Cup.

The 30-year-old Spithill sailed with Young Australia in 1999-2000, when he was the youngest skipper in America's Cup history. He also sailed for American syndicate OneWorld in 2002-2003 and Italy's Luna Rossa in 2007.

Ellison said he used to have a cordial relationship with biotech tycoon Ernesto Bertarelli, who owns Alinghi and its 27-metre catamaran, Alinghi 5.

Asked why the America's Cup has gotten to this point, Ellison said:

"Ernesto's afraid of losing to Russell. He almost lost to Team New Zealand last time, and Russell's very good at this and Jimmy's very good at this, so we've got a very good team. He doesn't think he can compete with a level playing field. I mean, he's sailed with Russell and he's sailed without Russell and he's sailed a whole lot better when Russell was on their team.

"I've sailed with Russell, and I've sailed without Russell," Ellison said. "It's great to have Russell on your team. It's not just that he's a good sailor. He's a great engineer, he's a great manager, he's a great leader, all of those things. The first guy he recruited was Jimmy."

BMW Oracle Racing is backed by San Francisco's Golden Gate Yacht Club. It has been testing its space age-looking trimaran in San Diego since last autumn and will be here until November.

Legal bickering aside, the showdown between two of the fastest sailboats ever built is expected to provide the most extreme, spectacular racing in the 158-year history of the America's Cup.

The rare one-on-one match is the result of a convoluted, two-year court fight between billionaires Ellison and Bertarelli. Ellison said BMW Oracle Racing likely will be back in court regarding rules, on-the-water umpires and the race jury.

"It is impossible for us to win if they control the jury and the umpires," Ellison said .

"Can't. They've got to let us win - 'OK, they beat us on the water, we're going to choose not to disqualify you because we're nice guys.' You think Ernesto's not going to disqualify us?

"Now, we hope the court will say that Alinghi cannot control the jury and Alinghi cannot control the umpires and Alinghi cannot make any rule it wants one minute before the race starts. I think we'll be successful."