Plattner’s Passion Gets the Best of Him

Twenty-five years ago, when his company SAP was a small German start-up, Hasso Plattner raced a Flying Dutchman in his spare time. On one upwind leg he found himself, while on starboard, forced to duck the same port-tack boat three times in a row. On the third such cross, utterly disgusted with the other sailor's brazen disregard for the rules, he refused to alter course and plowed right through his competitor's leeward rail, all but destroying the boat. Today, the billionaire CEO of one of the world's largest software companies admonishes his actions. Yet, his approach to his favorite pastime hasn't changed much in the years since, even though his yachts, and the costs of any similar rash actions, have grown significantly.

The 59-year-old Berliner competes with the same intensity as he did a quarter century ago. He’s a talented helmsman, who wins regularly, occasionally in spectacular fashion. He set course records for the Sydney Hobart and Cape Town to Rio races in 1996 (both have since been broken) was first to finish and first in his class in the 2001 Round Gotland Runt, and won the IMS Division of the 1993 Transpac. But his passion can still get the best of him. He once mooned a cameraman on Larry Ellison’s tender after losing the mast on his maxi Morning Glory during the 1996 Kenwood Cup and, more recently, stormed out of the 2002 Rolex Farr 40 Worlds mid-regatta after a protest was disallowed.

Let’s set the record straight. Despite what he may say, you never actually mooned Larry Ellison?

I’ll make a statement under oath. I never mooned Larry Ellison, or his Sayonara crew. I have 22 quotes signed by my crew, half of them the former Black Magic (NZL-32) crew, that it was the tender. Sayonara was long gone. There was no reason. I had nothing with Larry Ellison. He was racing by; I didn’t expect any help from them [one of Plattner’s crew was seriously injured trying to cut away the rigging and the prop wouldn’t engage]. But we expected help from the shore crew. That really upset me.

For Plattner’s complete recollection of that day, see link to the sidebar at the top of this interview.

And the supposed second mooning, in Sardinia, after you lost the Maxi World Championships to him in 1997?

The day when this supposedly happened, he'd already left. He didn't race the last race. They were moored inside and we moored outside. We never went by him.
I met him in Italy and I said, "Larry, why are you doing this?"
"I'm not doing anything," he said. "I don't know what you're talking about. You never mooned me. I never saw anything."
I said, "Larry, who's writing this s---?"
"I don't know, I will take care of it."
And then he said it again. So that's Larry Ellison.

On to more pleasant subjects. You’re building a 147-foot Baltic, your first superyacht. What prompted you to build it?

I don't know. If nobody is stopping you, you might do the most foolish things in life. I don't know whether this is the right way to go, but the name is Visione, and it's a very aggressive approach to a superyacht, a nice composition of carbon and titanium.

What do you hope to do with it?

First of all, it’s a cruising boat. But it’s probably the fastest cruising boat ever--until somebody builds a faster one. It’s a pure racing yacht with 5 tons of furniture.

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| Ivor Wilkins/Courtesy SAP|

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| Hasso Plattner (left) shakes hands with Ross Blackman, CEO of Team New Zealand. Plattner's company SAP was a major sponsor of Team New Zealand during the 2003 defense.* * *|

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Will you use it for the transatlantic race to Germany this summer?

I haven't made a decision yet. It's a great race, but I don't feel obliged to throw my hand in for the Kaiser. (Laughs), I'm a bit worried about going around north of Scotland. That's pretty cold and tough. So there are two options: do it with the 81-footer or the big boat.
I don't know whether I want to put the big boat at risk. If the mast comes down, it's decommissioned for one and a half years. The raceboat, fine. It happens and we get a new mast in three months. But you don't build a 53-meter mast in three months.

Any plans to build a new raceboat?

Yes. I’m a member of the 87-foot class (the MaxZ86).

It’s rumored that Bob McNeill’s Zephyrus V, the first MaxZ86, didn’t have a canting keel, but your boat will. Is this true?

Decisions are now being made. There is a tendency to go for real grand-prix ocean racing boats that are as safe and fast as possible. And to some extent, there’s cost control so we don’t get crazy and kill ourselves. We all agree on that, but there is a tendency to go for the best technology. If the best technology is a canting keel, then we go for a canting keel.

What are your hopes for this class?

We want to get the grand-prix class together and have five to eight boats. You feel much better when you sail against the same type of boat--even if you’re last, it’s a fight to the last minute. When you sail against a boat where on paper you had to win, it’s not that big a win. When you lose, against a boat where you had to win on paper, like when I lost to Boomerang in the Bermuda Race, that’s s----y.

You had a particularly tough Bermuda Race last year, losing two crewmembers overboard.

That was the breaking point. After that, I lost morale. I saw them flying and I was so frightened. They flew at least 40 feet, probably 50 feet, through the air, tumbling. If they’d hit something, it would’ve been a disaster.

And you were the one who pulled the MOB module off the back?

That’s even worse. I pulled it off within 10 seconds, but then I was working for 5 minutes to get if off and couldn’t figure it out. I thought the module was still there. When they came on board I saw them in this yellow ring with the high neck and they said, "Thank you for getting the MOB overboard so quickly." I’d disassembled the whole thing to find out there’s no module there. That was, for me, maximum stress. The risk that we don’t see them.

In conditions like that, you could’ve easily stayed below. Were you adamant about staying on deck?

I only sail if I do my full driver’s job. I drove probably one-quarter to one-third of the time.

The Farr 40 Worlds in the Bahamas was another stressful regatta for you, but for a different reason. What happened there?

We were in seventh place, and I went home because I could not agree with the presentation of the facts by two other tacticians. I protested them--it was a two-boatlength circle issue--and we were clearly inside and they said we were outside. I was probably not legally savvy enough to prove that.
I asked both tacticians two questions, just for the facts, and they denied the facts. I said, "OK, fine. We can have different interpretations of a situation. But to clearly deny something which happened and then could've led to a different interpretation¿" It made me so nuts that I went home, which probably wasn't right.

You’ve been sailing long enough to know that no one agrees when they go into the room, and that it’s a 50-50 shot whether you win or lose.

You bend, and you do everything in your favor. That’s all fully understood.

You had a good scoreline to that point.

We were in the hunt, and getting better and better. Whenever there was wind, we were probably the fastest boat. But I'm struggling with this for 10 years, the Corinthian ideals of sailing. It's not bad to sail with pros. It's fun to sail the boats as fast as possible, but you get so eager, then you do everything to win and the whole thing becomes aggressive.
Last year in the Farr 40 I had $20,000 worth of damage I had to get repaired, and Ihave to pay $60,000 just because we bang into each other. That is not right.

But aggressive sailing is the hallmark of the Farr 40 class. If that bothers you, what do you enjoy about the class?

I don’t know, probably I’m schizophrenic about that. I sailed 470s before--that’s the most aggressive of all the dinghy classes--and when I came to the Flying Dutchman at the age of 36 or so, I was more aggressive than most of the FD sailors. On one hand, I like this, on the other hand¿can we keep it, despite all the aggression, can we keep some of Elvström’s ethics so we don’t cheat.

Do you feel pulling out of the Farr 40 Worlds was a little impulsive?

I was upset. I shouldn’t have gone to the protest. Actually, the direction I would like to go in, if I can find support, is that protests should be between the owners and not the professionals.

So, will you continue to sail in the class?

I’ve decided I’ll go back to the Farr 40 because the day I went home we had a fourth and a second.

Any other goals for the next few years?

If I have one on my list, it’s the Bermuda Race. Twice I went for it and led after two hours--that means in the flat water we were the fastest boat--and we lost the race.

What about the America’s Cup? SAP was a major sponsor of Team New Zealand this time around. Will you take a more active role in a campaign in the future?

Most likely not. I don’t have enough passion for that, or patience. I know that it’s too late, I cannot participate, and I’m not interested in sitting in the 17th man seat--I’m too much a sailor and a driver.

For more of Plattner’s thoughts on the America’s Cup, check out http://www.sailingworld.com/sw_article_AC.php?articleID=1589