By SUZANNE McFADDEN
Katana, dazzling white, brazen and voluptuous, is waiting in the Viaduct Basin for her boss to return.
This grand floating palace, three-quarters of a rugby field long, takes up an entire side of Te Whero Island, at Auckland's downtown basin. She has a multitude of rooms, stylishly sparse and white, a separate two-floor apartment for her owner, and a basketball court on the aft deck.
Larry Ellison has yet to arrive in Auckland - he's expected any day now - and his beloved Katana is ready to take him in.
But if you think Katana is big, wait till you see Ellison's new boat, being built in Germany. Katana, the name of a Japanese sword, is 75m long. His new superyacht 117m. It will have a full-time crew of 50 ragmen (live-in superyacht staff) who will polish and wash her down every day, even when the computer billionaire is not in town.
Hearsay has it there is even a chamber on board just to hold the sporting world's oldest trophy. Yes, he's building an America's Cup room.
Patriotic New Zealanders will recoil at the arrogance of the guy. So what if he is the world's fifth richest man - he can't buy our America's Cup!
But if 58-year-old American Larry Ellison, self-made man, and his Oracle BMW Racing team succeed in unbolting the silverware from its Fort Knox cabinet in the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, we may only have ourselves to blame.
After all, New Zealanders have encouraged and influenced Ellison's sailing career to the point where he feels he and his team have the best chance of winning the America's Cup for the United States in more than a decade.
Having squillions of dollars has got to help. Ellison, who for a few days in 2000 was the richest man in the world, is reaching into his own pockets to fund most of this US$85 million campaign. When your personal net worth is around US$23.5 billion, it must be like buying a new car (a BMW seven series, of course).
He assures Oracle Corporation shareholders that "not a single dime" from Oracle, the world's second-largest software company, has been spent on what most of them may think is his sailing whim.
His now-famous line, "It's cheap, I'm surprised more people don't do it", has already been written into the America's Cup annals.
But there was a time when Ellison had to give up his passion for sailing because he could not afford it.
Lawrence Joseph Ellison grew up in a "Jewish ghetto" in Chicago with lower middle-class relatives. His unwed mother handed him to an aunt and uncle to raise. The uncle told him he would never amount to anything.
Ellison went to two universities - Illinois and Chicago - and never stayed long enough to get a degree, but picked up a book and taught himself computer programming.
In the 1970s he moved to California to work in Silicon Valley. He started in PC companies until he and three partners decided to build a commercial relational database; software offering a new way to organise information. Each chipped in $2000 to the project, but nobody else would invest. It took Ellison and his partners two years to get the first version of Oracle out, in 1979. He then spent five weeks on the road trying to sell it to companies and teaching them how to use it. Ellison never looked back.
It was in San Francisco that he was drawn to the bay, and the romance of sailing boats. He started sailing 14-foot yachts he calls "Tupperware boats" - they were all he could pay for. When he had made enough money to buy a 34-footer, it was a short-lived love affair.
"I said, 'It's you or me baby'. I was going to [have to] move on to the boat and live there. I just couldn't afford it," Ellison says. So he sold her, and quit sailing.
It was not until the mid-90s that he was enticed back to the sea - by a New Zealander.
At the annual Oracle Corporation conference last December, Ellison told a small crowd about his "Kiwi friend", David Thomson, who revived his yacht-racing career.
Thomson, an expat-New Zealander and entrepreneur living in San Francisco, today owns NZL20, New Zealand's 1992 America's Cup yacht, and races her against Ellison's old OneAmerica cup boats.
So the story goes, the now-wealthy Ellison was working out at the gym, next to Thomson, who asked him if he sailed.
"I said, 'Yes, well, I used to sail, but I don't sail any more. I had to stop sailing because I couldn't afford a boat'. I thought about it for a second and said, 'Well, I can afford a boat now'," Ellison recalled.
From there Thomson introduced Ellison to another expat-Kiwi, Bruce Farr, who designed a maxi yacht for him called Sayonara.
(Ellison's penchant for giving his boats Japanese names stems from a fascination with Japan and its culture. His home in San Francisco is 10 Japanese-style buildings set among 16ha of Japanese garden.)
Sayonara became the world's fastest maxi yacht, and a decent percentage of her sailors were usually New Zealanders.
Mid-2000, Ellison and his crew were sitting around a table in a bar in Antigua after winning a regatta when the topic of the America's Cup slid into the conversation. Someone asked Team New Zealand's veteran trimmer Tony Rae (nickname Trae) if he was going to do the next cup regatta in 2003.
He said he probably would, but a lot of the Team New Zealand guys were being approached to sail for rival syndicates. Bill Erkelens, who ran the Sayonara racing team, says Ellison was taken aback.
"He had no idea you could sail for another country, he thought it was all based on passports," Erkelens says. "Then a lightbulb goes off in Larry's head, and he says to Trae: 'So if I had a team, could you sail in it?' And suddenly it's, 'Okay then, let's enter the America's Cup!'
"Larry's nephew from Chicago comes running over to me and says things were getting a little out of hand. When I get to the table, Larry says, 'Bill, we're going to the America's Cup.' It was the last night of the regatta, Larry went home the next morning, and I thought that was the last I'd hear about it. But a week later he called me to say, 'Do you have a crew yet'?"
Several weeks later, as the Sayonara team prepared for the world maxi championships in Newport, Rhode Island, on waters steeped in America's Cup history, Erkelens ran around the camps trying to hire sailors, designers and shore crew.
"We were pretty late - Prada, OneWorld and Alinghi were already negotiating with guys. But we were lucky," says Erkelens, who today is Oracle BMW Racing's chief operations officer.
Rae stayed with Team New Zealand, but other Sayonara regulars decided to go with Ellison - such as Team New Zealanders Robbie Naismith and Mike Sanderson. Farr and fellow New Zealand designer Russell Bowler have drawn up the two new hulls. The boat's afterguard had some of the best names in the game: Stars & Stripes' Peter Holmberg, Italian Tommaso Chieffi, Australian design guru Ian Burns, New Zealanders John Cutler and Chris Dickson, and OneAmerica skipper Paul Cayard.
The latter two names have since been scratched from the sailing start list - Dickson for differences with some of the crew, Cayard for differences with Ellison.
At the helm of Oracle, the software company, Ellison has a reputation for cavalier firings. The Sunday Times has called him "an IT rock star" and Business Week, "Silicon Valley's bad boy". He is famous worldwide for his passionate, and sometimes fierce, leadership and his never-ending goal to become No 1. The father of two has created a new sport trying to topple rival Bill Gates.
Does he have that same kind of fervour to win the America's Cup?
In a question-and-answer session in the latest Playboy magazine, Ellison was asked why billionaires like himself, Ted Turner and Richard Branson became obsessed with winning the America's Cup or sailing a balloon around the globe.
"We just enjoy the competition. We're endlessly curious about each other and ourselves. We're curious about our limits. Can I win the Pulitzer prize? Can I finish that novel?" Ellison says.
"I'm satisfying my curiosity to find out if we can engineer a boat and sail that boat well enough, better than anyone else in the world. I think I can, but I don't know."
In another interview, wearing a "USA" sweatshirt - unusually casual for a man dubbed one of world's best-dressed - Ellison talks about why he chose the America's Cup to quench this need that successful men have.
"I have driven ... Sayonara to four maxi world championships, the next level before you get to the America's Cup, the last stop in sailboat racing. When you've won four consecutive world championships, what's left is the America's Cup."
It is no secret that he loves the risk of it all. There is no monetary prize for winning the cup and you never make a profit from it. "You race, you're done and you throw the boats away", Ellison quips.
At work and at play, he is always risking something, including his life. Ellison, about to be married for a fourth time, has surfed in storms in Hawaii, once breaking his neck on a monstrous wave, and snapped his arm in 28 places in a bike race. For fun he flies a MiG fighter jet and drives a McClaren grand prix car. He came as close to death as he would want to be sailing in the storm-stricken 1998 Sydney-Hobart race, which claimed the lives of six other sailors.
"I know some people are offended by the fact that I'm spending a lot of money trying to win the America's Cup. I could have given all that money to charity," he tells Playboy. "Well, I do give hundreds of millions of dollars - lots and lots - away."
Ellison pours money into the Ellison Medical Foundation, which works towards fighting infectious diseases in Africa, finding a cure for cancer and investigating an anti-ageing hormone. He has also been known to make donations to political candidates. He is a big fan of Bill Clinton, and goes nightclubbing with him.
In the sailing world, Ellison has his critics, who believe he is a rich man who has bought himself a ride on an America's Cup boat. Ellison makes no bones about his decision to steer USA71 or USA76 during the Louis Vuitton Cup challenger series.
"Yes, I'm absolutely going to drive the boat. I certainly won't drive if I'm going to hurt the team, and I'm not going to drive any starts ... That would just be stupid."
Holmberg, this year's No 1 matchrace skipper, will drive the boats most of the time. But Ellison is no novice at the wheel. Experienced sailors such as Bill Erkelens and John Cutler confirm the boss can sail.
"He's a very good sailor. He concentrates very hard, and he has a pretty good understanding of the game," says Cutler, who manages Oracle BMW Racing's sailing team.
Adds Erkelens: "He's a numbers man. He's very focused on numbers and targets. He can concentrate for long periods of time and not lose it. He's also very humble. He listens to what people suggest - he doesn't think he knows it all."
Over the past seven years, Ellison has had some of the world's best coaches. People like Holmberg, Brad Butterworth, Cayard and, in particular, Dickson.
Both Dickson and Cayard, two of the great skippers in modern-day Cup history, are under contract to Oracle BMW Racing until the end of this regatta. Erkelens says Dickson still comes to the base once a week to work on rules and protocol matters, and on some research projects. He and Ellison "still like each other".
"We've had personal problems and equipment problems - like keels falling off our old boats," says Erkelens. "But the keel issue helped pull the team together."
Erkelens admits the hardest challenge has been creating a team bond among their 140 people who were spread across almost all of the competing syndicates in the last cup. They've stayed at a scout camp in the mountains near Santa Barbara and competed in their own multisport events here in Auckland.
Erkelens believes it has worked, and it is a team to be proud of. Ellison has always been confident that he has the best sailors, designers and boats along Syndicate Row, the Auckland street where all the cup players are based.
"There's no sailing team better than our sailing team, and I don't think there's any boat that's faster than [our] boats," Ellison told the Oracle conference.
Back then, he was picking his team to meet Italy's Prada in the challenger final and "I think we'll win. I think we're at least as good; we're as good as Team New Zealand."
Although he's never been there before, Ellison can already envisage Oracle BMW Racing lining up against the defender next February, and he's putting his money on his old Sayonara team doing the business.
"Team Sayonara hasn't lost a buoy race since 1995. Team New Zealand hasn't lost since 1995," he says. "Someone is going to lose in 2003, we just don't know who yet."
Team role: Syndicate head
Crew role: Second helmsman
Date of birth: August 17, 1944
Family: Divorced three times, engaged to novelist Melanie Craft. Two children (one son, one daughter).
Occupation: Founder, chairman and chief executive of Oracle Corporation.
Cup career: First attempt
Sailing career: Four world maxi championships, Team Sayonara.