For the first time in its 154-year-history, the world's greatest yachting race -- the America's Cup -- will include a German team.
Donnermuth (c.) and Bank (r.) brought Germany to the Cup
Spectators on Germany's Bodensee over the weekend saw some thrilling one-on-one racing between the high-speed, ultra-expensive boats that will compete in sailing's oldest regatta in 2007.
Amid the Cup defenders Alinghi from Switzerland, and challengers BMW/Oracle Racing, fronted by Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, a new entrant was making waves -- and not just because it had surpringly qualified itself for the semifinals.
United Internet Team Germany, which took part in its first races over the weekend, will be the first German team to take part in the America's Cup since it began 154 years ago.
The entry is a landmark for German sailing, which in the past has tried unsuccessfully to drum up enough financial support for the millionaire's regatta. This venture was spearheaded by German sailing legend Willy Kuhweide and backed by between 25 and 45 million euros ($32 to $57 million) from Rolf Donnermuth, the CEO of the United Internet Company.
"We've gotten a late start, but we will concentrate on this historical assignment for Germany," said Jesper Bank, a Danish Olympic gold medalist who will skipper Germany's boat.
Rich boy's race
In the coming weeks, Bank will set about recruiting the rest of his 17-man team, which will compete in the 32nd America's Cup in June 2007 in Valencia. United Internet Germany is in the final discussions in buying two used boats to practice and take part in the first two "acts" of the tournament this June.
The America's Cup is sailing's oldest trophy
A shipyard in Kiel, in northern Germany, will build the boat. Bremerhaven yacht designers Judel/Vrolijk, which designed Alinghi, Swiss millionaire Ernesto Bertarelli's boat that won the Cup in 2003, will design the German boat as well. Kuhweide expects it to start sailing at the beginning of 2006.
Aside from designers, the German entry will have little in common with the cup winners from the Alps. Alinghi beat a powerful Team New Zealand in the last regatta with the help of the world's top sailors recruited from other teams with a seemingly unending flow of money. Alinghi's budget is expected to be around $100 million.
The money invested is one reason United Internet Team Germany will most likely fade out in the qualifying or quarterfinal rounds. But Donnermuth has remained optimistic, saying the venture "will not fail because of money."
The Internet businessman initially had doubts when Kuhweide approached him to finance the project. But Donnermuth changed his mind upon considering the logical partnership of sailing and modern technology and of the sport's comparatively clean image.
"Sailing is a sport without doping, without accidents and with pretty pictures of sun and sea," said Donnermuth.
No doubt the fact that Germany's two major public television stations, ARD and ZDF, have signed on to broadcast 60 hours of the event live will delight the marketing man in Donnermuth. His boat will be covered in the German internet domain names that make up the United Internet empire.
Slow to realize potential
German companies have been involved in the America's Cup before, but never invested in a German team. BMW is the co-sponsor of BMW/Oracle Racing, the San Francisco-based team headed by Oracle CEO Larry Ellison that is expected to make a vigorous challenge for the Cup in 2007, and outspend the Swiss. T-Systems, Deutsche Telekom's computer segment, has signed on to sponsor the Shosholoza Team, from South Africa. German software maker SAP is sponsoring Team New Zealand.
Alinghi of Switzerland, left, and Oracle BMW Racing, right, sailing on the San Francisco Bay in 2003
"The hierarchies in other companies are much too dense and there are few people that can make quick decisions," said Kuhweide, of the problems in finding major sponsors, in an interview with Der Spiegel newsmagazine. "In addition to that people are only now beginning to realize what sort image potential lies in participating in the America's Cup."