Rich Roberts Reports
Dickson May Face An Unstable Ship
By Rich Roberts
Stu Argo is headed home to Michigan, which is as far away from Chris Dickson as he can get.
Argo is the first crew member to resign from the Oracle BMW Racing Team since owner Larry Ellison fired Peter Holmberg and resurrected Dickson from limbo as skipper and primary helmsman.
It's possible there will be more, since these are the same guys who made it clear eight months ago that they didn't want Dickson around. Now Ellison, who remains as the secondary helmsman, is shoving Dickson down their throats, which Argo found puzzling.
Welcome to Happy Camp.
Argo, a sail trimmer in two previous America's Cups, has sailed
A YachtRacing.com source said, "Stu and Chris never did get along. Stu was very professional. He said thanks but it won't work, best wishes."
Dickson didn't attend the skippers' press conference after the day's racing but Ellison was asked, "Do you believe that you’ve engendered teamwork by introducing as your helmsman a man who is so evidently unpopular with the rest of the team?"
Ellison bristled in response: "Evidently unpopular to who? I don’t accept your statement that he’s evidently unpopular. There was very broad support for Chris."
Nevertheless, Argo decided to leave the day before Dickson sailed his first race. At the morning crew meeting Ellison announced that Dickson was back and in charge of the sailing program. When Dickson drove the backup boat later that day, rumors started flying.
Argo, referring to Dickson as Ellison's "ex-wife," e-mailed this report to his Bayview Yacht Club in Detroit, Mich.:
"Larry decided that we weren't putting enough points on the board and decided to marry his ex-wife for the third time. Chris Dixon [sic] was put in charge of everything yesterday morning and the snowball hit the first house.
"After Larry's decision during the morning meeting most people were wondering whether to fish or cut bait and I looked around and saw the s---was starting to float close to the top of my hip waders and decided to reach for the 747. I am a huge believer in chemistry on a team and the pill was too large to swallow, said a few words to that effect and bowed out gracefully.
Other crew members were joined by members of other teams at an impromptu sendoff party for Argo, a popular member of the international sailing community.
A report that Ellison also had sacked Bill Erkelens, the team's administrative manager, was false.
Dickson, 40, also replaces the veteran John Cutler as sailing team manager. Cutler, a close friend of Holmberg, remains a member of the afterguard but in a subtly reduced role.
Argo also wrote home: "John Cutler and Tomasso Chieffi have switched rolls onboard from the first round. Tomasso has slid into the tactical role from stategist and visa versa. Not a big change, just who says go after bouncing things off each other."
Holmberg now finds himself in the same boat as Paul Cayard, so to speak, although he could wind up back on the backup boat for tuning and testing purposes---or, Ellison suggested, even back driving the "A" boat.
Ellison said, "I expect you’ll see times where Peter is driving the boat and Chris is tactician. That may very well happen. That is not my call, it’s Chris Dickson’s call.
"Peter did a brilliant job helming the boat for the most part. You can’t explain any of our losses through bad starting of the boat, bad helming of the boat. It had nothing to do with that at all. I think we just had to improve the communication on the sailing team. This change was really designed to improve communication on the sailing team. And to get a fresh set of eyes, have a look at what we’re doing, the way we’re turning the sails."
Ellison sidestepped a question about Cayard returning. Cayard remains in San Francisco. He has been beached for a year, his demotion still unexplained and limited to performing nondescript "administrative duties." Obviously, Ellison prefers to keep him idle on the payroll, lest he lend his considerable talent and charisma to a competitor.
In the context of mainstream sports, Ellison's move is typical of anxious owners inclined to fire managers or coaches when the team fails to perform. A common pattern is to replace a leader they regard as too low-key (Holmberg) with a stern taskmaster (Dickson) who will whip the team into shape.
In a press conference Ellison promised, sort of, that there would no more skipper changes.
He said, "We pick one leader and I support that one leader right up until the very moment we make a change"---hardly a ringing vote of confidence.
Like Ellison, observers have given Holmberg high marks for his pre-start boat handling---especially a daring hairpin-turn escape around the pin buoy in a race against Seattle's OneWorld and its own fair-haired helmsman, the young James Spithill.
However, that race was lost, but, as Ellison suggested above, like the other setbacks turned on race developments apparently related less to driving, crew work or even boat speed than to positioning the boat poorly in the tricky wind shifts of the Hauraki Gulf. Those decisions ordinarily don't rest with the helmsman, although on most boats he'll make the final call.
Dickson's sailing skill is undeniable, and he doesn't shy away from his reputation as a hard-driving skipper whose priority is not to be buddies with the crew, a trait that has cost him setbacks in what might have been an even more brilliant career.
"Yacht racing is a business," he told this reporter in an interview for Sailing World Magazine 3 1/2 years ago. "If I'm involved with a program and my job is to try to win a race, I'm not interested and won't tolerate people that are unprofessional [or] not prepared to make the sacrifices to win.
"People that are lazy and simply there to collect a paycheck get zero respect from me. I don't have any problem getting rid of people that are holding the team back.
"Every now and then you find yourself on a boat that's not out there to win, [with] a team that doesn't care about winning. If that's the case they can save themselves a whole lot of money because they don't need to pay people like me or Paul Cayard to be there. Plenty of people would go for free for a good time. I'd rather go fishing."
A short time will tell whether it's time for Oracle to go fishing.
But if you see the crew putting Ellison and Dickson overboard
in a rowboat and heading for Pitcairn Island, you'll know it hasn't