SAN JOSE -- There's an old nautical joke. It goes this way: The two happiest days for any sailboat owner are the day he buys the boat ... and the day he sells the boat.

At the moment, San Francisco probably feels the same way about this summer's America's Cup on the bay. The city's two happiest sailing memories might be the day it agreed to host the regatta ... and the day it mercifully is over.

Last month, Larry Ellison was buttonholed at a party by this newspaper's intrepid yachting reporter, Julia Prodis Sulek. She asked if he planned to personally compete on the boat he's sponsoring as the America's Cup defending champion.

Team New Zealand practices with their AC72 Friday afternoon May 24, 2013, racing between an inbound tanker and Alcatraz Island in preparation for the
Team New Zealand practices with their AC72 Friday afternoon May 24, 2013, racing between an inbound tanker and Alcatraz Island in preparation for the America's Cup competition starting in July. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

Ellison, the 68-year-old chief executive of Oracle software, said he wasn't ruling out any crew position for himself but probably needed to get in better physical shape.

Know what? There should be no option. Ellison should be forced to man his boat at all times, so that he absorbs the full impact of the salty-spray mess he has spawned.

It's staggering to ponder how much air already has leaked out of the America's Cup hype balloon. According to the original advertising, this was supposed to be the most glorious series of sailboat races ever witnessed on any body of water in any galaxy.


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Now? Thanks to grave miscalculations on the part of uber-rich-guy Ellison and his organizing team for the event, the spectators who expected to show up along the San Francisco waterfront in July for 18 days of sailing competition may see as few as five days of actual racing.

And that's only if none of the remaining three or four boats capsize and fall apart, as happened last month to the Artemis craft from Sweden, resulting in the death of one crew member.

Makes you wonder: By the time we slog through August to reach the actual America's Cup finals in September, will there even be two boats left? And will anyone care?

Ellison's original idea might have been well intended. After he won the 2010 America's Cup in Spain, rules permitted him to control the next title defense. Ellison wanted to create the most spectacular boat race ever, drawing new fans to the sport. Thus, he stipulated that the 2013 Cup would be contested by mammoth 72-foot long catamarans that can skim and teeter across the water (very dangerously, as it turns out) at up to 50 mph.

Then, Ellison and his people persuaded San Francisco officials to ante up $22 million for infrastructure and security, plus construction of bayside viewing areas. Private fundraising was supposed to repay the city. Media events were held to tout the big show. Tickets went on sale for the waterfront grandstands.

It was all going so well until the promises began to disintegrate.

Supposedly, there were going to be a dozen or more boats involved in the regatta, from countries far and wide. They would bring support crews and fans, spending barrels of money locally.

Instead, because the whiz-bang boats selected by Ellison require a $100 million commitment to build and sail, just three boats emerged to compete against his Oracle team. Those three boats were temporarily reduced to two when the Artemis boat capsized in practice.

Supposedly, there was to be 18 days of round-robin racing in July between the three challenger boats, building enthusiasm for the elimination races in August.

Instead, the Swedish team will not be required to participate in the round-robin races until it is ready. And since six of the first eight round-robin races were scheduled to involve Sweden, those six events will become no race at all. Monday, organizers offered refunds to ticket holders for all of the July competition.

Supposedly, the America's Cup boosters would have no trouble finding donors and defray the $22 million in event expenses.

Instead, the group reportedly is running way short of its fundraising goals, and San Francisco's politicos are getting nervous.

Supposedly, all of the racing in July and August was going to generate a sailing fervor among casual local sports fans that reaches a climax when the America's Cup finals begin Sept. 7, with Ellison's boat poised to hold off his foreign rivals.

Instead, you get the feeling that if the summer is a flop, there won't be much passion for anything that happens in September -- when the NFL schedule and baseball pennant races will begin sapping away casual fans, anyway.

Ellison's big boat race already has been written off by some. Jonathan Mahler, a columnist for the online Bloomberg View, last week labeled Ellison's pet project "a disruptive, innovative, colossal failure."

We won't be so conclusively nasty here -- yet. But so far, the 2013 America's Cup is a bad sailing joke. And no one is laughing. Ride the boat, Larry. You built it.

Contact Mark Purdy at mpurdy@mercurynews.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/MercPurdy.