(In paragraph nine, changes "overweight" to "illegally
By Ronnie Cohen
SAN FRANCISCO Aug 26 After years of preparation
and countless controversies, software mogul Larry Ellison's
Oracle Team USA is poised to defend the America's Cup against
Emirates Team New Zealand beginning September 7.
But first it must beat back a cheating scandal that
threatens to blacken the reputation of Oracle and several of the
biggest names in yacht racing, and could make it harder for the
American team to hang on to the 162-year-old trophy.
An international jury of five sailing experts has been
trying to determine exactly how three Oracle catamarans
competing in preliminary regattas known as the America's Cup
World Series came to be altered with heavier fittings and
illegal lead and resin hidden in their frames.
The jury will hold a hearing on Thursday in San Francisco,
and is expected to shortly thereafter rule on whether individual
Oracle team members have engaged in "gross misconduct," and
whether the team as a whole has brought disrepute to the event.
Oracle could be docked points in the Cup regatta, which it
can ill-afford in the face of what looks to be a stout challenge
from New Zealand, which on Sunday clinched the challenger slot
by beating Italy's team in the Louis Vuitton Cup.
Individual Oracle sailors and shore crew members--though not
the team itself--could be banned from the event.
"There has been cheating going on. I won't use any other
word because it is obviously cheating," said Bob Fisher,
78-year-old yachtsman and author of a history of the America's
Cup. "It looks really bad."
The alterations came to light at the end of July, when an
America's Cup measurement committee examining an Oracle 45-foot
catamaran in advance of a youth sailing regatta found that a
piece of the yacht's carbon-fiber structure known as a king post
weighed 5.2 pounds more than it should have.
The American team had sailed the yacht - a smaller version
of the 72-foot catamarans being used for the Cup itself - and
two others that were also illegally modified, to win the World
Series competition. In contrast to the Cup boats, which can be
customized within a strict set of rules, all the so-called AC45s
used in the World Series were built to the same specifications
in the same New Zealand boat shop at the same time.
After a measurement committee notified Oracle about the
extra weight, team chief executive Russell Coutts offered a
quick mea culpa and Oracle formally forfeited its victories.
Coutts, a legendary New Zealand sailor who skippered his
country's boat to America's Cup victory in 1995 and 2000, said
unauthorized modifications had been made to the boats without
Competitors and others in the sailing community quickly
derided that explanation, saying they could not imagine skippers
sailing without knowing their boats had been altered.
Still, Ben Ainslie, one of Oracle's two helmsmen, would
appear to have a good alibi: he was sailing for his fourth
Olympic gold medal last summer when the extra weight was added
to a yacht that he later skippered in the World Series.
"Obviously someone on the team thought it was the best place
to put the weight," Ainslie told Reuters. "I don't know if they
even realized they were breaking the rule.
"It's frustrating for us, but 99.9 percent of the team have
nothing to do with it."
Whoever did it was not very smooth. An August 15 measurement
committee report described "a discolored plastic bag secured
with multiple cable ties" that was filled with lead and resin
and was "so tightly wedged into the kingpost that it could not
be removed intact."
Oracle insists it gained no competitive edge from the added
weight. Yet some sailors wondered if other, more significant
alterations could have been made but later removed, leaving just
the few telltale lead-filled bags that the measurement committee
Ironically, Oracle last year pushed to add a rule about
harming the sport's reputation. Dubbed the "the Dalton rule,"
some say it stemmed from the American team's effort to muzzle
Grant Dalton, New Zealand's outspoken managing director, who has
repeatedly criticized the 2013 America's Cup event.
The Dalton rule empowers the jury to punish Oracle by
subtracting points before the best-of-17 races begin.
Ellison's Oracle team, as defending champion, had the right
to set the rules, specify boat design and choose the venue for
this year's competition.
But the decision to use expensive, high-tech 72-foot
catamarans, which can travel faster than 50 miles an hour, has
been fiercely criticized for keeping many competitors away and
making the races too dangerous. A British Olympian, Andrew
"Bart" Simpson, was killed in a training accident in May.
Oracle referred questions to Tom Ehman of the Golden Gate
Yacht Club, which is sponsoring Oracle and the America's Cup
event. Ehman said he was not allowed to discuss questions
pending before the international jury.
Ehman has launched accusations of his own, alleging that New
Zealand and Italy's Luna Rossa had trespassed on the Oracle
AC45s during a "reconnaissance mission." He lodged a formal
protest last week and then withdrew it, saying he needed more
time to gather evidence.
"We have multiple witnesses who said members of Team
Emirates and Luna Rossa were climbing all over our AC45s to find
something," he said. "Whether it's a technical trespass under
California law, I don't know, but it's bad sportsmanship."
Some watching the sport say the recent events are in keeping
with a history of gamesmanship in the modern America's Cup,
dating to a 1983 controversy when Australia imposed a blanket of
secrecy over its innovative winged keel.
"It's coming down to the final event, and there's a lot of
posturing," said sailor and author John Rousmaniere, who writes
about sailing and the history of the America's Cup. "They've
been working on this for three years. Generally, it builds as
the finals get closer and closer."
For New Zealand, which looked very polished in routing
Italy's Luna Rossa in the challengers' competition but has yet
to be truly tested, the scandal is something of a gift.
"We're apprehensive because we think they're fast," Dalton
said of Oracle at a news conference Sunday. "They look really
good, but they've got to get through next week as well."
(Editing by Jonathan Weber and Alden Bentley)