Yachting: Ban fears for Oracle team

By Paul Lewis

If the America's Cup AC45s cheating scandal escalates, some Oracle team members could be ejected from the 34th America's Cup and maybe even banned from sailing.

The question on most lips yesterday was just how high up the Oracle chain any blame might creep. The skippers of the three AC45 yachts in question - Sir Russell Coutts, Ben Ainslie and the holders' No 1 skipper James Spithill - are those with most to lose, though there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by any of them.

Coutts decided that Oracle had to blow the whistle on themselves after discovery of the illegal weighting of the three AC45s that contested the America's Cup World Series, an international warm-up series designed to ignite interest in this year's Cup regatta (and won by Oracle).

Ainslie has said he was competing at the London Olympics when the modifications were done. Spithill, the crack Australian, is everybody's choice to pilot Oracle's giant AC72 catamaran in the America's Cup, almost certainly against Emirates Team New Zealand.

But the stain from the AC45s debacle could spread, depending on what the international jury find in their investigation.

The jury have the power to censure, fine, deduct points or disqualify teams and individuals from races or the entire event. If they do penalise a team or individuals, the matter is also referred to the international sailing body, ISAF, who can then decide whether a ban from the sport is justified.

There is sailing precedent for such a move.

The jury has already said the modifications "appear to be intentional efforts to circumvent the limitations of the AC45 class rule, and are therefore serious in nature."

That is a polite way of saying cheating and, if the jury finds proof, they are liable to crack down hard to protect the name of the America's Cup, its sponsors and supporters.

The precedent stems from the 1987 Admiral's Cup won, ironically enough, by New Zealand. The Austrian yacht, I-Punkt, was found to have illegal water ballast aboard. After an investigation, ISAF decided that the yacht's owners would be banned from sailing for up to 10 years and some crew members for up to three years. The whistle blowers, members of the crew, were also banned - for a year.

Oracle raised the matter when they discovered it and chief executive Coutts issued a statement saying the illegal modifications were made "by a small number of team members involved in the AC45 circuit, without the knowledge of management or the skippers, and without having followed standard internal procedures". That effectively distances team management and senior sailors from wrongdoing.

Some reports put the modifications down to two members of the shore crew and a member of the sailing crew and perhaps the most likely result, if any penalties are applied, is that those people might be in danger of exiting the regatta. It seems unlikely the jury would boot Oracle out of their own regatta.

However, the skippers of the three AC45s could still come under the microscope. One highly experienced and respected America's Cup source said: "I cannot imagine that Team NZ, for example, would make modifications to their boats without [skipper] Dean Barker knowing about it. No way."

But such sentiments are a long way from the proof needed by the jury. After their investigation, under the banner of Rule 69 in the sport's racing rules (which polices "gross misconduct" bringing the sport into disrepute), they can call a hearing and can apply penalties.

Team NZ released a statement yesterday saying they were "stunned" illegal alterations had been made to the boats.

"It was a deliberate attempt to circumvent the rules. It is as bad as it gets," team boss Grant Dalton told TVNZ. "As a team that we respect as competitors, and we have been racing against in the 45s, (OTUSA) were cheating against us to try and beat us. What are they capable of in the America's Cup?"

The catalyst for all this was the extra lead weight found in the forward kingpost of the two Oracle yachts, Team USA 4 and Team USA 5, and the AC45 operated by Ben Ainslie Racing (the likely back-up skipper to Spithill). The kingpost helps brace the load taken by the mast. Regatta director Iain Murray protested to the jury this week after being notified by the measurement committee of illegal modifications.

Coutts said the modifications were "a ridiculous mistake" that didn't affect the boats' performance but warranted punishment.

"This is a serious issue for us," Coutts said. "It may have had little effect on the performance, but it's breaking the rules and the international jury may be obligated to conduct an investigation as to how it happened and establish whether people intentionally broke the rule."

However, other sailors familiar with the yachts felt that adding lead weight to the kingposts may help the boats go faster upwind. If the modifications added nothing, why were they added?

Ainslie, speaking to London's Daily Telegraph, said: "Personally I have no knowledge of it at all because I was competing in the London Olympics at that time. The boat was in the water by the time I got to America and I wouldn't have noticed anything there. We don't know why it happened or who did it. Of course it was the right thing for us to hold our hands up because the boats weren't quite right. It was the sporting thing to withdraw from the event, although it's very frustrating because we did pretty well in those races."

"It's not great to have your name linked to something like this but you hope people realise that it was a stupid mistake which had nothing to do with 99 per cent of the team. But this is the America's Cup and there are politics. Other teams will try to score points," he said.

Oracle and BAR have forfeited their results from the last three America's Cup World Series regattas and have been ordered to return their trophies and prizes. The series is being rescored and could now be won by Luna Rossa or Team NZ.

• Yesterday Luna Rossa won their third straight race to lead Artemis 3-0 in the Louis Vuitton semifinal. They need only to win today to clinch a spot in the final against Team NZ.

- Herald on Sunday

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