Yachting: Oracle should lose points for weights

By Paul Lewis

Illegal weights were placed in Oracle's AC45 boats. Photo / Guilan Grenier
Illegal weights were placed in Oracle's AC45 boats. Photo / Guilan Grenier

The America's Cup international jury should, at the very least, deduct a point or two from Oracle Team USA's America's Cup defence - giving expected challenger Emirates Team NZ a head start in the final.

That seems the action most likely to satisfy the critics in the AC45 America's Cup World Series cheating scandal, reaction to which has so far been muted beyond its potential to affect this regatta.

You have to pity the jury; theirs is an unenviable task. They have wide-ranging powers but if any punishment is too harsh, it will further damage a regatta beset by troubles and some poor racing thus far. Come down too softly and they risk scorn being heaped on sailing in general and the America's Cup in particular. Not to mention the jury itself.

There is no bigger issue facing the America's Cup right now than this - though you would have been hard pressed to know it in the first week of it happening in the US; some media were either slow to catch on to the importance of the issue or didn't realise the depth of the jury's powers.

Oracle Team USA were also quick off the mark - they positioned the discovery of lead weights in the forward kingposts of two AC45s as a mistake which did not affect the performance of the boats (a disputed contention; many sailors say it would).

They front-footed the matter with the US media, positioning themselves as blowing the whistle, and saying that the skippers of the boats and team management were not involved.

But the shock and outrage in some quarters of the sailing world is not to be underestimated. Sailing prides itself on upholding the rules and some lofty principles of sportsmanship. It is a bit like golf, where players embrace honesty and often call penalties on themselves. Sailors are brought up as youngsters with the same sort of respect for the rules. As in golf, a charge of cheating can be a serious stain on a reputation.

In a sport where protests are common, needing jury decisions, and where rulings can be influenced by interpretations, there is plenty of rule-bending, legal arguments and loopholes. But adding 'outside' material allegedly to make boats go faster is rare at America's Cup level.

Cheating allegations have been flung about before - many times, in fact - but they have generally involved design innovations, like the winged keel of 1983 and Dennis Conner's catamaran of 1988.

Both were interpretations which managed to comply with the class rule (the specifications that guide the construction of Cup boats) even if they were clearly not envisaged by those who drew up those rules. They have been cases of there being nothing in the rules to prevent them.

There have been other more direct forms of cheating. During the 2002-03 America's Cup challenger series in Auckland, the American OneWorld Challenge was penalised a point after a designer for the syndicate admitted having secret design information belonging to Team New Zealand.

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

Emirates Team NZ boss Grant Dalton was the first to label the AC45 business (lead weights found in the forward kingposts) as cheating. He was followed recently by Luna Rossa skipper Max Sirena.

However, with the jury beginning an investigation, such matters generally quieten down pending official inquiries.

It was left to veteran America's Cup writer Bob Fisher, who files for the Guardian among others, to defend sailing's honour. At a recent press conference, he demanded to know if Oracle would withdraw from the America's Cup. Another writer asked if billionaire backer Larry Ellison would be banned from the Cup.

Both outcomes are unlikely. If Oracle did withdraw or were disqualified, the trophy would pass to the Challenger of Record (now Emirates Team NZ since the elimination of Artemis). However, the team won't be withdrawing any time soon. Nor is it likely the jury will exclude them from their own regatta.

So what can the jury do? Other than outright disqualification, the jury can impose a fine; censure a team and/or members; exclude individuals from the regatta; deduct points from the America's Cup match.

They could also find Oracle Team USA innocent, (though their use of the word "deliberate" in relation to the AC45 offences does not augur well); they could decide that the loss of the ACWS AC45 titles was punishment enough.

Many in the sailing fraternity are of the opinion that the lead weights could only be designed to produce extra boat speed. But proving wrongdoing is another matter. The jury are interviewing dozens of Oracle team members to get to the bottom of things; no easy task.

Proof generally needs documentary evidence or sworn testimony of some description - unlikely in this case. How does the jury decide if team management or the skippers knew, even if common sense suggests that little or nothing is done to such boats in such regattas without team approval?

Oracle are clearly in damage limitation mode.

CEO Sir Russell Coutts yesterday hit back at those using the "cheat" word, calling it slander. He told the San Francisco Chronicle that he had "a fair idea" who might have been responsible for the lead weights in the AC45 but couldn't name them because of state employee confidentiality rules. Such matters can obstruct a jury's inquiries.

Also clouding the issue is the fact that the measurement committee have now admitted they made a mistake; the weights were found in two of the AC45s, not all three.

Coutts has commented that shows the breaking of the rules was not a team-wide issue. The boat in question was Oracle 5, skippered by Coutts himself. Ben Ainslie, back-up skipper to Jimmy Spithill, may also be in the clear as he was in London at the Olympics at the time of the weights being loaded. Spithill skippered the other boat.

Coutts said Ellison was "clearly" upset - hardly a surprise given his reputation in yachting and considering that such a big Fortune 500 company has a lot of brand value to protect and is hardly advantaged by the use of the words "Oracle" and "cheating" in the same sentence. The damage needs limiting in America's Cup terms too. Communications and legal expertise will be brought to bear in what has become a PR battlefield.

It will be no surprise, for example, to see counter-moves made against Dalton and Sirena for using the "cheat" word.

The Herald on Sunday has also heard, from various yachting sources, that there may be some truth in the contention that Oracle crew members put the weights on the AC45s without consulting others. But establishing who knew and who didn't is like trying to eat a plate of spaghetti with a toothpick.

Perhaps the most likely outcome is that the team members responsible for placing the weights will be ejected from this regatta. Maybe even that and a fine - though it's hard to think of even a US$1 million ($1.2 million) fine as punishment when the bill is being paid by the world's fifth-richest billionaire.

Responsibility is another matter. If an advantage is gained unknowingly, it is still an advantage. It's the same principle as a track athlete held responsible for performance-enhancing drugs in his or her body; it doesn't matter if they are introduced accidentally - accountability is clear.

If the jury find there is a case to answer, there is also a strong argument that those at the helm of the team should resign; a matter of corporate responsibility, if you like. But, acknowledging that is also unlikely, the best action seems to be to punish the team.

In my view, the jury should penalise Oracle with two valuable America's Cup points in the best-of-17-races final.

If they don't, they are tacitly encouraging multi-million-dollar yachting syndicates backed by billionaires, and involving some of the finest sailing brains, that it is all right to make a careless mistake in probably the most rules-conscious sport in the world.

If a graver complexion is put on these events, it is a graphic example to a new generation of yachtsmen and women that winning is everything and that the rules are not.

In that case, if Oracle emerge with only a censure and/or a fine or perhaps the rolling of a few minor heads, sailing and the America's Cup will be the poorer for it.

- Herald on Sunday

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