America's Cup: Sailors join Oracle 'cheating' drama

By Paul Lewis

Allegations have now spread to at least two of US syndicate's crew on water, threatening whole team if proven

The picture is beginning to firm - it now appears two members of Oracle Team USA's sailing crew are involved in the cheating allegations disrupting the 34th America's Cup.

Until now, it had been thought that Oracle members most liable for expulsion from the regatta - or other penalties - were members of the shore crew. But sources close to the America's Cup action say the inquiry has spread to involve at least two members of Oracle's sailing crew.

If that is confirmed after the international jury hearings on August 27, it will be a bombshell for this regatta and an unprecedented episode in the copious volumes of Cup history.

The possible involvement of sailing crew also firms up the likelihood that the jury may also punish Oracle as a team - in other words, not just expelling some of the crew but also docking them points or races for the Cup match, starting on September 8.

It is never easy predicting jury hearings but in sailing, as in most sports, details can and do leak out.

Nine Oracle team members are understood to be involved in the first hearing. There may now be more than the initial estimate of one to three members at risk of being thrown out of the regatta.

Oracle's sailing crew are world-class professionals. Aside from chief executive Sir Russell Coutts, Jimmy Spithill and Sir Ben Ainslie are in the vanguard of top international sailors.

Rising fast is Australia's Tom Slingsby, seen as one of the biggest talents to emerge of late and one of the yachting heroes at last year's Olympics. In the team of 21 are seven Australians, seven Kiwis, two Dutchmen, two Italians, one Canadian and only two Americans.

If any sailors are banned from the regatta, it could end their professional career. That will be especially so if the jury - provided they have found guilt - can refer the matter to the international sailing body ISAF.

It has the power to ban sailors, skippers and owners not just from the regatta but from the sport. The ISAF has not shown such teeth in recent years but the precedent most quoted is the Admiral's Cup of 1987 when Austrian yacht I-Punkt was found to have illegal water ballast on board.

Two of the crew blew the whistle and, for their pains, were banned for a year. Other crew were banned for three years, the owners for 10.

That makes it even more chilling if the jury arm reaches higher up the Oracle team chain of command. Coutts has maintained that whoever put the illegal weights in Oracle AC45 yachts did so without the knowledge of team management or skippers.

But the jury are also looking into an avenue of inquiry where the team can be punished for failing to prevent the cheating - if that is proven.

Coutts sometimes skippered one of the AC45s in the America's Cup World Series, a warm-up event sailed in 2012-13 in the 45ft catamarans. His boat was reported to have no illegal weights when inspected later - in contradiction of an Oracle report which suggested that it did.

Ainslie skippered another, though he was sailing to Olympic glory in London when the weights were allegedly applied to the boats. Spithill skippered the other Oracle yacht.

- NZ Herald

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