America's Cup: Weighty discovery could halt Oracle

By Paul Lewis

Oracle Team USA. Photo / Oracle
Oracle Team USA. Photo / Oracle

It was appropriate that Emirates Team New Zealand won the Louis Vuitton Cup in San Francisco's fog today - as the future of America's cup defender Oracle Team USA lies under a darkening cloud of cheating allegations.

Moves today by the America's Cup international jury thickened that cloud. Further inquiries by the measurement committee and the jury have called into question some new modifications discovered on some Oracle AC45s, the 45-foot catamarans at the heart of the cheating inquiry.

The findings of the measurement committee have deepened the gloom facing OTUSA. This could be the biggest cheating scandal in the 162-year-history of the Cup.

Stripped of the legal and technical language, the committee found the installation of illegal materials which aided boat speed in the AC45s of OTUSA CEO Sir Russell Coutts and No. 1 skipper Jimmy Spithill. The king post, a fitting called a spigot and carbon tape were all involved in modifications allegedly designed to add weight, length and stiffness to a part of the boat that helps bear the load of the mast and sails.

But the real significance is not mentioned in the measurement committee report nor the jury notice released today.

In the original complaint raising the possibility of cheating, bags of lead weight were found stowed illegally. That alone could be construed as cheating (adding weight for more speed) and is highly serious. But there remained an element of doubt.

A team member or members, mistakenly or otherwise, could have done it or taken it upon themselves to do it. There was not necessarily any involvement of anyone else in that scenario - though there were jury questions raised about OTUSA's corporate responsibility in possibly allowing a representative or representatives to bring the Cup into disrepute; a serious offence on its own.

The discovery of the new modifications indicates that the alterations to the kingposts were far more complex than just stowing a bag of lead. The materials involved - and the way they were applied - suggest that the modifications had to be designed, built and installed. In other words, they clearly raise the issue of deliberate cheating within the team, planned and executed by more than one person.

The jury, in referring this matter directly to the second of two hearings now to be heard on Friday, NZT, indicates that. The first hearing will investigate gross misconduct by an individual or individuals. The second hearing, to be heard under Article 60 of the Cup protocol, is to do with bringing the Cup into disrepute - and is where penalties could be applied against the team.

At the extreme end of the scale is expulsion of the defender or penalties against team members and/or the team itself. Even though the inquiries relate to the AC45s and the warm-up event, the America's Cup World Series, it is still part of the overall America's Cup regatta and subject to the same rules.

Illegal lead weights were found in OTUSA AC45s, initially reported to be those skippered by Coutts and leading sailors Spithill and Sir Ben Ainslie. It subsequently emerged that Ainslie was in London, becoming the most successful sailor in the history of the Olympic Games when the weights were allegedly applied to the boats.

Coutts sometimes skippered one of the AC45s in the ACWS. His boat was reported to have no illegal weights when inspected later - in contradiction of an OTUSA earlier report which suggested that it did. OTUSA suggested that the measurement committee had made a mistake and applied for reinstatement of Coutts' boat in the ACWS (from which they had withdrawn all three boats originally).

But the jury notice of today, quoting a new measurement committee report, refers to "the different lengths of such king posts and the depth of engagement of the spigots of the upper main king post fittings on OTUSA AC45 Yachts, boats 4 and 5." Boat 4 is Spithill's and Boat 5 is Coutts'.

So it seems that forces are gathering around Oracle Team USA. It is still possible that they will survive the jury hearings and the evidence gathered against them - but most observers are predicting team members banned from the regatta and at least two points docked from Oracle's defence of the Cup.

Emirates Team NZ would then go into the Cup match with Oracle Team USA in a negative points situation - meaning they will have to win more than nine races in the best-of-17 final; making it easier for ETNZ to win the Cup.

There is also the prospect that the first hearing (into allegations of gross misconduct against an individual or individuals) could cushion the team from receiving a penalty in the second hearing.

The jury has interviewed 16 members of OTUSA and five members of ACRM and some are likely to give evidence in the first hearing. If an individual or individual make a clean breast of things (assuming there is a clean breast to be made), that could focus any penalties on the team members themselves.

There are strong rumours afoot that two members of the OTUSA sailing crew are involved, including one front-line member.

However, if the first hearing draws to a close without any definitive decisions, that heightens the possibility that the second hearing could focus more intensely on the team - and the possible docking of points or worse.

- NZ Herald

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