Dana Johannsen: Heavy toll on Oracle


Two precious race points down the gurgler, one key member of the sailing team gone, another banned for four races and a quarter of a million dollar fine: there were plenty of blows for Oracle Team USA to absorb in today's jury decision.

But buried deep within the 14-page written decision was a telling line from Oracle chief executive Russell Coutts that hinted at the biggest impact the cheating scandal has had on the team. Even before today's penalties were imposed the incident had taken a heavy toll on the team.

In his testimony Coutts, an Olympic gold medallist and four times winner of the America's Cup, said the allegations Oracle had made illegal modifications to their boat during the world series regattas, subsequent investigations and jury hearings had been "hugely distracting", with the team losing days on the water at a critical time as they dealt with the case.

With team hierarchy, shore crew and members of the sailing team tied up with preparing for the hearings and given testimony, the month-long case has proved a huge disruption to Oracle's two-boat testing programme, which had been considered one of their key advantages over Team New Zealand.

The interruption to their sailing programme was taken into account as one of the mitigating factors for the jury in decided what penalty to hand down to the team, as was the "stress and reputation damage to innocent members of the team". It is clear in recent weeks the scandal has taken a heavy toll on the team, with Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill looking tired and downtrodden in his few appearances around the America's Cup village. A team insider said the crew are "hurting".

While effectively starting the America's Cup match on negative two points is not ideal, in reality it is unlikely effect the outcome of the match. If USA-17 is the faster boat - and that we will only know when the two boats finally line up against one another for the first time this Sunday - then they will keep the America's Cup.

In their summation the jury said they had no intention of imposing a penalty that will determine the outcome of the Cup match, "which should best be determined on the water".

The big loss is that of their number one wing trimmer, Dirk de Ridder, who has been banned from taking any further part in the America's Cup and may face further penalties from the international sailing federation. Wing trimmer is a highly specialised role on the boat, with the wing operated by winch-controlled mainsheet and a complex system of hydraulic buttons. As well as needing a good sailing brain, the role requires anticipation, timing and co-ordination.

Bringing someone else up to speed quickly has been no easy task for the team. It is thought the damage Oracle incurred to their wingsail on a training run last week was the result of an inexperienced wing trimmer - further fallout that the Oracle sailors and shore crew involved never would have anticipated when they got together in Newport in June 2012 and made the decision to alter the boat.

- NZ Herald

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