SAN FRANCISCO >> Defending champion Oracle Team USA has been docked two points in the America’s Cup match against Emirates Team Zealand and a key sailor was expelled in the harshest penalties levied in the 162-year history of sailing’s marquee regatta.
The penalties were announced Tuesday by an international jury that has spent four weeks investigating illegal modifications of prototype boats used in warm-up regattas last year and earlier this year.
Oracle Team USA, owned by software billionaire Larry Ellison of Oracle Corp., essentially starts the match at minus-2, meaning it must win 11 races to retain the oldest trophy in international sports. Team New Zealand must still win nine races to claim the silver trophy.
The match begins with two races Saturday and two on Sunday on San Francisco Bay.
Dirk de Ridder, who trims the wing sail on the high-performance, 72-foot catamaran, is barred from sailing in the regatta, and two shore crew members also have been expelled. Grinder Matt Mitchell has been barred from the first four races. Kyle Langford, a wing trimmer on the B crew, was given a warning, and another sailor, identified only as Sailor X, had his case dismissed.
Top members of the syndicate, including CEO Russell Coutts, skipper Jimmy Spithill and tactician John Kostecki, were not implicated in the scandal, which involved 45-foot catamarans that were prototypes for the 72-footers being sailed in the America’s Cup regatta.
Coutts, a New Zealander who has won the America’s Cup four times, told The Associated Press it was an “outrageous decision” by the jury.
“It sets an unbelievable precedent ongoing,” Coutts said. “You could think of lots of analogies. Think of Olympic athletes on a team breaking the rules and a whole team getting penalized. It’s completely outrageous.”
Coutts said de Ridder “has been a fantastic team member and a fantastic sailor for many, many years. I think all the decisions are incredibly harsh. I don’t think the evidence supported the jury’s decision.”
Langford will replace de Ridder trimming the 131-foot wing sail, which looks and performs like an airplane wing, helping to power the boat to speeds in excess of 50 mph.
“He’s 22 years old but I’m sure he’s going to do a fine job,” Coutts said. “We have four days to get him ready.”
According to the jury report, Langford became aware last year that weight had been added to two boats, but that he did not consider whether it might be a breach of the rules.
The jury said Langford’s testimony was “honest” and that the panel didn’t doubt his integrity. “However, not knowing the rules relating to a ‘one-design’ manufacturer’s class’ is not the conduct required of a professional sailor,” the jury said.
Coutts said having to win 11 races to keep the Cup “obviously is going to make it more difficult. The fact that we have to rearrange crew at last moment makes it more difficult. But we’re going to be focused from now on in the remaining four days to get ready for this and get ready for Saturday.”
Coutts reiterated that the rules infractions involved only a few of the syndicate’s 130 team members and were committed without the knowledge of management or the skippers who drove the boats.
Last month, Coutts called the illegal modifications a “ridiculous mistake.” They involved adding about five pounds of ballast on two of the three boats sailed by the syndicate in the America’s Cup World Series.
The jury had harsh words for de Ridder, saying it was “comfortably satisfied” that the Dutch sailor “gave the instruction to add the weight, knew the weight had been added, knew it was a breach of the aC45 class rule and “did not tell the truth in the hearing in this regard.”
Although the infractions were from the America’s Cup World Series, those races were considered to be held under the overall umbrella of the America’s Cup.
Oracle Team USA also was fined $250,000.