By Ronnie Cohen
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - After years of preparation and countless controversies, software mogul Larry Ellison's Oracle Team USA is poised to defend the America's Cup against Emirates Team New Zealand beginning September 7.
But first it must beat back a cheating scandal that threatens to blacken the reputation of Oracle and several of the biggest names in yacht racing, and could make it harder for the American team to hang on to the 162-year-old trophy.
An international jury of five sailing experts has been trying to determine exactly how three Oracle catamarans competing in preliminary regattas known as the America's Cup World Series came to be altered with heavier fittings and illegal lead and resin hidden in their frames.
The jury will hold a hearing on Thursday in San Francisco, and is expected to shortly thereafter rule on whether individual Oracle team members have engaged in "gross misconduct," and whether the team as a whole has brought disrepute to the event.
Oracle could be docked points in the Cup regatta, which it can ill-afford in the face of what looks to be a stout challenge from New Zealand, which on Sunday clinched the challenger slot by beating Italy's team in the Louis Vuitton Cup.
Individual Oracle sailors and shore crew members--though not the team itself--could be banned from the event.
"There has been cheating going on. I won't use any other word because it is obviously cheating," said Bob Fisher, 78-year-old yachtsman and author of a history of the America's Cup. "It looks really bad."
The alterations came to light at the end of July, when an America's Cup measurement committee examining an Oracle 45-foot catamaran in advance of a youth sailing regatta found that a piece of the yacht's carbon-fiber structure known as a king post weighed 5.2 pounds more than it should have.
The American team had sailed the yacht - a smaller version of the 72-foot catamarans being used for the Cup itself - and two others that were also illegally modified, to win the World Series competition. In contrast to the Cup boats, which can be customized within a strict set of rules, all the so-called AC45s used in the World Series were built to the same specifications in the same New Zealand boat shop at the same time.
After a measurement committee notified Oracle about the extra weight, team chief executive Russell Coutts offered a quick mea culpa and Oracle formally forfeited its victories. Coutts, a legendary New Zealand sailor who skippered his country's boat to America's Cup victory in 1995 and 2000, said unauthorized modifications had been made to the boats without management's knowledge.
Competitors and others in the sailing community quickly derided that explanation, saying they could not imagine skippers sailing without knowing their boats had been altered.
Still, Ben Ainslie, one of Oracle's two helmsmen, would appear to have a good alibi: he was sailing for his fourth Olympic gold medal last summer when the extra weight was added to a yacht that he later skippered in the World Series.
"Obviously someone on the team thought it was the best place to put the weight," Ainslie told Reuters. "I don't know if they even realized they were breaking the rule.
"It's frustrating for us, but 99.9 percent of the team have nothing to do with it."
Whoever did it was not very smooth. An August 15 measurement committee report described "a discolored plastic bag secured with multiple cable ties" that was filled with lead and resin and was "so tightly wedged into the kingpost that it could not be removed intact."
Oracle insists it gained no competitive edge from the added weight. Yet some sailors wondered if other, more significant alterations could have been made but later removed, leaving just the few telltale lead-filled bags that the measurement committee uncovered.
Ironically, Oracle last year pushed to add a rule about harming the sport's reputation. Dubbed the "the Dalton rule," some say it stemmed from the American team's effort to muzzle Grant Dalton, New Zealand's outspoken managing director, who has repeatedly criticized the 2013 America's Cup event.
The Dalton rule empowers the jury to punish Oracle by subtracting points before the best-of-17 races begin.
Ellison's Oracle team, as defending champion, had the right to set the rules, specify boat design and choose the venue for this year's competition.
But the decision to use expensive, high-tech 72-foot catamarans, which can travel faster than 50 miles an hour, has been fiercely criticized for keeping many competitors away and making the races too dangerous. A British Olympian, Andrew "Bart" Simpson, was killed in a training accident in May.
Oracle referred questions to Tom Ehman of the Golden Gate Yacht Club, which is sponsoring Oracle and the America's Cup event. Ehman said he was not allowed to discuss questions pending before the international jury.
Ehman has launched accusations of his own, alleging that New Zealand and Italy's Luna Rossa had trespassed on the Oracle AC45s during a "reconnaissance mission." He lodged a formal protest last week and then withdrew it, saying he needed more time to gather evidence.
"We have multiple witnesses who said members of Team Emirates and Luna Rossa were climbing all over our AC45s to find something," he said. "Whether it's a technical trespass under California law, I don't know, but it's bad sportsmanship."
Some watching the sport say the recent events are in keeping with a history of gamesmanship in the modern America's Cup, dating to a 1983 controversy when Australia imposed a blanket of secrecy over its innovative winged keel.
"It's coming down to the final event, and there's a lot of posturing," said sailor and author John Rousmaniere, who writes about sailing and the history of the America's Cup. "They've been working on this for three years. Generally, it builds as the finals get closer and closer."
For New Zealand, which looked very polished in routing Italy's Luna Rossa in the challengers' competition but has yet to be truly tested, the scandal is something of a gift.
"We're apprehensive because we think they're fast," Dalton said of Oracle at a news conference Sunday. "They look really good, but they've got to get through next week as well."
(The story corrects paragraph nine to change "overweight" to "illegally modified")
(Editing by Jonathan Weber and Alden Bentley)