SAN FRANCISCO -- As if the capsize and destruction of Oracle's racing boat for the America's Cup next summer weren't setback enough. Now, an international jury has found Larry Ellison's Oracle Team USA guilty of spying on the Italian team -- and penalized Oracle five precious sailing practice days.
Espionage is nothing new to the America's Cup. Competitors routinely chase racing boats to get photos of the strategic details that make each boat go fast. But a jury of sailing experts assembled only to judge disputes in the America's Cup determined last month that Oracle went too far -- or more specifically, came too close to Italy's Luna Rossa 72-foot catamaran while it was practicing on New Zealand's Hauraki Gulf in November. Oracle's cameraman came within 200 meters of Luna Rossa, breaking the rules, the jury found. It also fined Oracle $15,000 to pay for the protest.
"We are disappointed with the decision," Grant Simmer, general manager for Oracle Team USA, said in a statement Monday. "But we can deal with the penalty, and it will not distract us from working to win the cup."
Oracle had argued that it never set out to break the rules, which say that competitors cannot "navigate" within 200 meters of each other during training. Oracle claimed its chase boat was sitting still in the water, not navigating, when Luna Rossa sailed within 200 meters of it.
The jury, however, found Oracle's argument "flawed and unreasonable" in its December decision, validating Luna Rossa's protest.
Luna Rossa and Team New Zealand will be bringing their racing yachts this spring to the San Francisco Bay, joining the Swedish Artemis team that is already headquartered out of Alameda, to get ready to compete in the 34th America's Cup. The three challengers will begin the Louis Vuitton series July 4, racing against each other through August for the right to take on defender Oracle Team USA, which won the Cup in 2010. The finals begin in September.
The jury ruled that Oracle cannot sail its AC72 the last five days of April -- a significant time period for training as summer racing approaches. Oracle already lost about three weeks of training time when its AC72 capsized and broke apart during its eighth day of training in the San Francisco Bay in October. Oracle expects its damaged boat to be repaired and ready to sail in early February with a new wing sail scheduled to arrive in the Bay Area from New Zealand on Tuesday. Like the other teams, Oracle is also building a second AC72 boat, which is supposed to be an improved version of the first. Competitors routinely try to get photos of each other's first boats so they can incorporate new tricks in their second ones.
Oracle Team USA skipper Jimmy Spithill said in a previous interview with this newspaper that despite the capsize, his team would have time to catch up on training days when the international teams are out of the water as they travel to San Francisco.
But every day counts.
The penalty could have been much worse. The Luna Rossa team argued that Oracle was so egregious in its spying that it should be penalized 15 days. The New Zealand Team, which also practices on the Hauraki Gulf, requested a harsher penalty as well.
Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409.