Legalities can take wind out of sails

Rudder ruling shows games skippers play

January 11, 2000|By Bruce Stannard | Bruce Stannard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- As is so often the case in the America's Cup, races are lost on shore just as often as they are won on the water. Sometimes they are lost even before the boats leave the dock.

Although mathematically it is still possible for Dennis Conner's Stars and Stripes to make the challenger finals, the International Jury's decision to strip the San Diego contender of one all-important point because of the use of an illegal rudder means it is likely to fall just short of the points required to make the finals.

The main beneficiary appears to be Italy's Prada, which moved ahead of Stars and Stripes into second place in the semifinal round when the penalty was assessed. The St. Francis Yacht Club's AmericaOne and Prada are now expected to be the final pair vying for the honor of being the 30th America's Cup challenger.

In its first semifinal match against Japan's Nippon on Jan. 2, Stars and Stripes used a rudder that was not made in the United States or the host country, New Zealand, as the America's Cup rules state. It was, in fact, made in Sydney, Australia.

Although no attempt was made to hide the rudder's origin and despite Stars and Stripes subsequently being given a technical all-clear for the rudder, an extraordinary series of events -- and not a little intrigue -- conspired against Conner's boat.

Tom Ehman, the rules adviser to Paul Cayard's AmericaOne entry, summed up the situation when he said of Stars and Stripes:

"The night they took the illegal rudder off, they should have come clean. They should have come out and said, `Look, we screwed this thing up. Mea culpa, mea culpa. Tell us what penalty we're subject to.' Had they done that, I think they would not have lost the point."

Stars and Stripes did lose the point. But how did it happen? Word leaked out through Stars and Stripes' next-door neighbor, America True.

"Up and down the waterfront, everybody talks," Ehman said, "and as soon as the America True guys heard about it, they filed the question with the arbitration panel.

"When that happened, people like me who try to read the tea leaves begin asking, `Is this a defensive question because either they've done it or they know about someone who has, or is it an offensive question because they are thinking about doing it themselves?' "

Three or four days later, Stars and Stripes filed a paper in response to the America True question, arguing that it is permitted to build a rudder in a country other than the United States or New Zealand. Once that happened, it became clear that Stars and Stripes was America True's target.

America True syndicate head Dawn Riley said she has no regrets over initiating the probe.

"There's no point in having rules that apply to some people and not others," Riley said. "And besides, once we heard the rumor about the rudder being made in Australia, we did all the right things. On Dec. 27, we raised the question of its legality with the ACCA [America's Cup Challengers Association].

"Instead of waiting for ACCA to circulate it, we sent it directly to all the challengers on Dec. 31, two days before the semifinals racing started on Jan. 2. Our attorney, George Clyde, also sent Stars and Stripes a fax about it. So we were firing a warning shot across their bow."

But Riley's account differs from the hearing records.

According to testimony at the protest hearing, when Stars and Stripes tactician Tom Whidden asked the Japanese who told them about this, they said they were tipped off by Dyer Jones, president of the ACCA.

Why would Jones, who is a prominent member of the New York Yacht Club, do something like that?

"I found that a little strange," Ehman said. "What he could have done was to have called Stars and Stripes as well or sent a memo to all challengers. But to just call the Japanese is, well, unusual to say the least. Regardless, Nippon would have found out sooner or later."

Stars and Stripes found itself caught up in the byzantine rules and innumerable groups set up to interpret them.

"At the arbitration panel meeting," Ehman said, "I look around the room and I see five lawyers on the panel and all the teams are represented by lawyers except for [Stars and Stripes'] Tom Whidden and me. I'm wondering, `What on earth are we doing? Why are we allowing this pinnacle event in our sport to turn into a legal circus like this?' "

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