AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- Lawyers for Italy's Prada syndicate tossed a bombshell protest into the America's Cup arena last night with an extraordinary allegation that Team Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes is using a high-tech mainsail designed for the New York Yacht Club's boat, Young America.
The protest, lodged with the International Jury before Stars & Stripes' critical race today against America True, could, if proved, see Conner's boat disqualified from the whole event.
If Stars & Stripes wins today and the protest is thrown out, Conner's boat will go into a sudden-death sail-off tomorrow against Prada. Stars & Stripes, a low-budget, one-boat program, has astonished many in Auckland by beating lavishly funded challengers from syndicates with multiboat programs.
One of those is Prada. The Italian team spokesman, Paolo Martinoni, declined to comment on the allegations except to say, "sometimes you have to do these things."
Though Conner was not available for comment, his tactician, Tom Whidden, described the Italian action as "frivolous" and "the desperate act of people who are being beaten on the water."
Whidden, who is president of U.S. sailmaker North Marine Group, said he expects the International Jury to throw out the Italian protest.
"It is clearly designed to try to upset Stars & Stripes [before] a critical race," he said. "They have had four lawyers working on this for weeks, yet they are only now bringing it out into the open. Now that is against the rules and against the spirit of the rules."
The protest concerns a new Three Dimension Laminate (3DL) mainsail made at North Sails' plant in Minden, Nev. Using computer technology, the sail is not stitched but laid-up or laminated using a sandwich of ultra-lightweight film and extremely strong carbon fiber, which is heat-sealed and shaped under vacuum pressure on a huge mold.
Although each sail is manufactured essentially in the same way, each one is different because of the design requirements specified by individual boat designers.
The Italians allege that in the America's Cup semifinals, Stars & Stripes used a mainsail designed by the Young America team for use on that boat.
The document filed by the Italians alleges this was done "in violation of Articles 17, 13 and 15 of the Protocol." The document alleges the sail is "the product of intellectual creativity and judgment of the Young America design program."
"It has not been possible to lodge this protest until now," the document said, "because of the need to verify and corroborate sufficient evidence for a matter of such seriousness."
What all of this simply means is that if the allegations are proven, Team Dennis Conner could be thrown out of the competition.
"I've got to believe it's a desperation move," Whidden said. "There is a very good chance that it will be thrown out if only because of its timing. Under the rule you are obliged to lodge a protest when you first have knowledge of a breach.
"For two weeks we've heard rumors that they were upset about this," he said, "but they did nothing until they saw they were about to be beaten on the water. Lodging the protest now has to be calculated to upset our team, to disturb our focus.
"What they're saying is that the sail we used in part of this round looks a lot like a New York Yacht Club sail. But that's only because the structure of the sail is similar. But all sailmakers look from boat to boat and say, `Gee, I like the structure of that sail,' or, `Wow, that makes sense to me,' so let's build one. But you can't build one exactly because you don't have the [same boat] design."
Whidden says that, because the 3DL sails are transparent, the black carbon yarns are visible. That reveals the density or thickness of the sail and the approximate design concept.
"I was very involved in the design of [our] particular sail. Looking at the New York sails off the boat we liked the evolution of them. But their sails were made quite a bit fuller than ours. We prefer a flatter main.
"The problem is," Whidden said, "at North Sails a lot of the guys have similar ideas. That's one of the advantages or disadvantages of having one firm build all the sails for an event like this. Some of the sails are invariably going to look alike. I can say categorically that the sail in question is the result of work by our own design team. There is no question about it."
Whidden denies Stars & Stripes simply took a sail from Young America's inventory.
"Originally, the Italians thought that might be the case," he said, "but they gave up on that idea. This is a desperate team that's very upset about us doing as well as we have. The Italians have spent $80 million, and we've spent a fraction of that. We're winning. That's why they are upset.
" They seem to be determined to do whatever they can to stop us. They've got four or five lawyers on this case. We're just a bunch of sailors. It's ridiculous, but we will just have to fight it."
Stars & Stripes def. AmericaOne by 22 seconds.
Le Defi BTT def. America True by 1: 14.
Prada def. Nippon by 2: 01.
Stars & Stripes vs. America True