SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Hours after being hit with the harshest penalties in the 162-year history of the America’s Cup, skipper Jimmy Spithill defiantly declared defending champion Oracle Team USA to be an underdog that “will come out fighting” against Emirates Team New Zealand starting Saturday.
“I’m expecting the fight of my life,” Spithill, a 34-year-old Australian, said Tuesday afternoon. “Not only for myself but for the guys sitting up here next to me. I don’t think we’ve ever seen so much controversy and distraction before the America’s Cup. But, look, that’s where we’re at. We’re obviously the clear underdog and we’ll do everything we can.”
Oracle Team USA was docked two points in the America’s Cup match and Dirk de Ridder, a key crewman who had trimmed the massive wing sail on the team’s high-performance, 72-foot catamaran, was banished from the regatta by an international jury.
The match begins with two races Saturday and two on Sunday on San Francisco Bay.
The penalties were announced after nearly five weeks of investigation into Oracle Team USA’s 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.
Two shore crew members also were expelled, grinder Matt Mitchell was barred from the first four races and the syndicate was fined $250,000.
Kyle Langford, a wing trimmer on the B crew who will replace de Ridder, was given a warning, and another sailor, identified only as Sailor X, had his case dismissed.
About five hours after the penalties were announced, Spithill introduced his crew at the syndicate’s base in a massive old shipping warehouse on Pier 80. Speaking over the clatter and hum of the shore crew preparing the team’s two $10 million yachts being prepared for Wednesday’s practice, Spithill said over and over again that Oracle was the underdog.
Although Team New Zealand has been sailing for two months in the challenger trials, it was a little odd hearing Spithill calling the deep, well-funded and defending champion Oracle team an underdog.
But that illustrates how important de Ridder was to the team. His job was to trim the 131-foot wing sail, which looks and performs like an airplane wing, powering the catamaran to speeds in excess of 50 mph.
In the 2010 America’s Cup, the Dutchman, nicknamed “Cheese,” was responsible for harnessing the power of the radical, 223-foot wing sail that powered BMW Oracle Racing’s trimaran to a two-race sweep of Alinghi of Switzerland that returned the America’s Cup to the United States.
Spithill said he sailed with de Ridder for six years.
“He’s one of the hardest-working guys I’ve ever known, never once had a question about any of his ethics, honest, and one hell of a good guy to race with,” Spithill said. “Very, very competitive, and he’ll be missed. But Karl’s a great guy. We’ve got a few days to get organized and do what we can.”
At 24, Langford is the youngest sailor in the Cup.
“Obviously I only found out today that I’ll be sailing the boat so I haven’t really had time to process or think about it too much. Yeah, Saturday I’ll be nervous,” he said.
Langford has been sailing on the backup boat skippered by Ben Ainslie, the most successful sailor in Olympic history who is with Oracle this campaign in hopes of launching a British challenge for the 35th America’s Cup.
“We will come out fighting,” said Spithill, who in 2010 became the youngest skipper to win the America’s Cup. “These guys will fight to the very end. They will never give up. They’ll be hungry for it.
“It’ll be interesting. We’ve seen New Zealand as clear favorites in the past and it hasn’t always worked out. But listen, we’re clearly the underdogs and we’ll embrace that. We’ll get out there Saturday and race as hard as we can.”
Top members of the syndicate, including CEO Russell Coutts, 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.”
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 itself.
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.
Team New Zealand managing director Grant Dalton and skipper Dean Barker had both accused Oracle Team USA of cheating.
On Tuesday, they had subdued reactions to the jury verdict.
Dalton said the scandal has “slowly but surely drifted into a non-issue for us because in the end we still have to win nine races. We think that the jury’s done a good job. They’ve been very thorough. Other than read it and a few comments at the coffee machine, it’s really over and done with for us. It’s not our problem, never was a problem, and we just get on with it.”
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