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 Sept. 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 rule shortly thereafter 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 disqualified 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."
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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 overweight, 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.