Is Larry Ellison cheating?

Pub date July 9, 2013
SectionPolitics Blog

If you’re wondering why the hell there was only one boat was out there “racing” in the first match of the America’s Cup on Sunday, here’s the rundown on “Ruddergate,” yet another contentious chapter in the 162-year history of the America’s Cup.

At issue is the size and shape of the rudders on the twin hulls of the AC72s. Original design parameters were established back in 2010 when, in the interest of fairness, details of the boats were agreed upon by all teams — so exactly this kind of conflict wouldn’t occur. A “box rule” was applied, which means the boats won’t be identical, but they will be similar (Emirates Team New Zealand and Luna Rossa actually have near-identical boats as the Italians came late to the party and bought New Zealand’s design to save time.)

Then, after Andrew Simpson was killed when Artemis’s boat capsized on May 9, regatta director Iain Murray made 37 new safety recommendations, which the Coast Guard made into requirements when they permitted the race.

“Basically, for marine events, marine event sponsors are responsible for the safety of the events,” U.S. Coast Guard chief Mike Lutz explained, noting that the 37 rule changes originated with Murray and were approved by the Coast Guard as a package.

Some of those changes are straightforward and simple, like no guests aboard during races, more body armor, buoyancy and other personal safety gear, and no racing in winds over 23 knots (That one is actually a hindrance for ETNZ and Luna Rossa, who deliberately built for prevailing San Francisco Bay conditions, i.e. as much as 35 knots of wind.) 

But that’s not what the two teams are protesting. They don’t like new size and shape rules for the rudder elevators, which are designed to stabilize the boat when it’s foiling. Oracle has a pretty good description of how they work here.

The new rule lays out minimum and maximum area, depth, and span and says they should be symmetrical. None of the 36 other safety recommendations touch on design elements. The fishy part is that Oracle has been practicing with a bigger, symmetrical rudder elevator since they launched their second boat on April 24. Before Simpson died, before Murray’s new safety rules, Oracle was using what would be considered an illegal rudder. And now, voila, it’s legal.

The Kiwis immediately filed a protest to the rule, on June 28, and four days later Luna Rossa joined them.

“I’m not saying all the changes have been made for them, but it’s nothing related to safety. What really upsets me is that there is one boat sailing since they launched on April 24 who has been sailing out of the class rule,” Luna Rossa’s Max Sirena told the media on July 2. “Why design a boat that doesn’t comply with the class rule? And then one week before the Louis Vuitton Cup, you ask the other teams to change the position of the rudders and the elevators…”

In the meantime, rather than delay the first race or move up the date of the protest hearing, Murray said it was okay for the Kiwis and Italians to race without the “safer” rudder elevators, to which ETNZ’s Grant Dalton said, “The point is that under the recommendations you can run both. The question is why?  Because, if you can run both, then why do you need the ones that aren’t rule compliant?”

Dalton also thinks this design change could make the boats more dangerous because the rudder elevators would extend wider than the maximum beam of the boat and could slice a sailor in half if he slips over the side of the hull.

He hasn’t said something dirty’s going down. He told the media, “If the question is, has that rule been put in there deliberately to help Oracle, then no I don’t think it has – I don’t think for a second Iain Murray has done that. Is it helping them as a kind of byproduct of it, then yes it is.”

Luna Rossa’s Max Sirena has been more critical. “It is not safety related at all … It is the first time in the history of the America’s Cup that they can change the class rule just like that, just because they want to change it and with no reason. To change a class rule you need unanimity. Why when Oracle capsized last October did they not come up with this change then?”

Luna Rossa boycotted until the jury made a decision, stating that it would seem like silent affirmation if they raced. A last minute deal to get them on Sunday’s course fell through and for the time being, the Italians are sticking to their principles – they were out practicing yesterday, showing their boat is more than capable of performing with the smaller, asymmetrical, noncompliant rudders.

“The teams don’t believe it’s proper to change the class rule without a vote of the teams,” said America’s Cup spokesperson Sean McNeill. “They believe [Murray] didn’t have the authority to make such a change.”

If the jury rules in favor of Luna Rossa and ETNZ, Murray would have to go back to the Coast Guard with a new safety plan in order to obtain a new racing permit. “If there’s any change, they would have to submit an updated safety plan,” Lutz noted, saying he was confident that it could be reviewed in a short time and a second permit could be issued without too much of a delay.

The jury convened yesterday to hear the protests and a decision is due Wednesday, but this debacle raises a couple of questions. Why didn’t they hear the protests prior to the first race? That race day was established a long time ago, and hasn’t changed. The jury had at least five days to review the protests – ample time if the race organizers were really concerned with keeping the event from totally losing face.

Instead, two of the three boats were out of the race before it had even begun, creating animosity among the handful of sponsors still involved. Louis Vuitton’s Bruno Trouble – who initially anticipated 15 contenders, then 8, and certainly no less than 5 – is pissed that not even two could show up and the event has been very far from the big splash it was billed to be. Meanwhile, international media aren’t holding back the ridicule. Fairfax NZ’s Duncan Johnstone called it “a hugely embarrassing situation for regatta organisers, a major dent for the on-shore festivities and massive sponsorships that envelop this ridiculously expensive event.”

And, if the larger rudder elevators really are safer, why didn’t Oracle say something back in April before Simpson died? Or in October when their boat capsized? Instead, they’ve been very mum on the subject. Control is going to be as important as speed in this Cup and with the Kiwis and Italians burnt by the lowered wind limits, it looks like Ellison is hoping to top them in the control category. Larger rudders create more drag and less speed, but may get Oracle foiling for longer periods with enhanced stability – which they desperately need.

ETNZ and Luna Rossa have indicated it would be impossible for them to adapt their rudders now that racing has begun. Meanwhile, Oracle gets to hang back until the finals in September, practicing their moves while Ellison carries on with acting too rich too fail.

Rebecca Bowe contributed to this report.