The three top finishers in yachting's recently completed Southern Ocean Racing Circuit have been found guilty of gross discrepancies between their official measurements and what they really measured while competing in the nation's top annual offshore yachting series.

As a result, the SORC victory of Louisiana Crude has been thrown out by the group's governing body. The Nos. 2 and 3 boats, Acadia and Williwaw, are being rescored and will be moved down in the rankings.

Williwaw, skippered by America's Cup champion Dennis Conner, and Acadia also have been removed from the Admiral's Cup team, the trio of top ocean racers the nation will send to compete in the revered Cowes Week series in England this summer.

It is an unprecedented scandal in yacht racing, dealing with the heart of the sport, a ratings system similar to handicapping. The mechanics of the discrepancies, particularly in the case of Williwaw and Acadia, is that the boats evidently weighed as much as 2,400 pounds less when they raced than when they were measured before the series to determine their ratings.

Thus their victories over yachts with accurate ratings were tainted.

"No one knows how it happened," said a veteran observer of yacht racing. "Whether they had crewmen carrying lead off the boats in seabags in the middle of the night, or whether the measurers just overlooked certain things. No one knows."

Most yacht watchers favor the latter scenario.

"The sad thing," said one, "is that the official measurers had to be a part of this. If, in fact, they did a good job of measuring the boats in the first place, these irregularities would be impossible to effect. Whatever happened had to happen during the measuring.

"Everyone knows there's some cheating in the measuring system. It just got out of hand."

Ocean-racing yachts are rated on the basis of a number of factors, including weight, length, beam, sail area and others.

The figures are run through a computer that spits out a number that is the boat's rating. Williwaw rated 37.1 feet for the SORC, although she is, in fact, 42 feet long. If she raced against a boat that rated 36, she was expected to be faster and would owe time to that opponent. A boat that rated 38 would owe time to Williwaw.

Boat owners spend thousands of dollars and months of time trying to lower their ratings legally by a few tenths of a foot. They might reshape the hull, cut a foot off the mast, add ballast or other tricks and then have the boat remeasured.

But when Williwaw and Acadia were remeasured following SORC, after presumably having made no changes, Williwaw was found to actually rate 38.1, a foot more than what she'd been racing under. The remeasured Acadia was 1.2 feet over her rating.

In both cases, the principal offending factor was freeboard -- the height of the boat above the waterline. Williwaw was 3 1/2 inches higher in the bow than her certificate says she should be.

The logical explanation: removal of weight from the boat between the time she was measured and the time she raced.

U.S. Yacht Racing Union rules are specific about what can be on the boat when she's measured -- tools, number of sails and so forth.

But when Louisiana Crude was initially measured, said Ken Weller, USYRU measurements chief, she had five more sails aboard than she was supposed to have. And, on remeasuring, her underwater shape was found to be completely illegal. She was banished from the SORC's tally sheet.

Weller said for Williwaw to gain the 3 1/2 inches of freeboard over her official measurement, she had to have lost about 2,400 pounds in weight. Acadia would have lost 1,400 to 1,600 pounds, he said.

A yachtsman familiar with the rating system said that for discrepancies as great as these to have occurred, there had to be either "collusion or complete incompetency by the measurers."

Weller disputed that. He said measurers "could conceivably not be able to detect everything. You can't conclude he (they?) would know about every problem with the loading of the boat." He said the next step of the USYRU will be to determine whether to impose penalties "for gross infringement of rules and misconduct." Under USYRU rules, a yacht owner, skipper helmsman or crewman can be barred from sanctioned competition if he is found to have engaged in gross infringement of the rules.

That would not likely apply to Conner, the America's Cup champion, who chartered Williwaw for the SORC from New Jerseyite Seymour Sinnett. w

"I was in Newport sailing Freedom when Williwaw was measured," Conner said.

He said he was "disappointed to not be included" on the Admiral's Cup team, but added, "If we weren't as good as we should have been if the boat was rated correctly, then we don't deserve to go."

Admiral's Cup selections are based on the results of the SORC. Williwaw and Acadia, owned by Bert Keenan of Lafayette, La., have been replaced by Stars and Stripes and Intuition. The third boat selected for the team, Scaramouche, remains.