Russell Coutts has won the America's Cup more times than any man probably has a right to. But now arguably New Zealand's greatest ever sailor – there's one for the yacht club bars – has his sights on a much more noble mission: saving the damn thing.
In case you hadn't realised, international sport's oldest competition has some credibility to win back from a public grown sceptical over the legal wrangling, wild rule changes and sheer uncertainty of the whole thing.
A red-socked Kiwi public who fell in love with America's Cup racing through the golden era of the '90s has especially grown apathetic, distanced by recent tacks. But Coutts has a simple message: Stay engaged, a solution is not only at hand, but is set to revolutionise the sport.
Coutts spoke exclusively to the Sunday Star-Times during a visit to Oracle's busy base in San Francisco, and in the course of a refreshingly candid chat, the sporting knight lifted the lid on a range of topics, including his own at times strained relationship with the Kiwi sporting public, the special bond he has with his boss Larry Ellison and his determination to drag the sport kicking and screaming into the new millennium.
Read on and reach your own conclusions. But feel free to be impressed by Coutts' passion for an event that has become the defining aspect of his life. Portrayed by some as the ultimate sporting mercenary who sold his soul, and nationality, to the almighty dollar, this Olympic champion and four-time America's Cup winner believes the event can not only survive, but thrive. Look no further, he says, than the iconic San Francisco Bay to provide the impetus for another glorious era in the sport.
Granted, there's ground to regain, and doubters to win over. Millionaires racing on boats owned by billionaires, has become the cynical view. A sport fought in the courts as much as the waters, another. Somewhere along the way this noble event that dates back to 1851 has lost touch with its essence. Which is where Coutts comes in. The New Zealander – who turns 50 on March 1 – is now firmly ensconced as chief executive of Oracle Racing based in San Francisco, where the next America's Cup will take place.
The syndicate owned by US billionaire, and lifelong sailing enthusiast, Larry Ellison won the cup off Alinghi (Coutts' former syndicate) in a 2010 showdown in 90 feet (27-metre) cats, and now it's their party to set the rules for. "This is going to be the best America's Cup yet," says Coutts, a stone's throw from where it will all play out in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge. "It's certainly the best venue yet. And I say that knowing this [story] is going to go to New Zealand. But this is better just because of the conditions and in a time zone for the rest of the world.
"Frankly the America's Cup is lucky to have San Francisco. People are going to view sailing differently after this event. The reaction we've had already from people who come to these events is `wow, I didn't realise sailing could be like that'. The transformation is going to happen."
Coutts considers San Francisco close to the ideal venue. "The bay has strong winds, and racing will be right alongside the city front. That alone makes a dramatic difference. Even in Auckland racing was held far from the shore. Now it's like racing right in front of the Viaduct harbour. That's a dramatic change right there. And in San Francisco you can pretty much guarantee strong winds every day."
Now factor in the new class of 72 foot (21m) America's Cup catamarans that Oracle has ushered in. These are the Formula One cars of the sailing world. They are very difficult to race, and go very, very fast.
"These boats will go more than 40 knots – at certain times they'll go three times the speed of the old boats on a confined course. The course has now got boundaries on it, so teams are going to have to be much more athletic, and there's much more focus on providing an exciting race, both for the athletes and the people watching. When you add all those factors up, it's going to be a much better event."
Coutts doesn't buy the theory that the America's Cup should be in monohulls. It's about moving with the times, and the multihull's time is well and truly upon us.
"Multihulls aren't new," says Coutts, clearly warming to the subject. "The New York Yacht Club ran the America's Cup for 132 years and a multihull raced in one of their events and of course it performed very well, so that night they banned it. That kind of attitude has held the sport back for 100-plus years.
"Sure, this has surprised some of the traditional elements, but the young sailors are thinking `this is something I want to get into'. For our sport to grow you need that element. I was sceptical of some things about this concept to start with. But as I learnt more about it I shifted completely."
Coutts is adamant his is not a minority view, even among traditionalists who are warming to the realities of the new event. Plus the feedback from broadcasters – arguably the most important people in the whole equation – was very much along the lines of adapt or die.
"What came back was this sport isn't exciting enough, and it's not enough about the sporting values," he adds. "Frankly you've got a bunch of old grey-haired men standing at the back of the boat and that's not that attractive for most people watching sporting events. Television has been a big focus, and in this day and age you're dreaming if you're making decisions in isolation of that."
What we've ended up with, says Coutts, is a design that can race in 5 knots and in 30 knots, even if the upper range makes them "a huge handful".
"The old boats couldn't do that. When we started to look at all the problems and how to address those problems the answer jumped out pretty logically." The solution was the new class of AC72s that will have a wing sail (think an aeroplane's wing and you're close) and will move about as fast as anything without an engine has a right to.
In essence, racing will be more exciting because there will be more happening on the course, and it will happen faster. "More events, more situations, more errors, and more challenges for the boats," adds Coutts. "Sailors will have to be more athletic, and there will definitely be more excitement. This is absolutely what the sport needed."
It's here Coutts draws on the F1 analogy. Look at the grid before a race, he says, and you understand how difficult it would be to just jump in and race one around the track.
"With these boats people can now relate that this is the pinnacle of the sport. Most people would recognise if they went in this boat they'd probably have a good chance of killing themselves and probably couldn't get it round the course in those conditions.
"People appreciate that sort of skill level – it draws them in. When I watch golf I see I can't hit the ball as far Tiger Woods. That's what attracts me to watch top sports."
Coutts credits Ellison with providing the leadership and vision to enable change. "A lot of things he's done in his life have been pretty visionary," says the Kiwi offsider. "He's great at providing focus. I'd tell him there's probably 150 things we should be doing better. And he'd say `there's one thing you've got to do better and that's make this a much better television product'. I'd say we have to develop a business plan and he'd say `don't worry about that, just get the technology right then we'll create the business plan'. I've learnt a hell of a lot off Larry."
This is not a business venture for Ellison, says Coutts. It's a labour of love. "Everyone's got these conspiracy theories about why we did multihulls. Let me tell you if we just wanted to win, we'd have said see you in 2013 in 115ft multihulls because that's what we had ready. Larry wouldn't have developed television, and we wouldn't have developed the AC45 [class] which gives everyone access to wing technology and gets the whole thing ramped up. If we had really done what the conspiracy people are suggesting we would have done it in 115fters, and said `bring it on'."
It's said Ellison pays Coutts something like US$11 million a year for his services, friendship or not. Which brings us to Coutts' perception among his fellow Kiwis. Does it bother him how he's viewed "back home"?
"Frankly, I can understand the response," he says. "I've got to say I enjoyed [last year] watching the All Blacks win. Can you imagine if Richie McCaw went and played for someone else? (He laughs heartily at this point). But there were circumstances that made the decision [to go to Alinghi] right for me, and if I was making it under the same circumstances today I'd make the same decision. I'm comfortable with that, but I can understand people having an opposite view.
"People are passionate about sports. I still get people saying you should be sailing for New Zealand. Maybe I'm too old for that now, but there's a part of me that would love to be doing just that."
And if he's got a message to New Zealanders who may have become disengaged or disheartened by recent events?
The ever-so-slightly weathered Coutts' face transforms into a beaming smile. "When this event rolls around it will be there for them to see. I'm not going say any more. They'll watch it, make their own decisions, and I'm sure they'll like what they see."
Maybe at the end they'll also be a step closer to figuring out who Sir Russell Coutts really is.
Marc Hinton travelled to San Francisco courtesy of Air NZ and Visit California.
- Sunday Star Times
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