Cult America’s Cup: Russell Coutts, the destructive winner


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 Russell CouttsArrogant, preening, selling out, over the years Russell Coutts has heard it all, and it must also be said that the legendary New Zealand yachtsman, born in Weelington in 1962, has never done anything to grace the sympathies of the general public, at home and abroad. However, if there were a vocabulary dedicated only to sailing, there is no doubt that at the word “Winner” we would find his name, and, as we know, winners are not always exactly sympathetic to the public.

Russell Coutts – The winner by nature

Coutts’ sailing rise begins in the world of Olympic classes: fisic imposing, excellent technique, competitive nastiness out of the norm, Russel had from a young age the right stuff to emerge in one of the toughest Olympic classes that has ever existed, the Finn with which he won Olympic gold in 1984, at age 22.

At that time, professional sailing was not yet fully developed, although New Zealand was ahead of its time in this respect as well. Russell enters the America’s Cup environment; in the pioneering Kiwi challenges of those years, however, he has no prominent role. The opportunity to show off came in the 1992 Louis Vuitton Cup final between New Zealand and the Moor of Venice. The Kiwis, after getting off to a strong start, lost their bearings with the bowsprit “affaire,” and the Italian boat began a comeback that would overturn the series and crown official challengers Cayard&Co.

The New Zealanders ahead 4-1 lose one race after another, and the Kiwi union is left with no choice but to try the desperation card: disembark Rod Davis and throw Russell Coutts at the helm. However, the inertia of the challenge was now all in favor of the Moor of Venice, and Coutts was unable to avoid defeat. Before long, however, everything would change.

Russell Coutts and the Peter Blake era.

After the 1992 challenge, Sir Michael Fay left the baton of the New Zealanders’ America’s Cup presence, and this was picked up by Peter Blake, who saw in Coutts the right man around whom to turn the future crew. With his shoulders protected in the cockpit by the experience of Brad Butterworth as tactician and Tom Schnackenberg as navigator and design manager, Coutts can express his full potential. In San Diego in the 1995 edition of the America’s Cup, Russel’s fury was unleashed, thanks in part to a Black Magic, the famous NZL 32, capable of performing best in light winds and long Pacifica waves.

Coutts’s score is monstrous: Team New Zealand loses between LV Cup and AC Match barely a race, and in the final against Young America he rifles a resounding 5-0 to Cayard, with detachments at times humiliating for the man who only 3 years earlier had eliminated the Kiwis. The result is historic in scope; in Auckland, the crew parade with the America’s Cup sees hundreds of thousands of people on the streets. The myth of Russell Coutts and the All Blacks of sailing is definitely born.

Luna Rossa will also be at the expense in 2000, with another dry 5-0 without appeal where it seemed to see a photocopy of the challenge of 5 years earlier again: on one side a boat that was too much faster and with a sidereal crew, on the other side a good boat, beautiful but not fast enough, and a very strong crew.

The great betrayal of the homeland

If we were to recount the moment when the honeymoon between the New Zealanders and their helmsman ends, it is in that America’s Cup final of 2000. Coutts is raising the America’s Cup for the second time in his career, but he already has something different in mind for his future.

Russell sensed in the early 2000s that a certain kind of sailors, those with a profile similar to his own to be clear, have the potential to become super stars like NBA players are in the U.S. or soccer players are in Europe, also from an economic point of view of course, super stars in short. The trigger for this process came with Ernesto Bertarelli’s offer: lots of money to join Alinghi and try to win the America’s Cup in New Zealand.

On December 5, 2001, Peter Blake was tragically killed by pirates, and Team New Zealand is in danger of crumbling. If there is one mistake Blake made in those years before his death, it was not to prevent with an ad hoc rule on nationality bonding the risk of diaspora of his talents to other teams. And so Coutts, Butterworth, and other key Team New Zealand men accepted Alinghi’s proposal, and the result, once again, was the same.

The 2003 final is at times atrocious for the New Zealanders: an overly complex and design-acerbic boat, Dean Barker overwhelmed by responsibility in his first experience as starting helmsman (he who had made his debut against Red Moon), the outcome becomes virtually a foregone conclusion. Team New Zealand takes on water in high winds, breaking the forestay and also the mast during another race. A debacle that opens to the inevitable 5-0. In New Zealand Russell Coutts becomes public enemy number one.

Coutts, before changing sides again in the back for an even bigger paycheck, made time to win one more America’s Cup in Valencia with Alinghi in 2009, still beating Team New Zealand but carving out for himself a more managerial and less onboard role, where he left the wheel to Ed Bird.

Russell and the Larry Ellison era

Yet another turn, however, is ready, Coutts settles into BMW Oracle Racing, and just a year later, in the catamaran vs. trimaran challenge, he snatches the America’s Cup from Bertarelli, proving once again that he is the one who counts and determines victory, and not the entrepreneur who salaries him. The third America’s Cup marks a step change in the vision of Coutts, who has some fairly revolutionary ideas for the future of the Trophy.

Ideas he puts into practice for the 2012 edition in San Francisco where Oracle comes in as a defender. Coutts is never on board, but he convinces Oracle patron Larry Ellison to go all in on catamarans as the new class for the Cup. The AC 72s become flying monsters, and Oracle’s comeback from 1-8 to 9-8 goes right into Trophy history. He weeps, once again, Dean Barker, struck down again by his “sailing father” in one of the most dramatic editions of the America’s Cup.

After five Cups won Coutts appears sailingly satiated, but business is business, and after the Bermuda defeat and the New Zealanders’ rematch with the new generation led by Peter Burling, Russell realizes that his America’s Cup story may have had its day and decides with Ellison to launch SailGp. It may not be a resounding success, but the story Russell, like it or not, has already written it in big letters.

Many people do not like the character and his often has been what can be called Disruptive Business, that is, the one who with business destroys the existing system by exploring other avenues. Questionable his methods, but Russell Coutts is modern sailing. Without him we would not have the flying America’s Cup boats of today, and without him professional sailing probably would not have reached certain levels. A destructive winner.

Mauro Giuffrè



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