Interview with Russell Coutts

The Alinghi Swiss Challenge skipper visits the United States

Russell Coutts recently swung through New York City for a press conference, pitching Ernesto Bertarelli’s Swiss Alinghi America’s Cup campaign, and updating sponsors on the team’s progress. Grand Prix Sailor spoke with him by telephone afterwards.

GPS: Is sponsor-relations a new role for you this time around?
RC: Not really. I’ve always done it, and don’t mind doing it. It’s actually a nice break from what I do every day. We’ve been sailing six days a week, so it’s nice to take time off the boat and have time to reflect. In fact, the flight here was the first chance I’ve had in a while to sit and think about things.

_What are the guys up to while you’re on the road? _
They tell me they’re getting a lot more done with me gone. I hear they got a couple of good days of testing in, which is good to hear.


_What makes a good day of testing? _
We typically make 12 to 15 quality tests in a day. The way we do it is first go out and equalize the boats, spending a fair bit of time calibrating the instruments and makings sure we’ve eliminated some of the variables. Then we roll into some tests and try to rate them as we go along. At the end of the day we analyze the results more thoroughly, and then re-discuss the data the following day, trying to draw some better conclusions. It’s quite difficult compared to other scientific testing we do. The environment is so uncontrollable, especially when you’re sailing along for 10 minutes and one boat has a quarter of a knot more breeze than the other one and you just can’t see it.

_How do you keep it interesting for the crew? _
We’re starting to do more and more racing. But the guys are interested in the testing by nature of the process we go through of checking things and isolating variables, and there’s quite a bit of physical work to sail the boat properly. Certainly, the racing is more fun, but, as a helmsman, I’m more drained at the end of a test day than at the end of a race day because of the concentration … not that I don’t concentrate during the racing.

_What’s your read on the challengers that sailed the warm-up regatta in February? _
It confirmed what I felt beforehand. I think it will be a much more competitive Cup than the previous ones. All those teams that raced have the old boats going better than they ever have. A lot of the teams last time didn’t have the time to develop their boats because they got them too late. In most cases, they were never sailed to their full potential.


_In the past, you’ve had the luxury of watching the Louis Vuitton from the sidelines, but not this time. Is that good or bad for you? _
I think being in the Louis Vuitton is a good thing, especially with so many teams cranked up. For sure, there will be a lot to be learned from that series. Last time it was good to have the flexibility to do what we wanted, and between two boats you can achieve a lot. By the same token, that feeling of isolation was a big deal. I remember when Nippon lined up with us about a month before the Cup–we actually learned a lot after that and re-measured our boat. It’s a big factor that the defender doesn’t get to sail against the new boats.

_How do you feel now about not sailing for the home team? _
It’s been a great change. Setting up a new team and challenging with a new group of people has been a breath of fresh air. I’m enjoying it immensely. For me, there’s no question it was a time for change. The feeling in New Zealand is positive, and many people have said that they’ll be supporting me through the Louis Vuitton, but that’s where it’ll end. That’s fair enough.

_What strengths do you have with this team? _
In 2000, with TNZ, we were established after rolling out of the 1995 campaign. TNZ 2000 had the benefit of continuity, established boats and procedures, and a team culture, whereas Alinghi had to start from the ground up. Plus, we had to develop an infrastructure in Switzerland geared toward the AC. It’s been a process–buying the old Swiss boats and modifying them and then building a new boat was a big project for us. But buying the Swiss boats was a good move, rather than buying some of the other existing boats. No. 1, it was a good move financially, and secondly, doing so helped get our team up and running, having them producing designs early on.


_I’ve heard you have a new base concept in Auckland. _
Yes, we have a new interactive area at the base, which is an exciting thing for us. When you compare the Cup to other sporting events, it’s unfortunate that people can’t get closer to it. The bases are like fortresses. Early on, we asked whether we could open it up more and came up with an area that will provide the public with a connection with the team. The event must move towards getting more onshore stuff going.

_Does that mean you and the crew will be more accessible throughout the event? _
Yes, much more so than we have been in the past.

_At the base, you’re doing a lot of work on a simulator. What’s that all about? _
The simulator is much like a flight simulator. It’s incredibly real, with two wheels and many controls. It’s complex to sail. It operates just like a “real” sailing boat with real sailing forces. For example, if you overtrim the main in certain wind conditions, the boat will round up and you’ll stall the rudder. There’s a trim tab, and you can adjust that, too.


_How much time do you spend on it? _
We’re spending more and more time on it, actually. You can straight-line sail and change features on the boats and try different things. You can try different modes of sailing. It’s a lot of fun, and we joke that maybe we’ll get to the stage where we don’t have to get on the water.

_Prada, in particular, has been going full on for some time, now. Will they be more a threat this time? _
Prada is a much stronger team than they were last time, and they’ve made some progress in some areas…perhaps they have some new developments in their rig and sail programs. They have a lot of smart guys on their team, and they’re approaching it in a much more innovate way. They seem to be a lot bolder with some design aspects that they’re trying. I think they’re a lot different than they were in 2000.

_You’ve said, historically, having the most money in this event doesn’t matter. So what does? _
You have to have adequate funding, but you can’t afford to have serious weaknesses. You can start out with the objective to try to be perfect in every area, which wouldn’t be a bad objective, but that’s hard to do. But, if you’re very, very good and have no major weaknesses you’ll be a strong team. I think that the game is such that there are so many good teams that weakness will be exposed pretty quickly. In 2000, there were exceptional teams, but they didn’t have the total package.

_As the leader of a young syndicate, how do you make sure you have the complete package? _
That’s the game, isn’t it? If we knew the answers to all of our questions, the game would be boring. We respect the opposition, you’d be wrong not to. There are so many good teams out there that the chances of one of them coming up with the whole package are very high. That’s a tremendous amount of motivation: this time, at this level, we have to be very, very good in all areas.

_You’ve been at it this game for so long, do you ever grow tired of it? _
For me, this one’s probably more interesting than the last one, in terms of the opposition. When you look on the water today there are 14 boats out there on any given day and they’re going full on. That’s a strong motivating factor.

_The event desperately needs icons, but the sailors, by nature of the testing and secrecy have become more reclusive. Is this a bad thing? _
There’s an obligation to promote the sport if we want to get more people into it. I don’t think it’s been an intentional thing on the part of the sailors. I think there’s always been an awareness to promote it, but the way we promote needs some consideration. We are in competition with other sports, and if we want to promote our sport from a commercial sense we need to do a better job. It’s not a matter of putting it on TV and watching the boats go around in circles. We have to provide more, and that’s why we came up with the new base concept–to make it a more public thing. Dennis Conner has been more onto this more than most of the people.

_You’ve always been a champion of promoting your teammates. Is the media too skipper focused? _
Yeah, and too focused on the 16 people on the boat, as well. The neat thing about the Cup is that there are so many people behind the scenes. The technical stuff is interesting to a lot more people. Like Formula One racing, it’s an area of the sport that needs more promotion. For example, a walk through a base, seeing how the boats are being maintained, seeing the machine shops and how the custom fittings are made, and the design infrastructure would interest a lot people. We have to work hard on getting that out there. If it’s good enough for a Formula One team to walk its sponsors and clients through the pits, it’s good enough for the America’s Cup.

_But that would require a change in the behind-the-curtain mentality that rules this event. _
A lot of the stuff that people deem secret are usually designed by the rules advisers that don’t have the same knowledge about the technical side of it as some of the designers and sailors have. For example, the business about not taking photographs or using lasers to measure the performance of the boats is crazy. Last time it was even proposed that you weren’t allowed to use a hand-bearing compass. This is just crazy, particularly when you consider the calibration between the boats are so different and there are so many variables. Some of it is perhaps rules advisers that have the notion that you can go out in a chase boat and follow an America’s Cup boat, measuring the exact speed and characteristics of a boat. The reality is that if someone wants to go out and follow us all day I’d say good luck to them…they could put 10 chase boats to follow us if they wanted to. Last time, some people put a lot of resources towards their spy programs, and the results weren’t that good. So, I’m not sure how much benefit any of it was. I think it’s gotten to the stage where some of it’s paranoia.