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Jobson: The Russell Coutts Interview

February 8, 2003
Stuart Streuli

As America’s Cup 2003 looms, ESPN’s Gary Jobson, Sailing World’s editor at large, sat down with Alinghi Skipper Russell Coutts for an exclusive interview. Coutts skippered Team New Zealand to victory in 1995 and 2000. After the 2000 match, Coutts and several key crew members, shocked New Zealand by signing with a new syndicate from Switzerland. The pressure on Coutts has been immense in his home country. But Coutts looks at the opportunity as a “breath of fresh air.” If Alinghi defeats Team New Zealand in a best-of-nine series, which starts on Feb. 15th, the next America’s Cup will be held in Europe. ESPN’s live coverage of the racing begins at 7 p.m. (EST) on Feb. 14th.

Jobson: Now that you’ve been both a challenger and a defender, which is harder?

Coutts: Well, I think they both have their complexities. I think being a challenger, you have quite a long series to go through and I can see how Prada would’ve suffered last time because you’ve finished the Louis Vuitton Cup and you’ve achieved a goal and it’s your time to come down and then you have to raise your game again for the America’s Cup and they only had a week to do that. As a defender, some of the disadvantages are you don’t get to race anyone else. And so you don’t really quite know. You think you know where everything’s positioned, but you’re not really that sure.

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Jobson: Well, you think over there in the Team New Zealand camp, there’s a lot of uncertainty because they didn’t race in the challenger trials?

Coutts: Well, everything I’ve seen about them and heard about them is suggesting they’re very confident. So, they must have a good reason to be that confident and I suspect that they’re confident. They’ve got good hardware and that they are well prepared and have a good team. And, it looks pretty good to me.

Jobson: How about the long gaps between the end of the trials and the Cup? Is this an advantage or a disadvantage?

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Coutts: I think it’s an advantage in a competitive sense, but I do think the whole Cup program’s just too long.

Jobson: I asked Dean Barker how he would feel against racing against you and he said, “Actually, I welcome it. I’ve spent so much time racing against Russell as a trial helmsman last time, I feel pretty comfortable with it.” So, how do you feel racing against Dean Barker?

Coutts: The same thing applies. I’m not sure that we are making a big thing out of the fact we know each other. But, over three years, people change and I know my sailing style certainly changed and I presume his has as well.

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Jobson: How important are some of the guys around you? I’m thinking of Brad Butterworth, Warwick Fleury, Simon Daubney, and Murray Jones.

Coutts: Real important. I mean, not only those guys, but of course, in this team, we have people like Jochen Schümann and Josh Belsky and Curtis Blewitt and Chico (Francesco Rapetti), Pieter Van Nieuwenhuyzen,. All of these guys from different nationalities, admittedly, but they’re all very, very good to sail with.

Jobson: Is it hard to bring people of different nationalities together as a team?

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Coutts: It was hard to begin with, but there are actually some advantages with bringing a different group together. Particularly, when you have the opportunity to select who you want. And, it stimulated a lot of new ideas. New ways of looking at things and, certainly, I’ve learned a lot about sailing from people like Jochen Schümann.

Jobson: Were you surprised by the so-called hull appendage or “Hula” on Team New Zealand?

Coutts: We weren’t surprised by it because of the rule interpretation that came out at the beginning of October. I think it’s an interesting idea. They’ve obviously done a great job with their design as always, and we’re predicting their boat’s going to be pretty fast.

Jobson: Have you tried something like the Hula?

Coutts: Yes. We have. We’ve been experimenting with it on our boats and have had some good testing with it.

Jobson: Are you going to sail with one?

Coutts: You’ll have to wait and see for “Unveiling Day”.

Jobson: Are you going to have any challenge to the legality of the thing or is it a past issue?

Coutts: I think the measurers do a good job of insuring the legality of the boats. We have no control really over the legality of it and I’m confident the measurers will do their job as they’ve done in the past.

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| Stuart Streuli|

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| Coutts says the Loyal campaign, which should not be confused with the controversial Blackheart effort, has only increased his desire to take his native country’s prize possession to Europe.* * *|

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Jobson: Russell, with all this “Loyal” campaign I see all over town, has that affected your sailing at all?

Coutts: No, if anything, it’s probably made me a bit more¿well I think I’m pretty determined anyway, but it certainly hasn’t affected me negatively. I can’t say I agree with it, but that’s the path that campaign’s chosen.

Jobson: We noticed you came out with quite a full story of what went on between 1995 and 2000 and the so-called “hand off”. Do you find people a little more sympathetic to your position now that the full story’s out?

Coutts: We certainly didn’t expect any sympathy, but I think people perhaps understand it a little bit better. We had an obligation not to say anything and we honored that agreement.

Jobson: We talked a few months back and you said that the team that spent the most money hasn’t ended up winning the Cup in the last four or five Cup campaigns and maybe that’s going to happen again. So, if money’s not the answer, what is the answer to winning this America’s Cup?

Coutts: You’ve got to have an adequate budget, but once you have that, using your time wisely, properly, not wasting time is a big key. Making the big decisions right and in a lot of ways, spending an adequate amount of time to ensure that you have the best possible chance of making those big decisions right. Those really are the key. People. That’s one of your biggest decisions. Hiring the right people.

Jobson: Well, speaking of people, you know all of us in our various endeavors always have a key few people that we talk to, whether it’s a wife or a manager or brother. Who are the key people that you talk with?

Coutts: Well, in this syndicate, certainly in an afterguard sense, Jochen Schümann, Brad Butterworth, and Murray Jones are obviously a big part of the decision-making. But, at Alinghi, we distribute roles pretty broadly and give people real responsibility in one area. One of the sailors that has been involved in a few other campaigns said one of the biggest differences in this campaign is you’re actually given a task. You have to run with it and you know that if you don’t run with it, it won’t get done. Nobody else is going to actually come in and mother you. It either has to happen by the people, you know, the people are responsible for what they’ve got to do.

Jobson: Dean Barker told us that it’s been very helpful to him that he actually raced Race 5 in the last Cup, understanding what it’s like to be out there by yourself with your hand on the wheel and that’s been in his head all the time. Do you regret having given him the wheel for that last race now that your racing against him?

Coutts: Absolutely not! At that stage, I was trying to build a future for Team New Zealand and I’d to the same today.

Jobson: What do you think are some of his tendencies out on the race course? You know him pretty well having raced against him?

Coutts: Three years is a long time. He’s no doubt, developed his skills to a new level and sailing against Bertrand Pace and his new team. They’ve no doubt developed the lot. I’ll be interested to see how they’ve progressed.

Jobson: Let’s fast-forward for a minute. The start’s of Race 1 and we’re coming up to that first cross. One guy’s going to be ahead. One behind. Do you feel a lot of tension building up?

Coutts: Of course you do. I mean, the whole atmosphere of an America’s Cup day. It’s a big event and once you get into the starting sequence, you tend to forget about everything that’s going on around you and pretty much focus on the race. And, I don’t think there will be an easy answer to this. I don’t think it’ll be in the first 10 minutes of the race.
Last time, it wasn’t until Race 3 that we were pretty confident with our speed.

Jobson: Do you think that keeping the challenger trials in a 7-19 knot window was a good move?

Coutts: I think it’s a ridiculous move. But, once it happened, you couldn’t really do much about it because everyone had built their sails for that wind range. It was pretty hard to change the rules after they’d put them in.

Jobson: It could blow 25 knots for three straight days here during the Cup?

Coutts:Sure. Sure it could. We have to be ready for that.

Jobson: That’s a lot of pressure too. Hey, do you have a prediction for us?

Coutts: Well, I think that the best team and the fastest boat will win.

Jobson: Are you confident?

Coutts: I’m happy with where we are. I never usually go into a big event feeling super-confident. I always respect the opposition and this is no different. I certainly respect Team New Zealand.

Jobson: You mentioned that over the past three years, you, as any athlete would, have changed your sailing style. How has it changed?

Coutts: I think I’ve had a lot of advice from people like Jochen and I think that he’s a fabulous sailor. He’s got a fabulous feel for a boat and it changed the way I sail downwind for sure and certainly even upwind¿just ideas on some of the ways we were using the sails¿I helm the boat quite differently to what I did in the past. Yeah, so, some pretty big changes.

Jobson: You won the cup in ’95, which is obviously a huge deal. You defended it in 2000, which is obviously a huge deal and I know that moving to Alinghi was not under the best of circumstances. But, I wonder, having won two Cups, was it time to move on anyway?

Coutts: Absolutely. You know, the great thing about having the opportunity to join Alinghi and start a new team from a blank sheet of paper, is that it was a breath of fresh air. It gave some of us, that’ve been involved in quite a few America’s Cup campaigns with the same people, a different look on things and we’re able to view things from a different perspective and that’s healthy. Change is sometimes healthy.

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