Russell Coutts Takes Advantage of Career Shift

An exclusive interview with the America's Cup legend.

Coutts 44
Courtesy Max Ranchi/www.russellcoutts.net

It's been over a year since Russell Coutts and Alinghi parted ways and six months since the most successful sailor in the modern America's Cup era agreed to sit out the 2007 contest. Alinghi didn't appear to miss a beat, trouncing the 11 challenging syndicates in the six Louis Vuitton Acts of 2005. After maintaining a relatively low profile early in 2005, Coutts is now showing that he's been able to move on as well. Over the past few months, Coutts has placed himself right back in the sailing spotlight with a flurry of developments, ranging from a course record in the 2005 Transpac on Hasso Plattner's maxi Morning Glory, an alliance with Quantum Sails that included a successful season driving its entry in the Mediterranean TP 52 circuit, and the release of his first boat, the Russell Coutts 44, which debuted at the Genoa Boat Show in Italy last week. During his tenure with Team New Zealand and Alinghi, Coutts was often lauded for his engineering skills and the link he provided between the sailing and design teams. But this is the first design to which he's attached his name. The 44 is a boat that Coutts would like to sail; a super-light displacement day sailor focused purely on racing. While there's been some interest in using the boat for match racing, Coutts hopes it catches on as a fleet racer. He envisions strict one-design rules and an amateur owner-driver requirement. The latter means that while he'll own a boat, he won't be at the wheel in fleet races. "But that's fine," he says. "I don't mind being tactician." With this new boat, your endorsement and development relationships, and your sailing schedule, have you gotten back to a comfortable level of activity? It's too much right now. I'm still trying to sail a lot because I think that's important for the whole design aspect. I want to be out there seeing what the latest technology is and how the new boats perform. [The new boat], which started off as a bit of fun, really, has developed into a bit more than that. I'm just trying to put all the parts together now. What was the design brief you gave to yourself and co-designer Andrej Justin? First of all, we wanted something that is distinguished in the market. And I wanted it to be at the top end of technology. The second thing is I was looking at sort of a reaction to the escalating costs in the sport and hassle factor. People are becoming busier and busier, they don't want to spend time working on their boats and organizing crew so I made the boat as logistically simple as possible. We looked at making the boat more easily transportable. The boat was displayed [at the Genoa Boat Show] on its trailer on its side. It's easily storable. For an owner who wants to race his boat in a series of races in the summer, he can put it away for the winter relatively easily. In terms of the build, what we wanted to do was have almost an uncompromised build to provide a boat that was a real race boat, and a fun to sail, especially downwind. It seems that's where people are having the most fun these days, sailing downwind. We wanted a degree of complexity in the design so an owner could experience what a top-end race boat is like. The trim tab, the spinnaker dropping system, and the way the deck layout is laid out-even the way it sails, being relatively overpowered upwind-were all things we did to give the owner that experience. Where do you see this boat going? The one thing that I think is key with this boat is to have a strong class association. There's been some events that have approached us about using this for match racing, but I want the focus to be on fleet racing. I want it to be one-design and I want it to be fun. The concept is you won't be able to change anything on the boat, even the size of the ropes. We are going to provide a little bit of flexibility with the sails. We're going to have limit on the number of sails you can buy, but were not going to have any limits on structure. What about restrictions on professional sailors? It's going to be pretty similar set of rules to the Farr 40. I think that's been pretty successful. We're going to have three pros on the boat and four amateurs. A crew of seven. That won't stop us from having some professional events and maybe that's where the match racing will come in. Definitely owner-driver and definitely amateur owner-driver. You've got a few other corporate things in the works? How do you go about choosing the companies you work with? The three companies that I've named for far are Quantum, Slam, and Omega. On the website www.russellcoutts.net you'll see Sunsail and there are others that I haven't named yet. Basically what I'm looking to do is pair with companies that are interested in the same philosophy. In terms of development, Slam are looking at pretty innovative clothing. I think there's a move in sailing where people are starting to accept technology more, even in clothing. Your deal with Quantum is more than a standard endorsement arrangement. How with that work? Definitely. I'm helping them with their development. It doesn't actually stop me using sails from other builders. But what I am committed to doing is helping them develop their product. Having sailed with them on the TP 52, I sense that they have an attitude now that they want to progress. They're open to new ideas, open to new development and I like the attitude and I like the feel of what we achieved in the TP 52. They spoke to me about doing a deal that was more broad than the TP 52 and I said, "Sure." It's much more than just a sponsorship. What sort of sailing are you looking to do in the next few years? I'm trying to sail more high performance boats, like Morning Glory [Hasso Plattner's canting keel maxZ86]. I got a lot of kicks sailing that boat. I'm going to continue doing some multihull sailing next year; that's an area of the sport I want to develop into during the next few years; I may end up designing something there. I'm doing the Melges 24 Worlds with Philippe Kahn. I want be sailing in those classes to experience where to go next. And also to improve my own sailing in that style of boat. What about for yourself? Any Etchells or Star sailing in your future? I really enjoy the Star, but I just don't know if I'll ever get time over the next few years to do it, same with the Etchells. But I'd say right now I'd much rather be doing the Melges 24 Worlds than the Etchells worlds; that's the style of boat I want to be sailing. So we won't see you making a run at a New Zealand Olympic berth in 2008? Not even an option. I'll go and do some Star regattas if I can, just to compete, to gauge myself. But when you do that you've got to be realistic; you're racing against guys who are full-time. I'm not going to commit another two or three years to an Olympic campaign. Did you give any thought to joining a Volvo team? I thought about joining a team for the short races, but I didn't really get anything established. Right now I've got enough on my plate. I might go sailing on one of the Volvo boats just to see what it's like, I wouldn't mind doing that. Do you miss not being involved with the America's Cup? The short answer is no. I watched the fleet racing on TV for the first time the other day. It looked impressive with that number of boats, it looked great. But if somebody said to me, "Go down to Valencia and spend every day out the water two boat testing for the next two years." I don't think I'd want to jump into that. The rules say you can't sail with another team, but does your agreement prohibit you from being involved in any other way? I won't be involved in the 2007 Cup. What else do you have on your plate for next year? 2006 is pretty much full now. I'm doing some Farr 40 sailing, doing some lead-up regattas and the Worlds. I'm doing some TP 52 sailing on the Med circuit. I'm doing some sailing on Morning Glory, and mixed in with that I still want to do a little bit of match racing. I enjoy getting my match racing guys together and doing a regatta with them. I'm sailing on a Swan 601 for a few regattas. That pretty much fills the plate for next year. If I can fit some more sailing around that, it'll be some more high performance sailing. Is your collaboration with Paul Cayard for some fleet racing in maxi-size yachts still active? It is on the table. That's in 92-foot boats, capable of easily doing more than 30 knots downwind. We're just not saying any more on that at the moment. Paul and I aren't in the business of making announcements on things when we don't really have all the pieces of the pie in place. Once we get it all together we'll make the announcement.