Coutts, Russell

Coutts, Russell
▪ 2001

      To celebrate his 38th birthday, on March 1, 2000, yachtsman Russell Coutts tied a 97-year-old record when he skippered Team New Zealand to its ninth straight winning race with him at the helm in the America's Cup sailing competition. The first five consecutive wins had come when he led the Kiwis' stunning sweep of the U.S. in 1995, his nation's first America's Cup triumph and only the second Cup victory by a non-U.S. team. His four victories in 2000 were over the Italian Prada team in its sleek yacht Luna Rossa and came in the defenders' home waters off New Zealand's North Island. The Kiwis easily overcame the Italians' fast starts, but Coutts waited until the fourth race to introduce a secret weapon—a new, light “code zero” headsail, designed for light winds. He appeared poised to lead the yacht Black Magic to the first-ever America's Cup defense by non-Americans, but instead of setting a personal record, Coutts had another surprise for the sailing world. In the fifth race of the best-five-of-nine series, he yielded command of the Black Magic to his backup helmsman, 26-year-old Dean Barker, who rose to the challenge by leading the crew to a comfortable 48-second win. Afterward, Barker credited Coutts with the victory, “All the hard work's been done by Russell.”

      After the Cup victory and a hero's welcome in a nation where sailing was a leading sport, Coutts remained in the spotlight by joining his design-team leader, Tom Schnackenberg, and tactician Brad Butterworth in taking over the administration of Team New Zealand, replacing yachting legend Sir Peter Blake. Securing and paying a team of yacht designers as well as a crew of sailors, negotiating broadcasting rights, finding sponsorship, and otherwise attending to the details of operating Team New Zealand became the responsibility of Coutts and his two partners. An even bigger surprise was in store, however, when Coutts and Butterworth quit Team New Zealand in May and signed an agreement with Swiss billionaire and avid yachtsman Ernesto Bertarelli to prepare a team from Switzerland to challenge for the next America's Cup, to be held in 2003.

      Coutts was born March 1, 1962, and won his first regatta when he was nine years old, steering a 2.13-m (7-ft) wooden dinghy off the windy coast of Dunedin, South Island. Nine years later he became the single-handed world youth champion, and in 1984 he won an Olympic gold medal in the Finn class. He was with the national team when it finished third in the 1992 America's Cup challenge, but the next year he was rated the number one match racer in the world. In the 1990s he compiled an extraordinary series of international victories, including the Nippon Cup, the Bermuda Cup, and the World Match Racing championships, along with the 1995 America's Cup. Coutts was named MBE in 1985 and advanced to CBE 10 years later.

John Litweiler

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Universalium. 2010.

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