x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Coutts' a true skipper

The New Zealander ruled sailing's flagship event and was also a great leader of men

Who do you think is sport's all-time best? Each week, we will profile a candidate, inviting you to decide who should top our list of 50. All participants will be entered into a draw for the weekly adidas prize and an end-of-contest Etihad Holidays four-day trip for two, including business class flights and accommodation, to a mystery location. We will reveal the full 50 at the end, but this week Paul Radley looks at sailing's Russell Coutts.

The sport of match race sailing carries with it an abundance of jargon which is difficult for the layman to sift through. Happily, the participants are usually more than eager to explain the rudiments to anyone who looks slightly baffled for the meaning of a "wineglass in the spinnaker" or "close hauled". There is only one item of assumed knowledge, which is that everyone knows Russell Coutts is king.

It was a fact that I learned when I first encountered the New Zealander up close, as he sailed the waters of the Arabian Gulf near Dubai Marina in March 2006. He was in the city to launch his newly designed racing yacht, the RC44, in an exhibition match against one of his proteges, the Dane, Jes Gram Hansen. Initial impressions of the fabled sailor were less than great. As the two crews jostled for the best starting position, Coutts navigated his vessel straight into an inflatable buoy marking the course - thus delaying the start.

"Has this bloke done much sailing?" I queried, as Coutts and crew tried to extricate themselves from the obstacle. Given the ashen look on the face of our skipper - who I presumed was not a regular sufferer from seasickness - I had just committed sailing treason. The ensuing exhibition was enthralling. Coutts continued on from the pre-race confusion by trailing his young counterpart by a distance in losing race one.

It soon became obvious that it was all part of an elaborate ploy. It was like Shane Warne setting up a batsman with a couple of slow, easy to hit long-hops, before landing a zooter in the same spot and cleaning up his victim's stumps. Coutts dominated the decisive two legs that followed, controlling the cat-and-mouse battle totally. The stakes were negligible - America's Cup this was not - as the match amounted to little more than two rival groups of friends taking their yachts out on the water.

Yet it was still an intriguing insight into the workings of the man who is deemed by many to be the greatest competition sailor of all. It was also a marker of his fertile mind that Coutts, sailing a boat he had designed himself, saw an opportunity to innovate in Dubai. With the trunk and breakwater from Palm Jumeirah affording excellent view of the sailing, Coutts suggested mounting huge floodlights and having night races.

"When you think about it, there is no reason why match racing couldn't do this in the future, especially in Dubai where almost no idea is too crazy to try," he later wrote. In a glowing eulogy in a column in The Times, Ben Ainslie, the British Olympic great, deemed Coutts to be "the master sailor". Ainslie, a multiple gold medal-winning Olympian, pondered on Coutts' success at the Los Angeles Games of 1984, when he won the Finn class for his nation. "He endured agonies I never had to experience," wrote Ainslie.

"He suffered painful boils on his backside throughout the competition and, folklore has it, wore babies' nappies in the seventh and final race to lessen the discomfort. "Such torture would convince most people never to board a boat again, but not Coutts." Rather than the end, it marked a new beginning for Coutts, who was born March 1 1962, and won his first regatta when he was nine years old, steering a small wooden dinghy off the coast of New Zealand's South Island.

He went on to compete in, and more so, dominate, the sport's flagship event, the America's Cup. He claimed two victories for his native Team New Zealand, before making a ferociously acrimonious switch to the Swiss team, Alinghi in 2003. Coutts, and the crewmen who followed him, received death threats for choosing the funds of the billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli over nationhood. Coutts went on to lead Alinghi's challenge of the holders and become the first European team to win in the 152-year history.

In so doing, he claimed a hat-trick of titles for himself, and broke Charlie Barr's near-century old record for number of consecutive race wins. The day he tied the previous best of nine wins was his 38th birthday, and he eventually stopped at 14 in a row. "In this environment, where technology is as crucial as seamanship, he would prove himself the greatest leader of men the sport has known," added Ainslie, who served an apprentice as part of the Team New Zealand crew ahead of the last America's Cup.

"My ambition is to become a racing skipper in the mould of the great man." pradley@thenational.ae Cast your vote and enter a draw for a weekly Dh500 adidas voucher and a dream trip with Etihad Holidays. If you think Coutts is the all-time best, text G48 to 2337. Texts cost Dh5 and voting will end at midnight on Thursday March 19.