x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Plenty of water passed under the bridge for Oracle's Coutts

The Olympic gold medallist is looking forward to spearheading the challenge in Ras al Khaimah.

Russell Coutts will not be at the helm of the BMW Oracle boat for the America's Cup race in Ras al Khaimah in February, passing the wheel to James Spithill. In his role as chief executive, Coutts will oversee the 100-strong team for sport's oldest international trophy.
Russell Coutts will not be at the helm of the BMW Oracle boat for the America's Cup race in Ras al Khaimah in February, passing the wheel to James Spithill. In his role as chief executive, Coutts will oversee the 100-strong team for sport's oldest international trophy.

It would have been easy for Russell Coutts, widely regarded as the finest sailor ever to take to the high seas, to fire a broadside from his BMW Oracle America's Cup challenging camp into the holders Alinghi in view of the personal and public acrimony he has been party to over the last five years.

Coutts, the most successful yachtsman in the long and chequered history of sport's oldest international trophy, is made of stern stuff, though, and, in the main, resisted the temptation to throw oil on the troubled waters between rival syndicates due to compete for the famous trophy off the shores of Ras al Khaimah in February. The skilful Kiwi is still reeling from being branded a traitor in his New Zealand homeland for jumping ship from the Team New Zealand boat he had guided to success in 1995 and 2000 to head Swiss multi-billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli's Alinghi syndicate to a 2003 triumph.

He therefore adopted a statesmanlike approach when invited on several occasions to criticise the Alinghi hierarchy who controversially dismissed him five years ago. Coutts, 47, now enjoying the latest episode of his remarkable career as chief executive of BMW Oracle Racing - the sole challengers to Alinghi in the 33rd America's Cup - dropped his guard only once when he declared that the trophy holders have a "poisoned protocol".

Asked to enlarge on that stand-out comment, Coutts said: "When they won it they attempted to grab a completely unreasonable and unfair standpoint, taking away the rights of their challengers by changing the rules of the competition. Many were outraged. "That poisoned protocol was seen as the worst document in the history of the America's Cup. "Larry Ellison [the American billionaire who is backing the Oracle challenge] stood up and said what was wrong and I am pleased to say the New York courts agreed with us."

Coutts was an angry victim of one particular regulation amendment by Alinghi which prevented him from skippering that team to their 2007 defence of the trophy. He tries to contain that anger by choosing to look to the future rather than the past. "The story has been well documented and it has all been dealt with," he said dismissively. "Basically they excluded me from competing by creating a new rule that essentially said that if you had worked for one team in a sailing capacity you could not sail for a rival concern."

That brought about an enormous difference of opinion between Coutts and his Alinghi employers with the upshot being that they parted company, leading to Coutts taking up the role of CEO for the Oracle syndicate. Coutts admitted that he and his sailing colleagues are as frustrated as their Alinghi counterparts by the incessant legal arguments that have cast a shadow over this America's Cup campaign.

Legal wranglings have dogged the prestigious sailing event for the past two years. Disputes between the teams have focused on the agreement of the protocol for the 33rd running of the race, and the upholding of the 158 year old event's Deed of Gift, a 19th century document that governs the rules of the race. The designs of the boats for the 2010 Cup event are also causing controversy. "I think a lot of us would rather the cup was not in the situation it is now," he lamented.

"We would much rather that it was a normal style of competition that was open to teams from several countries all around the world. "We have tried to let this happen, without success, so we are in a situation were we are the sole challengers to Alinghi. "We are all hoping to put all the legal issues behind us and get on with the proper business of racing because we have two wonderful boats ready to do battle.

"Ourselves and Alinghi are right at the cutting edge of technology. "They are massive powerful boats and it should be an extremely exciting competition if and when they come together." Coutts, who holds the America's Cup winning streak record of 14, will not be at the helm of Oracle, the impressive multi-hull vessel which has been under legal investigation for being larger than the 90-feet-square dimensions stipulated at the start of the challenge.

He has handed over the reins to James Spithill, mainly because his own duties are so wide ranging that he cannot devote the time required to master the different techniques required to be in control of such a large boat as Oracle. "I have loved every minute of my racing career," said Coutts a gold medallist at the 1984 Olympics. "But I think it would have been quite a challenge to learn new sailing skills and manage a complex campaign in the time available.

"The style of this boat is different from what I have raced on over the years. That's been a matter of development to create a different way of sailing with a completely different team. "The decision not to steer was pretty easy when you consider the talent we have in James Spithill and Franck Cammas [the highly-regarded Brittany-based helmsman]. Coutts is just as confident about the rest of the 100-strong team at his disposal.

"We are all very pleased with the work done so far both on and off the boat," he said. "I am very proud with the work that our engineers and boat builders have done and I have every confidence in those who are going to sail the boat. "If you are asking me whether we are confident and doing everything we can to win the America's Cup then I would say 'yes we are'." @Email:wjohnson@thenational.ae