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22 February 2003, 01:20 pm
Russell Coutts
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Russell Coutts in 1984

America's Cup
Auckland

Love or hate him, no one can challenge Russell Coutts' standing as one of yachting's greats. Some go even further, claiming he is the greatest the sport has seen and he is now the most successful skipper in the 152-year history of the America's Cup.
Coutts took that mantle from Charlie Barr, who had a 9-0 winning sequence in three contests from 1899 to 1903. Like Coutts, Barr set his record representing a country other than that of his birth.

Barr, born in Scotland in 1864, was naturalised as an American 35 years later in time to take the helm for the first of three challenges from Sir Thomas Lipton in 1899. He also set a transatlantic record in 1905, and died of a heart attack in 1911.

Unlike Barr, Coutts, who set the new mark in the first cup race last Saturday, has rarely taken his skills to offshore racing. His talents, initially, were as a small-boat sailor. He progressed through the classes, often in a one-man boat, to the ultimate cup class, making his mark as a match-racing supremo along the way.

Coutts first put to sea in Dunedin, cutting his teeth in the P class, the simple 2m boat in which many young Kiwis have honed their skills. In 1977, he contested the Tanner Cup, the pinnacle of P class sailing, competing against Chris Dickson.

Not surprisingly the youngsters were soon at each other. Rounding one mark there was a collision. Coutts protested. Dickson was disqualified, but came back and eventually beat Coutts to win the cup.

The following year, Coutts won the Tanner Cup. Ten years later, Dean Barker had his name inscribed on the trophy.
There was no stopping Coutts. In 1979, as a 17-year-old, he won the national Laser title. Two years later he was the Youth World Championship in the Laser. The honours kept coming. In 1983 he made his mark in the difficult Finn.
He won the world youth title and mixed it with the best, finishing eighth in the North American championships and 13th in the world (open) Finn championships.

Buoyed by that, Coutts threw himself into an Olympic campaign aimed at winning the Finn class gold in Los Angeles.

Without winning a race, but with three seconds and a third in the seven-race series, Coutts prevailed. The victory made him joint winner of the New Zealand Sailor of the Year award (with Rex Sellers and Chris Timms, who also won Olympic gold).

Coutts' only other Olympic appearance was in Barcelona in 1992 when he, Simon Daubney and Graham Fleury finished eighth in the Solings.

His first serious outing in the bigger boats came in 1986, when he finished fifth in the world 12-metre championships in Fremantle.

Learning from those experiences, Coutts prepared to launch himself on to the world match-racing circuit. He was briefly involved with New Zealand's first America's Cup bid in 1987, but opted out to complete his engineering degree.
In 1992, juggling his commitments to world match racing championship as well as preparing for his Olympic campaign, Coutts was a revelation. He won the Steinlager/Logan Cup, the Omega Gold Cup in Bermuda, the Nippon Cup and the World Match Racing Championship.

The following year Coutts was just as dominant. He retained his Steinlager/Logan Cup, Omega Gold Cup and world titles, adding the New Zealand keelboat championship and the Admiral's Cup, One Ton Cup and Two Ton Cup to his trophy cabinet.

In 1992, with Dickson - who had been at the helm of the early America's Cup challenge - off the scene, Coutts stepped behind the wheel. Three years later he was the toast of New Zealand yachting after steering Black Magic to a 5-0 win over Dennis Conner's Young America.

He was honoured with a CBE the same year and named the International Yacht Racing Union's (now ISAF) world sailor of the year. Not one to sit back and reflect, Coutts returned to the world match racing circuit in 1996 and spent the last days of the year helming Morning Glory to victory in the Sydney-to-Hobart blue water classic.

The momentum continued in the build-up to the 2000 America's Cup. Winning and Coutts went hand in hand.
After watching his rivals battle through a tough challengers series, Coutts stepped aboard NZL60 and sent the rich Italians on Luna Rossa packing.

In many eyes he then went from hero to zero when he quit New Zealand to join Swiss billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli and his Alinghi campaign, taking with him some of New Zealand's best sailors.

Displaying, again, the skills that had him deservedly rated the best, Coutts for the second time won the Louis Vuitton Cup, beating old rival Dickson and his Oracle Team BMW syndicate in the final.

Coutts is a master. He has upheld the tradition of a proud sailing nation by simply being the best.

Terry Maddaford
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