Russell Coutts Happy to Change Tack

Published on October 7th, 2017

Yachting legend Russell Coutts with no remaining America’s Cup ambitions is immersing himself at the grassroots level, writes Yachting New Zealand’s Michael Brown, for the New Zealand Herald.

The Manly Sailing Club is like many others in New Zealand. It has a small wooden clubhouse perched on the water’s edge with a bunker underneath full of coach boats and a ship’s container out back to store a lot of the other equipment.

But the Manly Sailing Club is like no other. Listed as commodore is R. Coutts. That’s Sir Russell Coutts, five-time America’s Cup winner, two-time World Sailor of the Year, three-time world match racing champion and 1984 Olympic gold medalist.

He’s gone from running the America’s Cup to running one of the smallest yacht clubs in the Auckland region. And he’s loving it. It’s one of the many projects he’s involved with but it seems unlikely he will be involved any more in the one he’s most famous for.

“I don’t really have any ambitions to continue with the America’s Cup at this point,” he says. “I have had quite a few years involved with it, loved it, fantastic event, but there are other things to do in life.

“In some ways, you need fresh people to come in and they have obviously given it quite a different treatment this time and I say good for them. I certainly hope it’s a huge success in terms of the impact it could have on junior sailing in this country.”

And that’s what Coutts seems to care about now. He talks in almost evangelical terms about his new job at the Manly Sailing Club and wants to quadruple the number of junior members in the next two years, even more if he can. The club had virtually no junior program just over a year ago; they now have about 90 children on their books and the growth doesn’t seem like slowing any time soon.

One of the main by-products is pressure on storage and facilities at the club. They recently installed a 20-foot container but it’s proving inadequate and they have approached council about extending their clubhouse.

Coutts can be persuasive. Harold Bennett, a former America’s Cup principal race officer and Coutts’ long-time friend, says Coutts asked him to “help out for a couple of days”. Bennett is now vice-commodore and is often charged with putting Coutts’ ideas into practice.”

“He’s said he’s done with the America’s Cup, so has time and needs something else to get his teeth into,” Bennett said. “All of a sudden, he’s like a big dog with a bone. There’s a fair bit going on. With Russell as commodore, hopefully that will help various things move along.

“He’s so passionate about the kids, juniors and learn to sail program, and being involved in the sport. He has that drawing power and he can also go out and talk to people around things like sponsorship. Not only are new members being drawn to the club, and membership has gone through the roof, but we’ve also seen people who want to help.

It’s also seen them awarded hosting rights for the 2019 O’pen Bic world championships and the club are in talks to host the Pacific Waszp championships and the RS Feva and Moth world championships. “I would love to host the Hobie cat worlds, too,” Coutts says. “Some of the fun classes.”

It should come as no surprise he’s championing non-traditional classes. Coutts was instrumental in introducing foiling catamarans into the America’s Cup in a bid to sell the sport to a wider audience and it produced some spectacular sailing.

It wasn’t to everyone’s taste, and many have welcomed Emirates Team New Zealand’s intention to return to a more traditional format. Last week they confirmed plans to race 75-foot foiling monohulls to go with their more stringent rules around a nationality clause.

“I will be watching with interest,” Coutts says. “It should be a great event here. Because I’m not involved, I don’t really have any comment [to make about the decision to race monohulls]. I haven’t sailed monohulls like that before. People made all sorts of presumptions and judgements about the catamarans in the America’s Cup but quite a few of those people have never sailed in a boat like that.

Russell Coutts helps Napier’s Jacob Goodall prepare for the inaugural O’pen Bic race on Lake Wanaka.

“All these presumptions about, ‘oh, they’re not tactical or they can’t do that’, well, they were shown to be wrong. They can try to deny it now and say they’re not as tactical as this boat over here but of course they were tactical. The fact Pete Burling was able to win that many starts, do you think that was just a fluke? Of course it was tactical.

“There is a lot of very traditional thinking in this sport and it’s a non-traditional world now. When I look at the people making those comments, they are generally older people who are, dare I say it, stuck in their old ways. I think you need to be careful about viewing life like that. At some point, you need to look at it through a young person’s eyes and try to imagine what they would have been like when they were 20, or even younger.”

Coutts’ 11-year-old son Mattias is already a world champion, having recently won the under-13 class at this year’s O’pen Bic worlds in Italy. He’s also encouraging his other children to get more involved in the sport and it means he is often found on the water, or in and around yacht clubs.

Coutts doesn’t sail much any more, other than dabbling with a Waszp (a high-speed foiling dinghy) but it’s clearly still his passion. He still polarizes opinion in this country, largely because of his defection to Alinghi and then Oracle, but it’s hard to criticize his commitment to junior sailing.

Not only is he helping Manly, but he’s also invested time and resources into other clubs such as Ravensbourne Yacht Club in Dunedin, where he is a life member and learned to sail, and the Wanaka Yacht and Powerboat Club, he has a holiday home in Central Otago. He’s also helped develop interest in the O’pen Bic at those two clubs, either donating time or boats (or both), and is patron of the Ravensbourne Youth Yachting Trust.

Clearly he has the resources to help, being listed at No 200 on this year’s NBR Rich List with an estimated net worth of $55 million. He’s gifted a number of boats to yacht clubs and plans to bring in many more to Manly. If someone sees something on the likes of YouTube and says they want to give it a go, Coutts will try to make it happen.

“I think the look of the boat is important, the coolness factor,” he says. “Look at skiing, the skis are pretty different to what we skied on 15 years ago. The world is evolving and kids are seeing video content and want to evolve with it. Not everyone is built the same but our junior programs tend to funnel kids down one route and it’s little wonder that we get a lot dropping out at a certain age because they probably get tired of it.

“I’m a big believer in giving kids the option to find what they are passionate about. It could be kiteboarding, windsurfing or foiling Moths, Lasers, 420s, any of those things. I just want to find what they love doing.”

He plans to engage schools; firstly on the Whangaparaoa Peninsula before looking further afield, in the same way he did with the successful AC Endeavour Program introduced in Bermuda that revitalized junior sailing on the tiny North Atlantic territory. It means Coutts has become a notable fixture around Manly, somewhere he expects to base himself for the foreseeable future, but the 55-year-old has a broad world view these days.

“I’m a New Zealander, I was born here, New Zealand is my home,” he says. “I love it here but I’ve lived in other countries and continue to enjoy them. I guess I have changed over the last 20 years of doing that. At one stage, I was very much a parochial New Zealander. Having lived overseas that long and made so many friends overseas, I can say I don’t honestly view people of other countries as that different.

“I like New Zealand as a country but am I pro New Zealand at the expense of another country? Absolutely not. If I can do good in New Zealand, I will, but if I can do good in another country, and I support at least one program offshore, I will do that, too.”

For now, his principal concern is the Manly Sailing Club.

“Hopefully we can make the club a more interesting and valued part of the community. I think we will grow regardless of who follows. If others want to join, that’s great. If they don’t, that fine. I’m not saying my way is the right way, I’m just trying some things and seeing where it goes.

“When you are a small organization at the beginning, you can take advantage of that and get a lot done. It’s when you become bigger things become more complex. In a way, Manly was an ideal yacht club for me to get involved in because you can have a stronger influence over how it’s built. The good thing is we can do what we think is right and, in a way, there’s a magic to that.”

Next week, Manly Sailing Club will host the Yachting New Zealand youth trials, which is a selection regatta for the NZL Sailing Foundation youth team to compete at December’s youth sailing world championships. Coutts will be there to keep an eye on things and hand out prizes to the winners.

That’s what commodores do.

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