Sitting down with Brad Butterworth
Published on June 10th, 2021
In this edition of Shirley Robertson’s Sailing Podcast, the double Olympic gold medalist host is joined by one of the most successful tacticians of the modern era.
From the America’s Cup to the Whitbread, the Admirals Cup to the Sydney Hobart, New Zealand’s Brad Butterworth has been at the sharp end of competitive sailing for his entire adult life, and has a grand prix sailing CV few could match.
The duo sat down together at the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron during the 36th America’s Cup where Butterworth had been consulting for the official Challenger of Record, Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli. The pair kick things off by discussing various aspects of the event, including the adoption of the new Cup Class, the AC75, and Brad’s role as mediator between the Challenger and the Defender.
Sailing since his early school days, Butterworth has strong opinions on various aspects of the America’s Cup, and as a winner of four consecutive Cups for two different nations, has more back to back race wins than any afterguard member in Cup history, a fact that in 2004 saw him honoured in the America’s Cup Hall of Fame.
Robertson and Butterworth spend much time discussing this rich Cup history but also talk about his days campaigning with Sir Peter Blake, in the Whitbread Race of 1995, a race that saw Steinlager II dominate the fleet, a fact that had a great effect on the up and coming Butterworth.
“He’s the best seaman I’ve ever seen, with seamanship skills by far the best, in the world, I would say, and he taught us guys all of what we know today….When he put his (sea)boots on, you paid attention, you’d think ‘OK, things are a bit hairy up there’, he was very good with the weather, he had the utmost respect from us guys, until the day he died.”
With Blake as skipper, and Butterworth one of the watch leaders, Steinlager II won all six legs of that 1989-90 Whitbread Race, and still remains the only boat to have ever done so.
In 1998 Butterworth joined the crew of Larry Ellison’s Sayonara to sail in the Sydney to Hobart race, taking line honors in an addition that would become synonymous with tragedy and loss of life. Six sailors were lost as the 115 strong fleet was battered by unprecedented storms on the 630 mile course.
“It’s a hard thing for them to do but they should have cancelled it, or delayed it; two days would have made a huge difference. But it was a beautiful day sailing out of Sydney Heads, a full on Sydney farewell, and then that night that southerly buster came in and just got worse and worse. And then the wind gear blew off the top of the tree at 72 knots; it took us four hours to put the storm jib on, the sea state was so bad.”
The vast majority of Butterworth’s career, though, has been spent in pursuit of the America’s Cup. A winner twice for New Zealand, in 1995 and in 2000, Butterworth famously defected to the Swiss team Alinghi for New Zealand’s next defense of the Cup in 2003.
He was a key member of fellow New Zealander Sir Russell Coutts’ afterguard at Alinghi, and as the new Swiss syndicate plotted to become the first ever European winner of the Cup, the atmosphere in New Zealand was hostile. Butterworth’s accounts of the animosity targeted at the team while in New Zealand fully reflect just how important the Cup is to the sporting obsessed nation of five million sailing fans.
“It was crazy, it was madness, they were trying to put bullet proof vests on us when we towed out, he (Coutts) had protection, I had protection, a lot of the guys, Kiwis, had protection….they started a movement called Blackheart, which was a great name for a group that hated us guys. It got out of control. They tried to make it as hard as they possibly could to live here and compete.”
As an insight into the behind the scenes goings on at the highest level of our sport, this two-part podcast is a fascinating discussion with one of the most candid, high level names in sailing. From nationality rules to classes of boat through to race formats and court cases, all told from the perspective of a man who openly admits few people would ever call him diplomatic.
Shirley Robertson OBE made history by becoming the first British woman to win Olympic Gold Medals at two consecutive Olympic Games. Shirley Robertson’s Sailing Podcast, produced and edited by Tim Butt of Vertigo Films, is available to listen on her website or via most popular podcast outlets, including iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcast, and aCast.