The South Florida trade winds were gusting above 30 knots on the
January morning Russell Coutts was to test his new boat,
Numbers. But the world's best skipper didn't let the weather
rattle him. In two days the 1997 Yachting Key West Race Week was
to begin, and Coutts needed to test the vessel that he would
sail through this year's Admiral's Cup, the nine-race ocean
series that starts on July 31 and ranks in prestige just below
the America's Cup and the Whitbread.
After a long look at the choppy seas, the skipper hopped aboard
the 49-foot sloop in his bright-red team jacket and matching hat
and began telling a visitor the specifications of his boat,
including the fact that the narrow, lightweight shrouds running
up to the 60-foot mast could hold the combined weight of two
Then, in an absentminded manner that belies an intensely
calculating and single-minded spirit, Coutts segued into a story
of a seaman who had lost his right hand when similar rigging
snapped in winds like those Coutts faced that day. "I'm not
saying this because there's any danger, but just to show how
strong the wind can be out there," he said as he began to
maneuver the craft out into the Atlantic.
Coutts was fine-tuning more than his boat that morning. For as
laid-back and scatterbrained as the 35-year-old New Zealander
appears, it is more than his natural talent for gauging wind
currents and making whip-fast adjustments on the water that has
led this son of a son of a sailor to an unprecedented level of
dominance of his sport over the last two years. Since he skunked
Dennis Conner 5-0 in the best-of-nine America's Cup finals in
1995 and took the vaunted trophy away from the U.S.--it was only
the second U.S. defeat in the event's 144-year history--Coutts
has been almost unbeatable.
Last year he won all five match races on the Gold Cup circuit;
defended his match-racing title at the world championships in
Dubrovnik, Croatia, on the Adriatic Sea; and, in December, broke
a 21-year-old record in the 630 nautical-mile Sydney-to-Hobart,
Tasmania, yacht race. Of the nine events Coutts entered in 1996,
he lost only one; this year he is ranked No. 1 in the world.
"He's already one of the greats," says veteran Australian
skipper Peter Gilmour, who finished second to Coutts in the
world match-race standings last year. "Russell has this
incredible ability to focus on the water and then when he's not
competing be so casual that he's almost vacant. But I think a
lot of that is a facade. Russell plays the psychological game
There is no better example of playing the psychological game
than what Coutts did in the year leading up to the '95 America's
Cup. After a seemingly casual conversation in a bar in Auckland,
his New Zealand team had the sailing world believing that its
entry in the Cup challenge, Black Magic, was a dog. The opposite
was true, and that had been clear to Coutts on the first morning
his crew tested the boat.
As the team gathered at the Loaded Hog pub, one of its members
pulled aside a well-chosen target and told him in hushed tones
that the engineers had miserably botched Black Magic's design.
Then one of the crew made a phone call to a large Auckland paint
supplier to inquire if it had enough black paint to cover the
team's 1992 America's Cup boat. Within weeks, sailors on docks
from Tokyo to San Diego were howling at the Kiwis' misfortune.
Coutts then raced Black Magic to the widest margin of victory
ever in the America's Cup.
Asked now about his part in such skullduggery, Coutts smiles
sheepishly and says, "The whole process is really a team effort,
and you do what you have to do to win."
Coutts is a befuddling blend of cunning and fumbling. Though he
is a master of precision on the water, he is a notoriously bad
driver on land, frequently running red lights and missing turns.
And he has missed more event registrations and practice rounds
than any other competitor because he can't keep track of his
travel arrangements. "He misses things so often that if he were
someone else, he'd be kicked off the circuit," says Gilmour.
On the morning that Coutts tested Numbers, the green sea was
virtually empty; most teams didn't practice because of the high
winds. As Numbers slogged through the violent 10-foot swells,
Coutts barked tacking commands and requested directional
readings from his tactician, who knelt behind him. But the
crew--most of whom have been with Coutts since before the
America's Cup victory--seemed to operate on automatic, trimming
the sails quickly, relaying the wind shifts and hiking high on
Back at the dock that afternoon Coutts ran a crew meeting as he
sat cross-legged on his boat's deck. After 10 minutes of open
discussion about the craft's performance, he asked for
volunteers to recut the sail shapes and retune the mast. Coutts
took on the laborious task of retrimming the rig. His crew and
his competitors say it is this egalitarian management style that
has enabled Coutts to keep his highly talented Team Magic crew
"A lot of us could be skippers ourselves or sail with someone
else," says Simon Daubney, a renowned sail trimmer who has been
crewing for Coutts since 1990. "But Russell's so easy to work
with. It's easy for us to be critical of our performance without
getting angry at each other. We just say, 'Righty-oh, we'll have
to do this or that better.'"
Though it is too early to say whether Coutts will have the
staying power to match Conner, who has been a world-class
skipper for about 40 years, he is already a legend in his
nautically inclined homeland. After winning the America's Cup,
Coutts and his crew were greeted in Auckland by a rowdy crowd of
more than 400,000 people, nearly half of the city's population.
"In America, kids can choose whether they want to be Michael
Jordan, Dan Marino or about 100 other athletes. In New Zealand
you either want to be Russell Coutts or a rugby player," says Ed
Baird, an American sailor who coached Coutts in New Zealand for
two years before the last America's Cup and who will skipper the
Young America team, perhaps the strongest U.S. challenger for
the Cup in the year 2000.
But Coutts has never appeared interested in the spotlight.
During the America's Cup in San Diego he rarely showed up at
press conferences; he sent other members of his crew in his
stead so that he could spend his time watching tapes of the
races. And in Key West he was conspicuously absent from his only
scheduled media appearance, a roundtable discussion among top
skippers. He also walked right past some old friends on the dock
as if he were in a trance. Calculating or simply absentminded?
Hard to know, but it is his focus--"to the detriment of
everything else," according to Daubney--that makes Coutts so
Two nights before winning the Key West race by the largest
margin in its 10-year history, Coutts watched the sun set from
the deck of the yacht, owned by John Risley, who runs a seafood
company in Nova Scotia and is Coutts's financial backer. He
talked about leaving the hectic life of competition even as the
sailing world begins gearing up for the next America's Cup.
"I don't know if it's because I'm getting older or mellowing,
but I've been thinking about taking six months off and just
going cruising," he said, his voice trailing off as he turned
back toward the horizon. It was as if he knew what a good story
that would make--particularly if it weren't true.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DANIEL FORSTER Coutts (second from right), aboard Numbers, usually has the swiftest boat and the tightest crew. [Russell Coutts and crewmembers aboard yacht Numbers]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DANIEL FORSTER Coutts (holding trophy) and his Black Magic crew celebrated their America's Cup sweep in 1995. [Russell Coutts, holding trophy, surrounded by crewmembers]