Yachting: Rumours swirl over Coutts' sailing future

By Paul Lewis

Russell Coutts. Photo / Mark Lloyd
Russell Coutts. Photo / Mark Lloyd

As one door closes, another door ... closes.

It now seems more than likely that Russell Coutts may be absent from the next America's Cup. There have been strong whispers for some time that Coutts - even before this regatta started - may have been thinking of taking a break from the Cup, win or lose.

Now comes news that the Swedish-based syndicate Artemis have reorganised themselves in anticipation of another campaign in the 35th America's Cup - quite possibly in Auckland.

Artemis was one of the rumoured destinations for Coutts even before it became obvious that Oracle Team USA are struggling to hold on to the America's Cup. He denied that, but there is no doubt that he and Torben Tornqvist, Artemis's billionaire backer, are firm friends.

However, Artemis this week announced that Britain's's double Olympic gold medallist Iain Percy - the 2013 sailing team leader - will become Artemis's team manager.

Tornqvist said recently that Percy succeeds America's Cup veteran Paul Cayard, the team's chief executive officer whose America's Cup career may well have ended.

That appointment still possibly leaves room for Coutts to slot in as CEO but Tornqvist also said the 34th Cup (Artemis suffered a fatal capsize, costing the life of crewman Andrew Simpson and throwing their Cup preparations into disarray) had prompted him to take on a bigger role in team operations.

Tornqvist's 44 per cent stake in the commodities trader Gunvor Group Ltd gives him a net worth of about US$3 billion and a bigger role in the team may mean no need for as figure like Coutts - although the two are said to be close.

Tornqvist also told Business Week it was important to keep a core group of sailors to build around, particularly Percy, 37, and helmsman Nathan Outteridge, the 27-year-old Australian who won the gold medal sailing 49er class skiffs at the 2012 London Olympics.

"He can drive anything," Tornqvist said of Outteridge."We're going to have a core of people from the existing team and see what happens with the next Cup before we go on."

Tornqvist said reaching the starting line became his team's primary goal after the wreck that killed Simpson and destroyed their 72-foot catamaran. After the Italians won the fourth and decisive race in August, he climbed onto the boat and embraced an emotional Percy, who won gold and silver medals with Simpson in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.

"I think we all felt pride in what we achieved in our own way," Tornqvist told Business Week. "It was an emotional moment for Iain and myself. We had lost. We were out. But we had done what was possible."

The cynical will say Coutts has not done what was possible in the 34th America's Cup and would probably be on his way anyway. Billionaire backer Larry Ellison has a well-known dislike of losing and a similarly well-known proclivity for re-shuffling his deck.

In his latest book, The Billionaire And The Mechanic, Ellison admits he held on to previous skipper, New Zealand's Chris Dickson, too long because of a high regard for him and noted that the painful parts of running a business also applied to running a Cup syndicate.

"'If you want to win, you have to be willing to make very hard personnel decisions. If you want to be the best, you have to hire the best and you have to be constantly looking to upgrade your people... But if you own a professional football team, you cannot let someone play quarterback just because he's your friend.

"Now Russell has to make the hard decisions. He decides who can help win the next Cup and who's past his prime. It's a tough business."

Coutts, asked in July whether he would go to Artemis or, as in another rumour, to Oman to manage a campaign from a country new to the America's Cup but growing fast in sailing skills and achievements, said: "I have heard one of those rumours myself but, let me tell you, both are bulls***."

However, if the Cup does change hands and Emirates Team NZ succeed in attracting more challengers than at this regatta, that may again open the door for Coutts - if he wants.

- Herald on Sunday

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