By HELEN TUNNAH
Russell Coutts is a sailor in a million. And that's a problem.
Now that he's using his considerable seamanship to try to take the America's Cup to Europe, New Zealanders are feeling at best rather uneasy, and, at worst, downright scared.
Even as a youngster, Coutts was driven.
As a 5-year-old he would watch his brothers racing their yachts, shunning his bucket and spade so he could watch intently what his siblings were doing.
"The other kids would play in the sand, but Russell would sit down beside me for the whole race and ask questions the entire time," his father Allan said as Coutts helped win the America's Cup in 1995.
"His brothers would tease him - as soon as we got home he would go to his bedroom, get out his little rulebooks and relive the whole race again.
"He would make the sea noises and call out 'starboard tack!' from the privacy of his own room."
Now he's not so noisy. Coutts has put aside those friendly taunts to pursue a career on the water which has turned him into one of the world's great sailors.
But whatever Coutts, 40, achieves over the next few weeks, his place as one of New Zealand's most single-minded, intense and talented yachtsmen will remain unchallenged.
He has been decorated three times by his country - even as he walked out to Alinghi he would have become Sir Russell, except that New Zealand scrapped titles when it dropped the British-based honours system.
Coutts took to the seas off Wellington, watching his family sailing and then taking to a P class just like any other 6-year-old yachting-mad schoolboy.
The water still lured him after his family moved to Dunedin, and by the time he was a senior at Otago Boys High School he was already winning national titles.
There was never any doubt he would be an Olympian, and aged just 22 - and despite two boils on his bottom and a dramatic weigh-in which he almost failed - a gold medal was swinging around his neck after he won the Finn class in Los Angeles.
His win thrust him into the national limelight. Since then he has wanted to, but never been able to escape it.
Almost immediately his strong will for a challenge shone through, as he spoke of a slight emptiness after his Olympic triumph.
"I really did think it would be the be-all and end-all if I won that medal, but there are so many other things that you can achieve. In yacht-racing, I'm looking to bigger things."
He also revealed a fiery side, mounting a scathing attack on yachting's hierarchy for their lack of financial backing for their Olympians, saying his parents had to fork out for his campaign while those same officials accepted the praise for any success.
In the almost 20 years since, Coutts has won just about everything he has set his mind to, including three world match-racing titles, a One Ton Cup, Admiral's and Bermuda Cups, and numerous national titles.
It hasn't all been plain sailing. He failed to race at the 1988 Olympics, after being disqualified in a tense final qualifying race and, with long-time rival Chris Dickson, missed being named helmsman for Sir Michael Fay's 1992 America's Cup challenge.
Offered an afterguard role by Sir Michael, Coutts opted instead to steer the back-up boat and near the end of the challengers finals was called on to replace first choice skipper and helmsman Rod Davis.
He took the wheel alongside Brad Butterworth, who replaced David Barnes as tactician. Media reports suggested the newcomers were intensely frustrated on the sidelines, while Davis and Barnes were distracted by off-the-water protests.
The switch was not enough to stop the New Zealand Challenge losing, but the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron did not hesitate to declare Coutts their man for the 1995 challenge.
Coutts, skippering Sir Peter Blake's 1995 challenge with Team NZ, beat the Americans at their own game to bring the cup to the south Pacific and, five years later, spearheaded its defence.
And then he dropped his bombshell.
He walked out of the team just 11 weeks later, reportedly signing a US$5 million fee ($9.16 million) to lead pharmaceutical billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli's Alinghi syndicate.
Coutts and Butterworth both left, alluding to difficulties with complex financial arrangements set up by the old Team NZ, its trustees and sponsors. Critics said they walked for the money.
"I'm not asking anyone to feel sorry for me," Coutts said then.
"I've faced flak before. This isn't a world war out there, it's a sporting contest.
"I feel proud of my contribution to Team NZ.
"I'm a New Zealander and always will be."
Star sign: Pisces
Married: second wife, Jenny
Children: 2 sons, Grayson, Michael
1979: NZ laser champion (also 1980, 1982)
1981: World youth laser champion
1982: World youth finn champion
1984: Olympic finn gold medallist
1992: World match-racing champion (also 1993, 1996)
1993: winner Admiral's Cup, Bermuda Cup, One Ton Cup, Steinlager Cup
1994: ranked No. 1 in world match-racing
1995: winner America's Cup
1996: helms Morning glory to Sydney-Hobart record
1998: winner Bermuda Gold Cup, Swan world championships
2000: winner America's Cup
2003: winner Louis Vuitton Cup
1984: NZ yachtsman of the year
1985: Member of the British Empire
1995: Commander of the British Empire
1995: NZ sports team of the year, Team New Zealand hall of fame
2000: Distinguished Companion of the NZ Order of Merit
2000: NZ sports team of the year, Team New Zealand
Racing schedule and results
By HELEN TUNNAH