Outside of the All Blacks, Russell Coutts is as close to sporting royalty as you can get in New Zealand.
An Olympic gold medallist from the LA Games, Coutts scaled greater heights in 1995 when he skippered Black Magic to America’s Cup glory before defending the crown in 2000 in Auckland.
The hero turned villain when he helmed Swiss boat Alinghi to victory over New Zealand in 2003 before he teamed up with billionaire Larry Ellison to front Oracle Racing that won and then defended The Auld Mug in 2010 and ’13.
The event had given Coutts some of his greatest moments in sport, achievements that have earned him a knighthood, but it was not entirely satisfying.
“It was like watching paint dry, it was just slow,” Coutts said of the America’s Cup. “Very technical, hard to understand.”
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So Coutts, together with Ellison, founded SailGP. It aims to achieve what the America’s Cup does not.
“People are enjoying it and that’s what it’s all about,” he said.
It is fast, not just on the water with the fastest catamarans in the world, which hit a new race record of 99.94km/h in France, but with six races over a weekend it brings together the best skippers in the world from nine competing nations across 11 events in 10 countries.
For Coutts, though, it is about expanding sailing beyond sailors.
“If I was to criticise this event (in St Tropez, France), as we sit here, one of the things that we need to improve rapidly for our next events is the need to get the position of our screens,” he said.
“For example, these people here on the waterfront, they can’t see the large screen, so those sorts of details are important because, ultimately, it’s not like watching a tennis match where people know what tennis is.
“This is something they’ve never seen before and you really need to have broadcast graphics to really fully understand this properly and also get people following other events.”
Coutts is ambitious.
He wants to announce 15 venues for season four and wants to evolve so SailGP can have “20-plus” events each season.
“I think Formula One’s at 22 events and Moto GP around 20, if you can get to 20-plus events a year, then you’re roughly once every two weeks, and even if the fans don’t know where the next event is, they know every second weekend there’s a SailGP event on and then they look for it, so that’s the stage that we want to get to,” he said.
“We quickly want to grow to 20-events plus. We have a plan to have two leagues with some common events at one point in one of our upcoming seasons.”
The racing is hair raising at times. Coutts is sitting on the sea wall at St Tropez watching the French round of SailGP last month, when he excitedly says “capsize, capsize!”
The accident did not materialise as Canadian SailGP driver Phil Robertson somehow managed to stay afloat despite his wing being almost parallel to the water at a speed of 65km/h.
It wasn’t the only near miss. A race earlier Australian driver Tom Slingsby angrily blew up at New Zealand counterpart Peter Burling, accusing the reigning America’s Cup champion of dangerously tacking his boat in a desperate race for first place.
The tack saw Slingsby’s boat nosedive at 90km/h and crawl over the line.
“You make a mistake, there’s going to be consequences,” Coutts says. “It’s one thing to sail these boats, even race a boat around the course on your own, but you put the other boats in the mix, and the turbulence in the water, and just the fact that the other boats are right alongside you doing those speeds, it’s a totally different consideration.
“It takes time to build any new property but (the) racing was about as exciting a sporting product as I think you can see, it was really, really great sport.”
A key pillar for Coutts is achieving gender parity.
“I think the first step to really changing the sport would be to have a female driver winning Sail GP races,” he said.
“If we just looked at step one. If the ultimate goal is gender equality, and you have a female driver that was coming out and winning events and winning races, then that would become aspirational for all the young female sailors in the world.”
The introduction of a new F50 simulator will power not the introduction and inclusion of women on board, but also the sport full stop.
Given the logistics, the environmentally conscious “powered by nature” tagline the sport attempts to achieve, very few people, the team including, get to drive the F50.
It means that F50 drivers are sought after commodities and in part explains why Switzerland have brought on Australian star Nathan Outteridge to help drive their catamaran.
But in the specialised sport that SailGP is, Coutts recognises that if one or two of their drivers were sick they would have no competent replacement to take over.
“The truth is we haven’t really had a true professional sport,” Coutts said.
“We’ve had parts of the sport where people get paid to sail but not a regular annual championship that’s well promoted, well televised and properly marketed.
“So the teams have never apart from maybe some of the America’s Cup teams for a very short period of time, they’ve had no need to build a reserves, whereas right today, if Pete Burling fell sick, or Tom Slingsby fell sick, they wouldn’t have a credible replacement and that’s unacceptable in professional sports.
“I mean, you look at any other sport, if you said actually, we know if it was a day like yesterday, you’d need somebody pretty good to go drive that boat but we can’t race today because Tom’s sick, it wouldn’t be acceptable.
“So it’s not only the women’s pathway program, but we really need to build out that talent depth for these teams such that they have strong reserves, there’s a talent base that can service these boats because these boats are the hardest boats to sail the world and then potentially sail.
“We could easily make them a lot easier to sail by automating the flight control and doing a whole range of things but, as you saw yesterday, the fact that they are super difficult tests for the best sailors in the world I think adds to the sporting spectacle.”