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America's Cup- Russell Coutts' School Days

by Compiled by Richard Gladwell, on 2 Jul 2010
"In front of all the students I said that someday I’d like to go to the America’s Cup. This was met with laughter all around." BMW Oracle Racing © Photo Gilles Martin-Raget

This week the America's Cup is on a tour of the East Coast of the United States, with stops at the White House, NASDAQ, CBS Early Show and finally to the former home of the America's Cup, Newport Rhode Island.

According to the official media release: 'In the afternoon, the team entertained upwards of 400 youth sailors from the Narragansett Bay sailing community. The boys and girls, ranging in age from 8 to 16, were welcomed by Coutts, a past youth world champion.

'You don’t have to be a good Optimist sailor to be a good sailor,' Coutts told the assembled sailors. 'When I was growing up in New Zealand I used to read about the races in Newport, but never thought I’d get the chance to compete. I also never dreamed of visiting the White House and meeting the President of the United States. It just shows what you can accomplish with hard work and dedication, and how broad our sport is,' concluded the release.

We're not too sure what Coutts told the assembled young sailors. But it is likely that their upbringing on Rhode Island, is a long way removed from that enjoyed by Coutts sailing on Otago Harbour, Dunedin at the far south of New Zealand, 40 years previously.

In his biography, 'Course to Victory', Coutts told author, Paul Larsen in his usual self-deprecating style of his memories from school, when he was the age and older, that the young sailors who gathered at Narragansett Bay, today.

Coutts, through Paul Larsen takes up the story:

'One day in high school a teacher asked me what I wanted to do. I said I liked yachting and maybe I’d pursue that. This guy was very surprised and said, 'Why would you want to go yachting? There aren’t any opportunities in that.'

I also remember in another class we all had to get up and say what our ambition was. In front of all the students I said someday I’d like to go to the America’s Cup. This was met with laughter all around. At that time, the early 1 970s, no one in New Zealand talked about the America’s Cup. For our country to sail in that event was roughly equivalent to us putting a man on the moon.

When the laughter died, the teacher told me that was perhaps too ambitious and she suggested I might lower my expectations. I never understood why I should and I never did.

But that shows how the sport of yachting was viewed by most people when I was growing up. The nation’s few international successes hadn’t made much of an impression on the population at large — but to those involved in the sport, they had opened up the world.

In Wellington I attended Brentwood School and Fergusson Intermediate. When we moved to Dunedin I went to Tahuna Intermediate and Otago Boys’ High School. In my early years at primary school, art was my major interest. I also was reasonably comfortable in maths, which led me to study engineering at university. One day a bunch of us were sitting around at a Team New Zealand dinner in Auckland and I asked my fellow scholars what they’d got for School Certificate mathematics. I’d thought I’d done pretty well with a 93. Tom Schnackenberg, after suggesting that I really wouldn’t want to know, replied he got a 99. David Eagan told me he got the same. Mike Drummond got 97. Several others were above 95. That quickly put me in my place!

It’s interesting how an affinity with maths translates into an attraction to sailing. So much of the sport deals with mathematical concepts and calculations.

The process of designing a boat is steeped in algebra, geometry and physics. The more sophisticated disciplines of computational fluid dynamics, scale modelling and velocity prediction programs are maths-based as well.

Once the boat is on the water, racing it becomes a matter of angles and timing and numbers. Surrounded by these maths geniuses, it’s no wonder I became the driver. All I had to do was point the boat in the direction they told me to.

There’s a story about my academic ability that puts things into perspective. Another one of the lucky coincidences in my life placed me in a class that went through high school together and generally performed brilliantly. Teachers used to talk about the class and how we exceeded everyone’s expectations in School Certificate. They would tell classes behind us that ours was the standard to which to aspire.

John Irvine (who also went on to win a Gold Medal at the ISAF Youth Worlds) was a year or two behind me. He lived in the same area and followed along the same classes as I did in high school. One day one of his teachers was telling him about how well our class had done and he asked, 'Wasn’t that the class Russell Coutts was in?'

The teacher paused for a moment, searched his memory, and said, 'Well, I don’t know about Coutts, but I do know there were others who were smart.'

If my high school career was less than memorable, my university years set some kind of record. I had the sailing bug bad by now and was spending almost all my time either racing or preparing for races. At Otago Boys’ High I would sit in class and draw race situations in my exercise books. I’d be thinking about starting tactics while the teacher was talking about literature.

But I realised that a university education was essential if I was going to make a living, because at that point I didn’t see how I’d ever earn a crust pushing a yacht around a set of buoys. When I applied to the school of engineering at the University of Auckland, I requested an interview with the dean, Professor Meyers. It went something like this:

'You’re the sailor, aren’t you?'

'Well, yes sir, I like to sail.'

'Like to sail, eh. You seem to be on the water more than you’re in school.'

'Well, that’s been the case up to now.'

'So why should I let you in university? Won’t it be just a waste of our time and yours?'

'Oh, no sir, I intend to concentrate on my studies. I’ll put them first. I won’t be sailing.'

'Well, you’ve got a pretty good foundation in mathematics. I have no doubt you can be successful if you spend some time on campus rather than at sea. Are you willing to promise you won’t go off yachting?'

'Yes, I’ll definitely put my studies first.'

'Well then,' he said with a glint in his eye and offering me his hand, 'Good luck.'

In a lucky circumstance, the dean’s daughter was married to Jock Bilger, a top sailor. In the 1970s he and Murray Ross were runners-up in more than one Flying Dutchman World Championships. I wasn’t fooling my academic mentor for a second.

I actually did buckle down in the first semester and received two As and a B. In the second semester I somehow found myself at the pre-Olympic championships and other practice regattas most of the time and I barely scraped through at university.

The dean turned a blind eye to my continuing absences, particularly in 1984 when I devoted most of the year to the Los Angeles Olympics. I’d entered the University of Auckland in 1979 and then went off to a succession of regattas: the New Zealand Youth Championships; the World Youth Championships, first in Italy and then in the US; the New Zealand Laser Nationals; the pre-Olympics and the Olympics. I’d try to make it back to university as much as I could, but it took me a while to finish my studies. I received my degree in 1986, some seven years after I’d entered.

It stood as a record until another student took eight years to finish.

Many of the group of young sailors assembled in Rhode Island yesterday, would have been of the same age as a young Russell Coutts, when he started sailing at the age of eight or thereabouts.

Maybe they were as impressed with hearing from one of their heroes, as he was from his, at their age. Coutts takes up the story again:

'When I was growing up yacht racing was just coming of age in New Zealand. Rugby has always been the most popular sport, but sailing began to create its own heroes and generate more interest at the end of the 1950s and in the early ‘60s.

'When Peter Mander and Jack Cropp brought home a gold medal from is it the 1956 Olympics, Kiwis began to take notice. I wasn’t born then, but when Chris Bouzaid won the One Ton Cup in 1969, I do remember joining a lot of my fellow countrymen in thinking of him as a real hero.

'As international competition grew, so did the national contests in small boats. P-Class championships became increasingly important, especially to me. I wasn’t even close to that class of sailor, but I lived, ate and breathed dinghy racing at at the time.

'In 1968 I went to a talk given to the Wellington P-Class sailors by 1964 Olympic gold medallist in the Flying Dutchman class, Helmer Pedersen. At and that time the top Kiwi sailors were based in Auckland and they had always dominated the P-Class national championships. There was no doubt the prevalent thought among the Wellington P-Classers was that they couldn’t beat the Aucklanders.

'But Pedersen’s talk was all about how the Wellington sailors could not only compete on a national level, but also on an international level. He told us hard work, desire and focus were the ingredients of a winner, not the size of the city or country we were from.

'I remember to this day his message came down to one simple thought: you can win if you really want to. It was a message that I carried with me to San Diego some 30 years later (in the 1995 America's Cup).'

Coutts went on to win not just the P class National Championship, but also a Gold medal at the ISAF Youth Worlds, and Olympic Gold Medal, and four America's Cups under three different national flags.

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