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 automobiles.
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 pretty hard."
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.