Russell Coutts can make a pretty good argument for being history’s greatest yachtsman. His achievements include being a part of five teams that won the America’s Cup and winning an Olympic gold medal in 1984.
His latest endeavor may be more challenging than winning any yacht race. Coutts is the chief executive of SailGP, the yacht racing series featuring high-speed sailboats that reach speeds of more than 50 knots.
SailGP, the brainchild of Larry Ellison, the yachting enthusiast and a founder of the software company Oracle, debuted this year and is trying to make its mark in the sports consciousness so people pay attention to sailing more than every few years when the America’s Cup is contested. The series, in which teams compete under national banners, will hold its finale this weekend in Marseille, France, where strong winds are in the forecast and a $1 million prize is on the line, a rarity for what has largely been an amateur’s endeavor.
“This is all about establishing which team can respond best under the pressure,” Coutts said in an interview this week in which he talked about the state of his start-up, his sport, and why his time competing on the high seas has passed.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and condensed.
Why did SailGP break with tradition and put a winner-take-all $1 million purse on the line?
It’s good to have a situation where guys feel pressure and real desire to win. Who wouldn’t want to win that prize? It adds to the drama. Who can respond to the pressure in that final race?
How rare is it in sailing for there to be this kind of prize on the line?
It’s rare for there to be this much prize money. Normally, when you get prize money it’s not either you win or get nothing. In future years we might expand that and distribute some to the rest of the podium, but it’s great to have that one 10-minute race with all that at stake. It’s a bit like our version of the Olympic 100 meters.
Why has this kind of prize money not traditionally been a part of sailing?
There has never been a consistent format to generate a commercial interest and create a foundation for prize money. There have been attempts, but there has never been a format like this where you are racing super high-tech boats and shipping them around the world.
What has worked for SailGP in its first year?
All six teams have tracked under budget. We’ve found the right formula to manage the costs. The budgets are $5 million, and we added $2 million to allow for an upgrade to the boats.
How much do these boats cost?
Around $4 million.
What has surprised you?
We’ve got things to improve, but we are a start-up and we have established ourselves as a global championship series. We’ve delivered great economic return and good audience figures. We had six teams on the water and moved them around the world and shown we can deliver. We’ve almost completed the seventh boat, and we’re expanding the number of venues next year.
So you are satisfied?
Our aim was to provide a consistent championship with consistent dates, venues and teams and format. That has been absent from the sport of sailing. There is no other event that provides that. This is new. This is a long-term structured program instead of discreet events. This is an attempt to mimic what a lot of other sports already had.
Why have the teams from Japan and Australia dominated?
Nathan Outteridge and Tom Slingsby have more experience with this type of boat. They each have very strong teams. There are so many things that have to go right and have to be executed in exactly the right order in maneuvering these boats so it has taken time to build that experience. As that experience grows, the gap is closing rapidly.
Do you watch these races in these crazy fast boats and think of making a comeback?
I’m 57 years old. The one thing you realize is how quickly you have to react, and I do think age will be a factor. It’s not just the physicality, but it’s the ability to make quick accurate decisions. This is an amazing opportunity for these sailors to grow the high performance talent in some of these countries. In the 1980s, the United States was the total dominant force and whatever reason that seeped away. The U.S. has made some strides with youth programs and they are starting to get those sailors coming through. The Australians do have strengths. So do the British. That’s why they are two of the top nations. But the French, Spanish and Germans are rapidly developing.
Did you ever think a sailboat would be able to go this fast?
No, I didn’t. When we put the new wind sails on next year that will jump the speed by a couple knots. We could see 53 knots. That is amazing.