Without Coutts, Alinghi Is a Ship Without Its Rudder
By Angus Phillips
Sunday, June 27, 2004; Page E06
When the Swiss team Alinghi snatched the America's Cup from Team New Zealand last year in a shutout, it looked like a Cup dynasty was in the making. With a committed, billionaire owner, a solid crew, the world's most talented skipper and the corporate resources in place to prepare the first European defense, obstacles looked formidable indeed for potential challengers.
Fifteen months later, Alinghi looks shaky.
The sleek gray boat with the swooping red design down its side struggled here last week against a rival it had easily dispatched for the right to race New Zealand in 2003. "They seemed to have a touch of speed on us upwind," said veteran Alinghi crewman Josh Belsky after BMW Oracle, U.S. billionaire Larry Ellison's Cup challenger, handed Alinghi four straight losses in the middle of a week of match-racing for the UBS Trophy.
Belsky had a good explanation. BMW Oracle had been training and updating sails and gear for most of a year while Alinghi rested. "We've only been sailing eight days," he said. "Our boat has been parked in the shed. They've been at it eight months."
But he was harder-pressed to explain what's been going on in the back rooms at Alinghi that led to the absence of the No. 1 America's Cup skipper, Russell Coutts, who steered the last three Cup winners.
"I can't really get into that," said Belsky. "I don't really know what's going on."
What's going on, say insiders, is an ugly separation that could be permanent. Coutts himself, who spent last week here doing commentary on a spectator boat carrying Alinghi supporters after declining to sail on the race boat, was not optimistic.
"Any chance you can patch this thing up?" I asked on the dock.
"Probably not," said the dark-haired New Zealander, with a trace of sadness.
Not only was Coutts absent from the afterguard as Alinghi and BMW Oracle did friendly battle in a showpiece regatta playfully dubbed "the pillow fight," but his longtime tactician, fellow Kiwi Brad Butterworth, also was missing. Butterworth smashed his ankle after he drove a brand new V-12 Mercedes into a brick wall at 3:30 a.m. on the elegant strip of Newport mansions called Bellevue Avenue the day before racing began.
The double whammy left Alinghi's owner, Swiss pharmaceutical magnate Ernesto Bertarelli, scrambling for someone to run the boat. He settled on an odd pair: backup helmsman Peter Holmberg, who's been enjoying the good life in his native St. Thomas for the last year, with hard-driving German Olympic gold medalist Jochen Schuemann calling tactics.
To say the pair lacks the easy relationship of Butterworth and Coutts, who have sailed together for more than a decade, is an understatement.
Coutts apparently is miffed by his modest role in Alinghi defense planning. Insiders say he had strong interest in shaping the new Cup structure and hoped to influence decisions on the venue for the next event, changes in the design of Cup boats and racing rules. Instead, Bertarelli put his longtime business assistant, Michel Bonnefous, in charge, leaving Coutts and Butterworth with the sailing team.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company