John Kolius has quit as skipper of America II, the front-running boat in the U.S. quest to regain the America's Cup in Perth, Australia.

Syndicate executive director Tom Ehman announced the resignation in Newport, R.I., yesterday. He said Kolius wanted a stronger voice in decisions on boat design, crew selection and training and "all kinds of other issues."

The resignation took many in the campaign by surprise. Larry Leonard, alternate helmsman on America II and head of the Annapolis offices of Sobstad Sails, said, "I knew there were problems. In any big group like this there are administrative problems. But I thought they'd be worked out. It's a total surprise. I guess that's John's way of doing things."

"It was a surprise to me," said Chris Bouzaid, head of sail selection for the campaign. "But it is something we allowed for. John is only one part in our team -- an important piece, but only a piece."

Kolius and his crew of 21 sailors had been scheduled within two weeks to begin their second winter of training on two new 12-meter yachts off Perth, where the Cup trials will begin in October 1987. Leonard said he does not expect other defections.

But the loss of its skipper is a distinct blow to the America II campaign, widely regarded as the best organized of six U.S. efforts to challenge the Australians for yachting's most prestigious prize. America II has the backing of the New York Yacht Club, which held the Cup 132 years before losing to Australia II and its radical, winged keel in the 1983 series, and appears to be the best financed and most closely managed U.S. campaign.

Kolius was a minor hero in the 1983 Cup trials when he skippered 10-year-old Courageous to a strong showing, although in the end Dennis Conner and Liberty were selected to defend against the Aussies. Immediately after Courageous was excused from the competition, Kolius and Chuck Kirsch, head of the Courageous-Defender Syndicate that year, set about planning a 1987 campaign and shortly afterward they won NYYC backing.

Kolius bragged three months ago that he and Kirsch set a schedule for regaining the Cup in 1983 "and we're within a week of that schedule right now."

But later that month, Kirsch was replaced as chairman by Arthur Santry, vice commodore of the New York Yacht Club and an administrative hard-liner.

Sources close to the campaign said relations grew strained as the America II management team took a firmer grip on operations. Kolius evidently heard his own voice growing fainter in decision-making.

John Marshall, a veteran Cup competitor who was sail trimmer aboard Freedom in 1980 and Liberty in 1983 and is a key player in Conner's 1987 Sail America campaign, said historically there have been two ways to run an America's Cup campaign: with a strong syndicate that makes decisions and a skipper who is essentially an employe, or with a skipper who acts as chairman of the board on land as well as on the water.

"It sounds like John wanted the latter," said Marshall. "We've been hearing reports to that effect for months."

Kolius was not available for comment. A spokesman at his office at Ulmer-Kolius Sails in Connecticut said Kolius would issue a statement, but didn't say when.

Ehman said John Bertrand, who was Kolius' tactician (and who, coincidentally, has the same name as the man who skippered Australia II in 1983 but is no relation), and Tom McLaughlin, who had skippered whichever boat Kolius had not been on during practice racing, have been named cohelmsmen and will compete for the No. 1 spot, although sources said privately that "Bertrand's the one."

Bertrand was silver medalist in Finn dinghies in the 1984 Olympics, has won two world championships in Laser dinghies and was coskipper aboard Boomerang, the maxiboat that won its class on the 1985 Southern Ocean Racing Circuit. He was tactician on Courageous in 1983.