Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Russell on Russell

Yachting journalist Andy Rice caught up with Russell Coutts during the RC 44 Gold Cup, in Puerto Calero. He shares his vision about the Class and its future.

Why did you choose Lanzarote for the Gold Cup?
What do you think of the venue? As a sailing venue this place is just awesome. Most of the racing we do is usually under 16 knots of breeze. Here a 20 knot day is not at all unusual. It's good to be reminded of what fun it is to sail at a breezy venue. If you speak to the owners and crews after a heavy air race, they all say they love it. Going downwind on the edge of control is just fun to do.

Did you know how good Lanzarote was going to be before you chose this venue?
We probably would not have had the confidence to come here last year, because we didn't have the transport system organised and it's taken a while to develop the boats to the point where they can sail in conditions like this.

The downside of these high-wind conditions has been a few breakdowns though...

We still have some work to do because there are still some breakages. There was a resin failure on two goosenecks. When we examined the broken part it was still sticky. Maybe the type of resin was wrong, it may have been old, or contaminated. You run the risk of things going like that with composite parts. We have to address that.

How much is the class still evolving?
We're addressing some of the things that are high maintenance like the runner system and the winch system, so we're trialling a new system after this event, slightly bigger winches in the pit. Once we get that right, all the boats will be fitted with the new system.

We have several other things going on to the boats for next year. We may add a jib cunningham and jib halyard; it would make it a nicer boat for good sail trimmers.

As we discover new things, we want to protect the one-design nature of the boat, but we also want the boat to be as good as it can be, and that takes development. When new ideas are incorporated - batten technology or whatever - we like to keep near the forefront of that development.

What impact do the owners have on deciding these changes?
The owners vote on all these changes. We will probably freeze the rule for a few years after these final trials, then if there's an idea that makes sense we'll do it.

For example we’ve been talking about having a heavier match racing gennaker to reduce the maintenance on the sails because in a match race series you're raising and lowering the sails more frequently. It’s possible that we could adopt the heavier gennaker for all racing, but we think that the heavier sails will come at a performance loss so we want to evaluate that first before we do that.

It’s coming up to three years since the RC44 Class was launched. What's gone as expected, what's been different?
I think the class is pretty successful. We're still learning about the correct timing of events and venues. Lanzarote was maybe a bit too late in the season for some people. It's a busy time with Xmas coming up.

There's still a lot of things to be learned and improved. We're getting the move to professional umpiring working for us. That's been a great move. We have a more stable group of umpires, and Peter Reggio running the racing has been a big step. We also have a maintenance program where the class hires two boatbuilders to service the boats and the class pays for those boatbuilders. We might hire a sailmaker in the future too, to accompany the tour. Economies of scale is one of the benefits of a circuit like this.

How will the RC44 class weather the economic storm?
It's going to be tough for all classes. We're fortunate that we probably have a small team of pretty successful owners who will survive the financial crisis OK, but sure it's going to be hard to find sponsorship. We're lucky that we have sponsorship arrangements that are ongoing. So that's a good situation to be in.

I'd be worried if we had no sponsor contracts now, and we were trying to sell it now. But we're in a good situation, with all but one of the venues confirmed for next year and some solid offers for the other venue. It looks positive for us, four new teams coming into the league, which all seem to be pretty well funded. That's a good situation.

The RC44 circuit seems to be becoming the place for Cup sailors to hone their skills now... We might do some specific match race events, full professional; we're thinking about having that as an option. It doesn't stop someone like Larry Ellison wanting to drive, but we might also open it up so you can have one less crew member on board and have it open. We have been approached by organisations that want to do that, so we are looking at it seriously.

Is the RC44 a microcosm of the type of boat you'd like to see for the next America's Cup, ie capable of planing downwind?
Definitely, I think it's baloney that slow boats are better for match racing. In fact I think there are many more passing opportunities downwind when you have a boat that needs to be sailed at a pretty specific angle downwind. If you look at the heavier displacement boats, they can be sailed at a wide range of angles downwind and the performance loss is negligible.

So it's pretty easy to defend a lead in a heavy displacement boat. There isn't a lot of passing downwind, whereas in a more high performance boat you have more attacking opportunities. The argument that once the gennaker is set the boats are far apart is not that important. If a boat behind picks up a gust, the performance difference is huge and so you can often make a massive gain very quickly and attack the boat in front. You get more place changing in a boat like this.

More than 70% of the races in traditional boats are won at the start, that's a bizarre situation. It's important to put emphasis on other aspects of the racing, which is what a high performance boat can do. -