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sail scene: Team Alinghi gives Russell Coutts the boot

Management style and development of new race series cited as reasons for dismissal of skipper

Kiwi skipper Russell Coutts, considered the most successful America’s Cup skipper, with 14 consecutive wins, was fired by Team Alinghi, the Swiss syndicate headed by billionaire yachtsman Ernesto Bertarelli.

The issue may eventually be aired in court — similar to the lawyer Sean Reeves’ dispute with Seattle-based One World over his firing during the 2000 Cup. Meanwhile, the two sailors who together created the 2003 America’s Cup winner, Alinghi, have painted different pictures about the separation in interviews with European newspapers.

Coutts has said that he was unhappy with the management of the 2007 Cup, and that he was promised a greater role in making syndicate decisions. But he says he was surprised when he was fired.

Bertarelli, who initially declined public comment, in recent interviews has said that the split was inevitable. He says Coutts lost his enthusiasm for the syndicate and was looking for a way out. He says Coutts was well-compensated for his work.

“Russell Coutts’ salary ranks among the top 20 in Switzerland. He is as well-paid as the greatest football stars of today. I cannot divulge the terms of the contract, but you’d be shocked. His salary does not lag behind that of the main Swiss CEOs,” Bertarelli is quoted as saying in the Swiss newspaper l’Hebdo. Top football stars in Europe earn around $5 million a year.

“The truth is that with Michel Bonnefous, our interest lies in preparing a beautiful event in 2007,” Bertarelli says, referring to his right-hand man who is in charge of the management of the Cup regatta. “While Russell Coutts wanted to make a lot of money. In November, he already received 75 percent of the enormous salary we agreed upon for the 2007 Cup.”

The dispute between Bertarelli and Coutts had been rumored for several weeks but the news of the dismissal stunned Cup sailors and fans when it was announced in late July. The rift became publicly apparent in June when Coutts refused to helm during the UBS Trophy regatta in Newport, R.I., against rival syndicate BMW Oracle.

A July 26 statement from Alinghi states, “Team Alinghi is left with no choice but to terminate its contract with Russell Coutts. Repeated violations of his duties resulted in Coutts’ dismissal.”

Alinghi also claims that Coutts’ involvement with Paul Cayard to develop a new race series represents a conflict of interest. “Also particularly damaging was regarded Russell Coutts’ undisclosed involvement in the planning and development of a new race series, a commitment incompatible with his responsibilities and duties,” the statement continues.

In a statement to the online sailing newsletter Scuttlebutt, Coutts said he was surprised when Alinghi’s lawyers contacted him about the dismissal, since the two parties had entered into formal mediation.

“The facts are that some time ago I made it very clear to Ernesto Bertarelli that I had some very real concerns about aspects of his management style and the direction of the team,” said Coutts in the statement. “These concerns were based on my experience as a skipper and in a leadership role in my last three America’s Cup campaigns.”

Coutts apparently wanted more spectacular sailing, with greater visual appeal and reduced costs to make the event more accessible. The Swiss syndicate has set fundraising and regatta rights as key elements.

Coutts added that the proposed new racing series he is developing “would in no way be in competition to the America’s Cup.”

Fans say it is hard to imagine a Cup event without Coutts. New rules will likely prevent Coutts from participating in the 2007 America’s Cup. Brad Butterworth, a fellow Kiwi who joined Alinghi soon after the 2000 Cup and a longtime friend of Coutts, will remain with the syndicate. In fact, Butterworth has been promoted to the management team. Alinghi’s helmsmen are Jochen Schuemann and Peter Holmberg.

In related news, Team New Zealand recently disclosed that Bertarelli has dipped into his own bank account to ensure that the Kiwis will race in 2007. The reported personal loan to Team New Zealand isn’t connected with Alinghi or America’s Cup Management. New Zealand also recently announced a major sponsorship deal with Middle Eastern airline Emirates. Toyota New Zealand is among its other sponsors, and the Kiwi government also provided funds for the syndicate. Most syndicates are expected to budget around $150 million for a campaign.