Oracle Team USA skipper Jimmy Spithill, 37, literally grew up on the water. His hometown of Pittwater, Australia, wasn’t reachable by road, so any time he wanted to go into Sydney – or anywhere else, for that matter – he had to take a boat. Spithill made his America’s Cup debut at 20 – the youngest helmsman ever – and he’s been making history ever since.
At the age of 30, he was the youngest skipper to win the cup when he and Team USA beat the Swiss team Alinghi in Valencia in 2010. Then, in 2013, he took his second title, leading the most dramatic comeback in the history of the sport by rallying Oracle from 8-1 down to beat Team New Zealand 9-8. This time out, Spithill will try to become the first skipper ever to win three consecutive America’s Cups.
THE RED BULLETIN: How will this year’s race be different compared with San Francisco in 2013?
JIMMY SPITHILL: The biggest difference is that we’ve got six competitive teams. Last time, we really only had two competitive teams: ourselves and Team New Zealand. But now everyone’s got the talent, resources and technology, so there are no excuses, and we’re seeing that out there on the water. The British team won the World Series [the competition that leads up to the America’s Cup]. Not only that, but every team won races during that series, and it went down to the final event.
You often talk about making this sport accessible to everyone…
We need to simplify the sport, because it’s complicated. The way to do that is through education. With TV now, the online graphics and tools that the commentators have at their disposal make it easier to follow – my grandmother gets it, and she’s not a sailor. And now we’ve got high-performance boats with world-class athletes. We no longer have this elitist mentality of rich, chubby guys from the yacht club, wearing blazers. In the past, you couldn’t really mess it up; now, there’s real risk.
The youngest crews ever
31.4 = the average age of an OTUSA crew member. Sailing used to be a gentlemen’s sport, and crews were made up mostly of middle-aged men with years of experience. Now, aside from the skippers, America’s Cup teams increasingly comprise young, fit men. OTUSA’s youngest grinder, Louis Sinclair, is just 25.
Speaking of risk, one sailor – Andrew Simpson of the Artemis Racing team – died in 2015 while training for the cup. How has safety changed?
It sometimes takes a real catastrophe or tragedy to really learn from it. But when you step on that boat, you understand the risks. You’re never going to take the risk away, but collectively – whether it’s the engineering, the safety gear we wear, the way we practice, or how we communicate on the water if someone has a problem – I think we’ve taken huge steps forward. The cool thing is that a lot of those lessons will filter down through the rest of the sport: for example, we wear helmets now. And now you see little kids on sailboats wearing helmets.
You also carry canisters of air on your vests, right?
We have spare air. The biggest fear is getting pinned under if we flip over. We’re all at our max heart rate, and if you try holding your breath in that situation it’s virtually impossible. We do a lot of safety drills, and we’ve done freediving courses with some of the world’s best. You want to be as prepared as you can so you make the right decisions if something happens.
What’s the biggest difference for you, as skipper, on these boats?
I think it’s the anticipation needed to sail a boat like this. If you overreact, it goes bad real quick. You’re never really perfect. You’re just trying to manage it and stay ahead of the curve.
The crews are changing, too, right?
They’re younger. The age of our sailors has come down because of the physical limits. Not only that, but there’s a high rate of injury now. I’ve also found that the younger guys just want it; they’re hungry. They’ve just got that fire, and you can’t help but get caught up in it. It motivates you, because they want to knock you off and you want to keep up with them. This is the youngest team we’ve ever had, and, to me, it’s been a real positive step forward.
Is it better for you to have a top-notch athlete on the team than a guy with 18 years’ sailing experience?
It’s best to have both. In my experience, it comes down to the person. We’ve got Ky Hurst, who’s won a lot of the Australian Ironman championships. He’s come in and really set the bar in terms of physical limits and what you can do with grinding. For us to see that whole approach – diet, nutrition and training regime – from someone outside of our sport has been really beneficial.
How has the art of sailing changed?
We weren’t even foiling in 2010. That was a massive step. These boats are foiling in 10kph winds, but not only that: the lighter ones can travel at almost three times the speed of the wind, which is just incredible to think about. How can you go faster than the wind, let alone three times?