The king of foils:
The America’s Cup-winning skipper is leading the charge to make his sport more mainstream, traditionalists be damned.
The Australian skipper led one of the greatest comebacks in his sport when he piloted the Oracle racing yacht—one loss away from elimination—to winning eight straight and sailing’s vaunted America’s Cup in 2013.
But for Spithill, that stunning result—and the technologically advanced foiling sailboats that helped accomplish it—was only the beginning. He’s after a revolution in both the sport of sailing and the way it’s perceived. This month, the skipper will lead a crew of six on a 36-hour offshore stretch from New York City down to Bermuda, where the America’s Cup will be held next year.
His boat? A one-off design that looks like a smaller version of the massive 72-foot America’s Cup catamarans from 2013 (complete with foils), but designed for sailing in unpredictable conditions offshore. In other words, Spithill is sailing the future, and it’s never looked faster.
THE RED BULLETIN: What is it about foiling that you love?
JIMMY SPITHILL: It’s just the performance… . We used to talk about a boat-length gain with the mono-hulls, when now, with the foiling, the performance gain is so big, you race a boat that foils against a boat that doesn’t foil and it’s not even a race, it’s a bloodbath. It’s a Formula 1 car racing a family sedan.
With the foils now, the boats become so efficient. In a lot of breezes we can do two to three times faster than the power of the wind. Any boat you sail, you’re going 110 percent and you want to be rewarded, and now we are with the performances of these boats, and that’s what makes it cool nowadays.
What about the consequences? You’re going at top speeds, and I imagine controlling the boat when it’s foiling is challenging.
During the last campaign unfortunately a guy died. He was pinned under. You’re up on the foil and doing a couple of bear-away maneuvers or certain maneuvers where there is no cruise mode, there’s only full throttle, and you just go for it. But if you get it wrong, the boat can fall off the foil, and it can pitch-pole, which is a big nosedive. In that case, the boat flipped, the wing [sail] broke and fell on top of the crew. So the consequences are really one of the ultimate consequences.
How fit do sailors these days have to be?
Guys are effectively burning 6,000 to 8,000 calories a day when they’re out there training and testing. There’s a chance guys get sick; guys get injured a lot more now. The average age has come down because of the physical demands. But I think all of that has kind of led to—for everyone involved—a much more exciting game.
There’ve been mutterings from old-school sailors about foils, carbon-fiber wings, replacing sails.
A lot of the traditionalists are probably shaking their heads. A lot of them are still saying, “That’s not sailing.” People don’t embrace change; you can get into a comfort zone and it’s a bit of a fear factor of “What is that going to be like? Do I have to learn new skills?” But for me personally, I’m not too concerned with what traditionalists think. I’m more interested in what the kids think. If they think it’s cool, then, to me, you’re usually heading the right way.
Why is making the sport more popular so important to you?
I’ve seen it affect me personally. I feel I could’ve gone down the wrong track if I didn’t have a similar program; definitely the group I was with and where they are now. It was definitely sailing and boxing that saved me. What I learned through sailing was so valuable and helped me later on in life. You take the boat out on your own, you don’t have people there on the sideline with you. You have to work with teams, equipment, the prep, the strategy, the tactics. There’s the physical side—a lot of things that you can apply to other areas of your life.