by Paul Olivia
34th America’s Cup - San Diego America’s Cup World Series - James Spithill gets a tune-up from Larry Ellison onboard Oracle Spithill.
He quietly, politely introduces himself as James Spithill. At 19, he was the youngest helmsman ever in an America’s Cup campaign. At 30, the youngest helmsman to win the Cup. Now at 32, he is the man on whom software magnate Larry Ellison, the City of San Francisco and the US sailing community have pinned their hopes of keeping the Cup in North America.
'My mates call me Jimmy, it’s kind of a nickname,' he says. He’s more polished now, less brash than in his early years. There have been other nicknames: the ‘boy king from Broken Bay’; and Jesse James, after the legendary fast gunslinger of the Old West. Racing for the Italian America’s Cup team Luna Rossa in 2007, he was called James Pitbull for his aggressive race start tactics. Some fans say it was the greatest pre-start manoeuvring in America’s Cup history.
Whatever you call him, do not doubt the Australian prodigy will be one of the fiercest competitors of this America’s Cup. Because more than anything, Spithill is a fighter. Literally.
'Yeah, pretty early on I took up boxing,' he says. 'When you go around with red hair, you don’t have a choice. Either you’re a punching bag, or you say, ‘Enough is enough.’'
As ORACLE Racing’s skipper, Spithill is arguably the biggest name in the competition, bearing the greatest responsibility. And if he comes across as a natural hero, he has taken an unorthodox route to greatness.
Born in 1979, Spithill grew up on Scotland Island in Pittwater, part of an extensive system of bays just north of Sydney. It is a place of grand beauty. Forested hills of dark green rise above a crenulated coastline rimmed with mangroves, beaches, sparkling blue water and hidden communities. Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park is to the west, and tiny Scotland Island – no more than 1km (less than a mile) across – has five parks and nature reserves. Boats of all sorts are omnipresent.
Back in the 1980s, while Australia was gripped with the excitement of defending the America’s Cup in Fremantle, you would have seen young Spithill on the water daily, taking the Church Point Ferry or a splashy open aluminum ‘tinny boat’ to get to Mona Vale Primary School.
When he could, he’d sail, free from the confines of the island. His younger sister Katie was with him for much of it and is herself now slugging it out for a match-racing berth on the Australian 2012 Olympic team. His younger brother Tommy is also a keen sailor. Their father, an avid sailor, encouraged them.
'It was just dinghy stuff. Small boats and skiffs,' says Spithill. His various craft included a mini windsurfer as a Christmas present at age five, a decrepit bathtub of a skiff discarded by a neighbor that he started sailing at age seven, as well as a small borrowed catamaran called a Hobie Cat. 'We just couldn’t afford anything more.'
His father has said that when Spithill was nine – some months after the Australian boat Kookaburra III had lost the Cup to US challenger Stars & Stripes 87 – he told his family his goal was to sail in the America’s Cup.
'For Jimmy, the competition started on Scotland Island just to get to the mainland,' says Iain Murray, then Kookaburra III’s skipper but now Chief Executive of America’s Cup Race Management. 'There were a lot of kids down there competing. Waves of them from the Royal Prince Alfred Yacht Club: myself, Ian Burns (ORACLE Racing’s team coordinator), Grant Simmer, and many others.'
Spithill began working at Beashel’s ('a bit of a boatyard') and jumped into the club’s youth development program, going on to win the 1997 New South Wales Youth Yachtsman of the Year award before a chance meeting with multi-millionaire property developer and sailing enthusiast Syd Fischer, who became his first and most important mentor.
They met at an awards ceremony. 'I went right up to him and asked if I could sail with him. He said, ‘what are you doing this weekend?’ I went down to his dock. It was a 54ft (16.5m) boat. I had never sailed a boat like that. I ended up on the helm the entire race. And we won.'
Ever-greater challenges followed, from the infamously storm-crossed 1998 Sydney-Hobart race where Spithill helped Ragamuffin to a third-place finish to a role as helmsman and skipper on Fischer’s Young Australia America’s Cup entrant in Auckland in 2000, at the age of just 19. It was the oldest boat with the youngest crew and the smallest budget.
Spithill sailed for US syndicate OneWorld in the 2003 Louis Vuitton Cup, leading up to the 31st America’s Cup in Auckland. In Valencia in 2007, he helmed the Luna Rossa team to a decisive win over BMW ORACLE Racing but lost to Emirates Team New Zealand in the Louis Vuitton Cup finals.
Finally, in Valencia in 2010, Spithill helmed Ellison’s colossal trimaran USA 17 to victory. The triumph came four months after what Spithill describes as 'the only moment I was scared on a boat', during testing on USA 17 in the ocean nearly 48km (30 miles) off the shore of San Diego. A massive explosion of carbon fiber brought down the US$10 million, 60m (197ft) mast. 'It was a tough time to go through that, but it was almost a blessing,' says Spithill. 'Nothing has been built with that power-to-weight ratio and that mast height. The whole boat was right on the edge all the time. Every day we went out was an issue, and a big part was just keeping it together.'
After the elation of 2010, Spithill is gearing himself up again, this time shifting from upstart challenger to defender of the America’s Cup title. Spithill seems enthused. 'Ten boats tearing around at 35mph (56km/h), going to set the gennaker. It’s just awesome. Upwind 14 to 18mph (22 to 30km/h), they’re fun to throw around in the pre-start… it’s a no-brainer. These boats challenge sailors. You push, they reward you. Push too much, they go over.
'Fitness is going to be huge. We constantly eat energy bars and drinks, because the guys never get a break. Even sailing in a straight line, we’re always hiking. And a lot of hydration: we drink before and after and we never really drink enough.'
The training is intense. Spithill gets in a fair amount of boxing: 'It’s some of the best training you can do: cardiovascular, coordination.' But there’s also plenty of weight training, core exercise, and 'you gotta make sure you’re stretched out'. Injury prevention and management is a major concern with the small crews and athleticism required.
In many ways, however, his most intense competition can be found within his own team. 'We have to create a really high level of in-house racing,' says Spithill. 'We have to work together to achieve that, and it has been really a brutal series of [training] races.'
'That competition is why you do it,' he continues. 'When I was a kid, boxing or sailing, it didn’t matter the color of my skin or my hair. Competition was the great leveler. Once the bell sounds, once the start gun goes off, when you’re able to pull it all off and get the result you want, it is such an unbelievable feeling. That’s what keeps you coming back for more.'
For more on the Australian A-Class Championships and James Spithill http://www.sail-world.com/NZ/James-Spithill-sailing-A-Cats-in-Australia-talks-Made-for-TV-sailing/92510!click_here