Australia’s James Spithill, the winning helmsman from the 2010 America’s Cup in Valencia and now senior helmsman for the Oracle program, has been back ‘down under’ for the southern hemisphere summer.
Spithill headed to Perth 2011 to help coach his sister Katie’s Women’s Match Racing team and now he is at the John Cootes Furniture A Class Catamaran Australian Championships with three of his America’s Cup Oracle Team and a bunch of Aussie sailing mates.
James was one of the first AC sailors to get into the A-Cats. He came sixth at the 2009 A-Cat Worlds on Lake Macquarie (Australia) and we spoke to him before yesterday’s practice race.
James said ‘A-Cats are very different than what we are going to sail in the AC. They look different to the 45 and the 72 but the cool thing about them is that you can go over … you can tip them over and you do it all on your own, which is fun and it’s just great to sharpen up your skills.
‘For instance trapezing downwind is what you now do in this class and yesterday I had four swims trying to figure it out. Tom (Slingsby) had five swims. JK (John Kostecki) didn’t even attempt it and Dirk (de Rider) won’t attempt it. It’s just fun.
‘You see guys like Glenn Ashby, Darren Bundock and Nathan Outteridge get straight out there and they just hit the horizon. Those three are going to be very hard to beat.
‘It’s good to be on your own and it’s good to go out there and try the trial and error method. The skills are great for use on the 45. I found that when I did the Worlds a few years ago, a time when I think Nathan did them as well, I picked up a lot of skills that helped in the bigger boats.
‘Obviously we have a rigid wing which is a bit different, but the principals of making the boat go fast and the manoeuvring are the same. The A-Cats have curved foils and on the 72s we will have curved foils.
‘The A-Cat was one of the first to go for the curved foils, I think and Ben Hall did the first wing for the A-Cats. The C Class guys have been doing the wings for a long time and it’s a cool class in that they have been leading to the forefront. There is a guy here with a T rudder, you can see them develop every year.
‘There is obviously Glenn (Ashby) and Steve Brewin but then Andrew Landenberger and others try a few things and they all seem to get to the top mark pretty much at the same time.
‘We bought the A Class wing before we did the (BMW Oracle) trimaran wing, just to see what it was like. The hard thing with these smaller boats is that the wing is logistically a bit of a pain. It’s much easier just to pull your sail up and down.
‘However I found at a certain scale it does get easier with the wing. For instance we use the top section of our A Class wing. Mike Drummond put it on an Optimist in New Zealand and it was like a beach umbrella, just a post straight into the boat and that's it. It spins around 360 degrees on the shore.
‘That was actually easier to rig up that the regular Optimist and the kid went out and he was off.
‘ I think the wings won’t go full mainstream because it is logistically a hassle to drive them around, but for an Optimist size or thereabouts it is no problem.
‘America’s Cup wise, we have a big year ahead. Our next 45s regatta will be in Italy in April and then May in Naples and Venice.
‘Ahead of that in February we are going to do more sailing in San Francisco with Oracle.
Oracle Racing helmsman James Spithill sprays his crew with champagne as he celebrates his winning the Match Racing 2-0 against Emirates Team New Zealand. Day six of the America’s Cup World Series, Cascais, Portugal. 13/8/2011 - Chris Cameron-ETNZ©?nid=92510
‘The 72s will come along from July. ‘It’s strange now to say the Cup is next year. It’s going to be a very busy and exciting year.
‘It’s cool coming back to the A-Cat scene because all these guys are obviously excited about multihulls and they are used to development curves and making boats faster and faster, that's what this class is all about. When you speak to people around here they are genuinely excited about the 45s and the 72s and the direction the event is going.
‘For the AC we have changed the course around. We have a reaching start and a reaching finish, which we think is pretty important. We are really tailored for the TV now and we are looking at 20 to 40 minute races.
‘At the end of the day without the TV and without having a product that people will want to watch, you are really wasting your time commercially.
‘We think we are getting a product now that is viable to compete with other big sports. We have the technology and Stan (Honey) is doing a great job on the live graphics. The commentary is starting to get better, the hardware, the microphones are all working. Getting the TV right is the most important thing.’
Commenting on Ben Ainslie’s annoyance with a media boat at Perth 2011, James said ‘Its heat of the moment stuff and in every sport you get it and that’s just what we are going to have to deal with.
‘In the 45 races we had three helicopters up filming at all times. They come over you and they can affect racing. Over a series it averages out and the good guys should win. There might be the off chance we it does affect a racer, it does cost someone, but that's life and I would rather that as a downside than the downside of not getting the racing on TV. That's the way it should be and you should be able to cope.
‘ The America’s Cup will be in a stadium like venue. When you cross that finish line and the crowd is cheering and the champagne comes out, the sailor who crosses the line should be the winner. You shouldn’t have to come back or everyone goes home then finds out that suddenly the results changed.
‘Look at the Sydney Hobart. Those guys on Investec Loyal beat Wild Oats XI across the finish line, which is a huge achievement, and yet they didn’t know if they had won and had to wait a whole day. That’s a real dampener.
‘At Perth 2011 the Grandstand made for a real stadium event.
‘At all our AC events, especially in Plymouth which is a natural amphitheatre anyway, we have had the stadium field crowds roaring as you go along side and next to the spectators. The courses are set so that you spend the majority of time right near the crowds.
‘That may not provide perfect race conditions but you have to deal with it and the good guys generally win.
‘The last day in Perth, was from all accounts, a very exciting sporting atmosphere and that's what it is about. It makes no sense to go miles off the coast. For the Cup it never made any sense. Look at San Diego. That was a total re-education for them because they have had the Cup there in the old boats.
‘The boats would go way off Point Lomar and they nicknamed it the ‘Coma in Point Lomar’ as the boats would go way out and would race for hours and hours, it was just boring plus no hospitality or sponsors or VIPs. No one wants to go out and roll around on a big powerboat for hours on end getting seasick.
‘San Diego was in shock (with the AC45’s). They couldn’t believe that this was now the America’s Cup and it really built them up. A lot of places, not only America but Australia and a couple of other countries, need to be re-educated about the America’s Cup because they have gone off it and I don’t blame them.
‘But I think if they all look at what we have now in our package they will like what they see.
‘In the last few months Peter Gilmour and the World Match Racing Tour had a little play with onshore coaching via the radio, so a TV audience could hear it.
‘That reminds me of motor racing, NASCAR and Formula 1, where you have the link back and you get a bit of heads up on the action. The concept doesn’t sound like good TV; you do 300 laps in a circle. It doesn’t sound like a TV product but they have amazing TV live graphics. Stan (Honey) does the graphics. You have the link between the pit and the drivers and you hear that.
‘The commentary is fantastic and the commentators are able to educate the viewers. I’ve never been at a NASCAR event but I have watched a couple of races and once you understand the strategy and what’s going on and what the drivers and the Pit teams are dealing with, its fascinating and you can really get into the race. It’s a little bit like Tour de France.
'I think that is what we can sell with sailing, because we know how fascinating the sport is.
‘There are so many variables, you have the team environment and now we have the exciting boats.
‘If you see an AC45 going along or an A Class Catamaran, they look cool. The kids now look at these boats and want to sail them.
‘Now days young people have a lot of options. To keep the sport healthy we have to evolve and that's just what we are doing.‘