Interview: Jimmy Spithill
The intense Australian is the youngest winning skipper in America’s Cup history. As captain of Oracle Team USA, Jimmy Spithill is vying for his team's third consecutive title.
Skippering a boat is a bit like a game of rugby: you often have get involved in doing things that aren’t your job, regardless of your position.
Having a mix of nationalities on board the boat helps.If you are all from the same culture, then you have similar ideas on to how to tackle a problem, even though it might not be the best way. By having Italians, Australians, Americans working together, you end up with different, and often better, solutions.
Crews tend to be loyal to a fault. Whereas it is very common in other team sports to make changes in personnel, it is a place where sailing lags a little bit behind. Little tweaks can improve the dynamic of the rest of the team so if someone doesn’t work out, they can be replaced.
‘Pitbull’ was the nickname that the Italians gave me in 2007 when I was skippering the Prada team. We had a slower boat going into the semi-final, and the only way for us to compete was to take a lot of risks and be very aggressive, especially at the start line. The Italian fans are really passionate about sailing, it’s like a religion to them.
Everyone wants to beat the defending champion. No question about it. The defender has a target. I get it, I was a challenger once.
The old America’s Cup format was boring. If you could get to the first mark in the lead, then 85 percent of the time nothing would change. It’s now different with the introduction of hydrofoiling yachts, because there are so many mistakes you can make, and you are punished for every little one. It makes for much more exciting racing. People want to see manoeuvres.
I am obsessed with winning, as is [Team Land Rover BAR skipper] Ben Ainslie, and that’s a great thing. We used to be teammates and I know him well. I think that makes it even more competitive — we’d do anything to beat each other.
You have to be a fit guy to race today. If you look at the past America’s Cups you’ve got people who look like they’re straight out of an armchair! Today it’s different. It’s an attitude, a state of mind, it’s a requirement to be a great athlete.
I have a lot of respect for the Special Forces. I love the mentality that they put their teammates before themselves.
I think team sports are harder than individual ones. It’s the same in business, the bigger the group, the harder it is to keep on track. In the America’s Cup, the teams are anywhere from 50 to 100 people, so when it’s all working like clockwork it’s addictive.
I’ve won the last two America’s Cups, but I want to win three in a row. Although, if I won a third, I would probably want a fourth.
I took flying lessons before the 2010 America’s Cup to help me further understand aerodynamics. At first it was purely educational, but now I’m hooked. I’ve done some aerobatics stuff and I’m working towards my helicopter licence.
The hardest part of my work is the time spent away from my family. I see my teammates way more than I see my family. It’s a huge time commitment, but at the end of the day, it’s my decision. I’m not forced to do it. I just want to be successful.
A couple of people died during the Sydney to Hobart race in 1998. I was racing and there were terrible storms where some boats were lost. When Mother Nature decides to take over, you really have no control over it.
We once lost Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson overboard. In the last campaign he was a guest on one of our boats during a practice race, and he lost his balance during one of the manoeuvres! Luckily we have support boats following us, because there was no way we were going back to pick him up.
The 35th America’s Cup takes place in Bermuda, July 2017.