In the world of sailing, Australian Jimmy Spithill is known as the specialist in impossible recoveries, but above all in boats that “fly”.
That reputation came about when, as skipper of Oracle Team USA, he defended the America’s Cup in 2013 and came back from 8-1 down against Emirates Team New Zealand by quickly mastering the use of foils. These boards under the hull give the appearance that the boat is actually flying and Spithill’s team “flew” to victory in the final race.
Now his brilliant intuition and experience are at the service of the Luna Rossa team, who he rejoins having taken them to the final of the Louis Vuitton Cup in 2007 as helmsman. His return is a clear statement of intent for the 2021 America’s Cup. As Challenger of Record, the Italian team want to wrest the cup from the hands of reigning champions Emirates Team New Zealand, who hold the title of Defender – and who took the trophy from Spithill’s Oracle Team USA in 2017.
The boat, on the other hand, is totally new: no longer a catamaran but a 75ft fully-flying monohull. Instead of a conventional keel it has two ballasted T-foils that provide lift – and speed. Rules that define the design parameters for the teams impose restrictions on the components of the boats – hulls, masts, rudders, foils, sails – driving them to build less, carry out more computer simulations and reduce testing at sea. The technical novelties for the next America’s Cup seem destined to draw a line, to mark a ‘before’ and ‘after’ moment in sailing. In this edition the new boats will pose the crews with an array of different challenges that will force them to think differently. The perfect environment for Jimmy Spithill.
What does it mean to you to “go beyond your limits” in sailing and in sport generally?
I think that going beyond your limits, moving out of your comfort zone, is the best way to see how you react, to understand how far you can go, to really find out who you are and to push you further. I think that applies to everyone, not just athletes. Because, in general, finding yourself in a different environment to the one you know is the best way to improve, perhaps the only truly effective way.
For many people you are “the man who makes boats fly”. How does it feel when the boat is lifted clear off the water?
These days “foils” are ubiquitous, you even find them on the smallest boats, even some types of surfboard use a foil. But only a few years ago, for example in the America’s Cup in San Francisco (in 2013), this technology was unknown. None of us had a clue what to do. The only option was to get down to it and learn. Obviously at first everyone had difficulties, but this is just part of the learning process that we all have to deal with. And full foiling is an experience you can never tire of in my opinion.
When we talk about athletes at the top of their sports, we always emphasise their competitiveness, their drive which can border on obsession. Is that true for you?
In a way I think it is. I think you could describe it as an obsession. It’s something that’s constantly driving you to take another step forward, particularly in a competition like the America’s Cup, where it’s very important to be coordinated as a group. If you’re good enough and lucky enough to win, it’s always the result of teamwork. But I’m the type of person who straight afterwards wants to return to the fray and recreate that excitement in another context, because only in another context can you go further. And in the end it becomes like an addiction.
Have you ever thought of trying a different sailing discipline?
I think one of the best things about sailing is that there are lots of disciplines, each one conceived and developed differently from the others. This can help me; I mean trying other types of sailing enables you to see things from a different angle, and this experience then helps you when you’re racing.
One gets the impression that in sailing, and particularly in the America’s Cup, technology is increasingly decisive. Could this aspect ever become more important than being good sailors?
It’s true, in the America’s Cup it’s increasingly important and it’s also increasingly important to know the instrument you’re dealing with; you need to know every detail, anything that can make the boat go just a little bit quicker. But the chemistry that exists between the team and the engineers is even more important. You have to know how to communicate and work together as a real team, otherwise you don’t get far.
Do you liaise with the team of engineers while the boat is being built?
Maintaining a dialogue with them is essential because it helps you know the boat better. And you never really stop learning. Luckily for me, the America’s Cup is a magnet for great workers, people who love their work and have mastered it at the very top level.
How do you reconcile the life of a top sailor with your private life? And above all, has being a father and husband influenced your approach to work?
Reconciling the two things is the hardest part, or so I believed. I almost used to think that the one excluded the other, that I needed to choose. The secret lies always in finding a balance. I thought that working in the America’s Cup team would be complicated by having a family. But instead the opposite is true, because it gives you new energy, you’re no longer doing it for yourself. Now you have them in your life and you do it for them.
Luna Rossa also has Pirelli on board as a sponsor, a brand that has innovation, development and a mentality of continuous research in its DNA.
Perhaps those are the most important characteristics. If we look at the giant steps that the competition has taken, above all in terms of technological development, it’s clear that if you’re not truly “open-minded”, if you’re not prepared to return to the fray and be open to innovation, you’ll probably be left well behind.
These are boats that travel at incredible speeds, you’ve just got to have the desire to understand and to know the boat you’re on, otherwise you’re certain to be left stranded.
I should also add that you’re dealing with designers, engineers and the whole team on a daily basis; the America’s Cup is full of professionals at the highest level – if there’s one thing you can’t afford it’s to be inflexible or closed to innovation.
Sailing can also be an extreme, very dangerous sport, especially for those wedded to the idea of always having to go one step beyond their limits. To be the best, is it sufficient to concentrate on training, the technical and physical aspects, or do you have to have a rare mental strength, perhaps be a bit “crazy”?
It’s true that the America’s Cup, and perhaps sailing in general, is in a sense becoming more extreme, because the speeds are extremely high. So if we see it as a matter of reactivity, decision-making, athletic fitness or any other form of training, it has to be admitted that the requirements are constantly on the increase.
But there’s also that mental component that constantly drives you to push your limits a bit further, to test yourself in situations of maximum stress, when you’re exhausted, that certainly has something to do with the concept I’ve already mentioned of wanting and knowing how to live with situations that are outside your comfort zone.