Spithill: „Now is the time to re-energize US sailing”
Two-time America’s Cup–winning skipper Jimmy Spithill has taken the reins of the United States SailGP Team and assembled a new crew. As he looks toward the season opener at the Bermuda Sail Grand Prix this weekend, the Australian explains the opportunities – and the challenges – for the team, for the season and for the future of the sport in the USA.
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ABOUT SAIL GP: SailGP is an annual, global sports championship featuring bold, cutting-edge technology and awe-inspiring athleticism. The fan-centric, inshore racing takes place in some of the most iconic harbors around the globe and offers the sport’s largest monetary prize of $1 million. Rival national teams battle it out in identical supercharged F50 catamarans, engineered for intense racing at electrifying speeds exceeding 50 knots (nearly 60 mph/100 kph). Visit SailGP.com for more information.
Jimmy, you’ve mentioned that you want to help re-energize US sailing. Why? When you look back at the ‘80s and ‘90s, the US was absolutely a powerhouse in world sailing – at the Olympic level and the America’s Cup. And offshore as well. But in the past 10 to 20 years, you’ve got to say that the British, New Zealand and Australia have really sort of overtaken the US when you look at the Olympic results. For us, the goal is to get the US back at the top.
So what can be done, and why now with SailGP? I believe high-performance sailing is the future, but I think that’s where the US has kind of been left behind a little bit. So we see this as an awesome opportunity to be a catalyst and really change that at the grassroots level. We know that there’s a lot of talent in the US. But there needs to be something to kick things off, and we think this is a perfect platform to do that – to re-energize and ultimately, as the series goes on over the years, see some really cool emerging talent making their way into the US roster.
So then let’s talk about this platform. In SailGP you all have the same F50 boats, right? Right. But the boats are always improving from the technical side, even though they’re all the same. The helms are in discussions with the SailGP technical team to constantly upgrade the fleet. In other circuits the boats may be the latest, but as seasons roll on, they get outdated. That’s what I love about this circuit. Yes, everyone gets the same gear, but the boats, the equipment, the technology are constantly evolving and on the leading edge. That’s unique.
That said, what’s changed since you sailed 50-footers in the 2017 America’s Cup? The foils have been a big upgrade from the last time I sailed these boats. That was a surprise, just how heavy a step forward they have made in terms of the performance of the foils. But the big change this season is the new hard wing style.
Go on… It’s basically controlled by hydraulics, and there’s a range of different twist and camber profiles you can run. So it’s not like a mechanical system with ropes – you can completely change it, from the bottom to the top, to get the flying shape you’d like to have. That’s like aerospace, you know, that sort of ability.
Anything else that’s different for you? With the partnership with Oracle and the Oracle Cloud, we can see all the data and analytics. At the end of the day you get a report from every single boat, every single team. Typically, all that stuff is hidden, shrouded from the teams and the general public. But now everyone can see what’s happening. I think it pushes the level higher.
You’ll be helming a new lineup for the US team, whereas many of your opponents will have raced together in 2019. How big a factor is that? You can’t chalk up the hours that the other teams have had. But I’m really excited about this team. Rome Kirby set a good foundation and he’s moved to the flight controller role. I think that’s going to work out really well. And we have cool young talent from American Magic – Alex Sinclair, Cooper Dressler and Andrew Campbell. I’ve worked with Cooper and Andrew before. Then factor in Paul Campbell-James, who has been with Ben Ainslie in the America’s Cup and was involved in the technological prototype testing of these boats. Rounding out the team, we’ve also recently added four-time Formula Kite World Champion Daniela Moroz and Hawaii-based foiling star CJ Perez, and we’re excited to develop their talent. Like with any team, it’s going to take time to come together, to gel, to understand how we race together in good and tough moments. But the initial signs are good.
Any predictions about who might be the toughest competitors this year? Just watching the practices, it’s difficult to single out any one team. Until we at least see how everyone’s performing in official practice racing, it would be guessing. Last Friday [April 16], your F50 suffered some damage when it capsized as the Australian team were sailing it as part of the training rotation. How bad was it? In the top-end conditions that day, it could have happened to any of us. The boat suffered quite a bit of damage to the aft fairing and wing and the steering system – not so much in the capsize, it was really in re-righting the boat. We got it back on the water on Tuesday and immediately started breaking it back in. That’s a big goal, from now until the start of the competition we just have to make sure the boat is completely 100 percent and ready to go.
What do you think is exciting about SailGP, whether as a contender or a spectator? I think it’s a win for everyone, sailing really close to land and in front of some pretty major city-fronts. This style of racing feels like going into a sporting stadium. Also, they’re quick-fire, aggressive, full-throttle races, where you’re making really quick decisions.
How are the challenges in SailGP different than sailing in the America’s Cup? The big difference is you’ve got eight boats. We are pushing at the edge, so it’s a huge change, going from a match race where you’re just worrying about yourself and one other boat to a field where it’s yourself and seven other teams – in a tight racetrack, where everyone has the same high-end boats, and in the best field of sailors that I’ve ever seen. Man, that’s going to be tough.
And what will it take to succeed? Consistency, trying to keep the mistakes down, and the ability to scramble and recover. With eight boats on a start line, it’s a lot like a motocross start. You all go off and then you’ve got to turn around this mark, this bottleneck. There’s going to be ups and downs in getting off the line well, but that ability to pull your way back will be very important.
The calendar will see you in seven more venues after this weekend’s kickoff in Bermuda. Is there one that particularly intrigues you? They’re all cool, but I’m really intrigued by Christchurch. I’ve spent a big part of my career in New Zealand, but I’ve never been there. Then San Francisco is like going to the pipeline in Hawaii. Everyone looks forward to it. Everyone knows it will be full on. And it’s the final, racing for a million bucks.
So have you set any targets for this season? Initially we need to make sure we’re competitive. There’s no doubting the head start a lot of these teams have got with a full season under their belt, but if it was easy, we wouldn’t be doing it. Ultimately, we’ve got to make sure that we can mix it up. And then the goal is to try and be there [when the field is narrowed down] in the last race at each event.
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ABOUT THE UNITED STATES SAILGP TEAM The United States returns to SailGP in Season 2 to build on the foundation established by Season 1 Helmsman Rome Kirby with a fresh team including new CEO & Helmsman Jimmy Spithill.
Team members: • Jimmy Spithill, CEO & Helmsman • Rome Kirby, Flight Controller • Andrew Campbell, Grinder • Cooper Dressler, Grinder • Alex Sinclair, Grinder • Paul Campbell-James, Wing Trimmer • Daniela Moroz, Athlete • CJ Perez, Athlete
Best Season 1 finish: 3rd Season 1 finish overall: 6th Social media: @SailGPUSA
ABOUT SAILGP: “SailGP is an annual, global sports championship featuring bold, cutting-edge technology and awe-inspiring athleticism. The fan-centric, inshore racing takes place in some of the most iconic harbors around the globe and offers the sport’s largest monetary prize of $1 million. Rival national teams battle it out in identical supercharged F50 catamarans, engineered for intense racing at electrifying speeds exceeding 50 knots (nearly 60 mph/100 kph). Visit SailGP.com for more information.”
Previous seasons: One (2019) Teams for 2021: Australia, Denmark, France, Great Britain, Japan, New Zealand, Spain, United States Defending champions: Australia SailGP Team Season 2 format: • Eight national teams, all racing equally matched one design F50 catamarans head-to-head. • Eight events on three continents between April 2021 and March 2022. • Season ends with a Grand Final, which includes a winner-takes-all Championship Final Race for the $1 million prize