By Don Markus
The Baltimore Sun
2:00 PM EDT, October 12, 2013
Shortly after the America's Cup began last month, the trophy Jimmy Spithill and his crew had taken home from Valencia, Spain four years earlier was put out for the 34-year-old skipper and his Team USA crew on their way down to the dock each morning.
Already down a couple of races to Team New Zealand, the trophy known as the Auld Mug served as motivation for Spithill and the other 10 sailors on board Oracle in the first-to-nine wins competition held in San Francisco.
"I didn't want to let it go," Spithill recalled Friday, during a public interview with Annapolis-based sailing legend Gary Jobson before a packed ballroom at the Annapolis Marriott as part of Sailing World magazine's seminar series at the U.S Sailboat Show. "That's a pretty nice trophy."
By the time Team New Zealand took what appeared to be an insurmountable 7-1 lead that would eventually grow to 8-1, Spithill noticed that the trophy "had been packed up." That's when Jobson said Spithill turned into a combination of Joe Namath and Popeye when talking to the media assembled.
With the kind of bravado that seems unlikely from the seemingly low-key and likeable Australian, Spithill predicted victory. Whether or not he truly believed what he was telling the media — and his opponent — is not clear.
"You play little mind games in those press conferences," Spithill admitted Friday.
Overcoming obstacles throughout the remaining eight races — including coming back from an early deficit in what turned out to be the final race — Spithill led a U.S. team that included only one American to victory in what many consider the most exciting America's Cup in its 162-year history.
Though as the skipper of Team USA, Spithill has received most of the attention — making recent appearances with everyone from Jay Leno to Howard Stern to Stephen Colbert — Spithill insists that "the boat was the star of the show."
But just as the fastest car doesn't always win the Indianapolis 500, there was still plenty that could have gone wrong. Instead, nearly everything went right in the days leading up to the clinching victory on Sept. 24.
Jobson, the tactician on the winning Ted Turner-led Courageous team in 1977, said recently that "the big story was that the design team came up with changes, adjustments, techniques all together that turned a little slower to faster and that was really the secret to Spithill's success — to get everybody to believe that he had the goods to back it up."
David Reed, the editor of Newport, R.I.-based Sailing World magazine, said Friday that the start of Oracle's victory began with a disastrous capsize of the $10 million boat last October.
"When they capsized the boat, it took them a good three months to build a new wing, build a new boat," Reed said. "It was catastrophic. It went over something, it ended up in a million pieces, it got sucked under the Golden Gate Bridge. That was a huge setback. They lost a good three to four months of hard training."
Conversely, Team New Zealand had a near flawless buildup to the America's Cup, including a victory in the Louis Vuitton Cup, setting up a showdown with Oracle. Though Team New Zealand was seemingly on its way to a resounding victory in the America's Cup, Reed said "the day the [America's] Cup started — and they admitted this — they plateaued."
Reed said the U.S. team studied video tape of Team New Zealand's early races.
"They [the U.S.] changed the way they tacked the boat by learning how the Kiwis did it, and they learned how to make the boat faster, they learned how to sail it better," Reed said. [Tactician] Ben Ainslie had a great quote afterward. He said that once they started getting faster, they got more confident and the more confident they got, the better they sailed."
Said Spithill: "The biggest thing we did to the boat was we learned how to sail it."
Spithill said the mid-competition addition of Ainslie, a four-time Olympic champion so beloved in his native England that he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth, also proved critical.
It was not just the expertise Ainslie brought to Oracle's multi-national crew, but the way the change was accepted by the rest of the crew after Ainslie replaced John Kostecki, who as tactician had helped Oracle wrestle the trophy away from the Swiss boat, Alinghi 5, in Valencia in 2010.
Calling Ainslie "the best sailor in the world," Spithill said Friday that "we needed to make a change, and everyone was on board with it. It's the biggest team sport there is. We have 100 team members, everybody down to the guys cleaning the boat. I was only a part of it."
Unlike baseball managers who sit in a dugout or basketball coaches who sit on a chair, being the skipper of a 72-foot catamaran is much different. Keeping the boat from capsizing takes incredible strength and reflexes, and not getting tossed into the water — as happened to Spithill during a practice run — is more difficult than it looks.
"Because of the G-forces, it's like standing on the roof of the car while it's turning," Spithill said.
But he and the rest of his Oracle crew were obviously prepared. Spithill, who describes his position with Oracle as "not a day job, it's an obsession," took flying lessons back "on a little air strip" near Sydney to better understand the aerodynamics of the new wing of his boat. He and his crew members trained with Navy Seals to understand how to "work while you're exhausted."
Recalling the days when those he sailed with looked more like, well, sailors, Jobson said that the members of Spithill's crew look "like linebackers getting off the boat."
If there is anyone Spithill credits the most for the success he has found in sailing, it's an old boxing coach who taught a scrawny kid with bright red hair how to fight instead of being bullied. It gave Spithill something to focus on "when things weren't going well at home," and eventually it helped Spithill take the same approach to sailing.
What also inspired Spithill was living on the same street with two members of the Australia II team that captured the America's Cup in 1983. Spithill has often told the story of his parents coming back to their home in a beach community on the outskirts of Sydney after a night of celebrating Australia II's win.
But the biggest motivation might have come from losing.
Spithill said that being part of two losing America's Cup crews has made him appreciate what Team New Zealand skipper Dean Barker is going through. Recognizing the often not-so-friendly rivalry between Australia and New Zealand, Spithill joked that "I'm probably Public Enemy No. 1 right now" in New Zealand.
With Australia planning on competing in the next America's Cup, Spithill knows that some might think he will jump ship and return home. That seems unlikely with the handsome salary he is being paid by Oracle's billionaire owner Larry Ellison and the fact that he and his American-born wife and their two young boys are settled in Southern California.
Spithill doesn't plan on going after Olympic gold in Brazil regardless if bigger boats are added to the competition.
"I think when you do too many things, you do nothing well," he said.
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