JFK said it best, coincidentally at the Dinner for the America’s Cup crews in September 1962: “We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea – whether it is to sail or to watch it – we are going back from whence we came.”
Gratuitous erudite quotes aside, the America’s Cup is enjoying a renaissance. Thanks to a suave set of super athletes, cutting-edge broadcast technology and the vision of impresarios such as billionaire, Larry Ellison (according to Forbes, the fifth wealthiest person on earth), sailing is now as thrilling as anything on track or field.
It’s been hailed one of the most improbable comebacks in sporting history and certainly, the greatest in the 162 years of America’s Cup competition. In 2013 on a choppy San Francisco Bay, trailing 8-1, ORACLE Team USA, led by its indefatigable Aussie skipper, Jimmy Spithill, drew on its passion and pride to win eight consecutive races and win 9-8 in the first-to-nine series.
Representing the Golden Gate Yacht Club, the American defender, owned by charismatic billionaire and tech-magnate, Larry Ellison, retained the America’s Cup, the oldest trophy in international sports.
Die-hard sailing fans can remember precisely where they were when Spithill held the Auld Mug aloft, his joy and relief in sharp contrast to the shellshocked faces of Emirates Team NZ crew.
It was one of many the legions of Kiwis and empathetic Aussies downed to drown our collective sorrows, the very next day at the Australia II 30th Anniversary Luncheon where skipper John Bertrand, syndicate chairman Alan Bond and ex-PM Bob Hawke led the commiserations.
For Spithill, undoubtedly the protagonist of the epic win, most of the racing and triumph of the AC34 is blur. “We were surviving on adrenaline and no sleep for 10 days,” he says. “It was relentless. We were facing the gun every day. We had to find the focus and make it happen. It took a week to come down from it. Then everybody, even the shore guys, got sick.”
Jimmy was just four in 1983 when the crew of Australia II became the first team to claim the America’s Cup from the New York Yacht Club in event’s 132-year history. Their feat captured his imagination and determined his career path from that day.
A steady rise through Australian sailing ranks onto the world stage followed. He debuted in the America’s Cup as skipper aged just 20 with Young Australia, and stints at the helm of Oneworld (2003) and Luna Rossa Challenge (2007) followed before Spithill became the youngest-ever winner of the America’s Cup as helmsman and skipper of BMW Oracle Team 90 in 2010.
Spithill and his wife, Jennifer and sons Owen and Joe have relocated to ORACLE’S Bermuda base, training and competing ahead of the main event in 2017, AC35. ORACLE is a massive team, comprising management, crew and the sailmakers and technical personnel required to maintain momentum.
Spithill and the current batch of AC luminaries, which include Olympians, Volvo Ocean Race veterans and sportsmen of the calibre of record-breaking Iron Man, Ky Hurst, are responsible for turning the America’s Cup into a compelling sport.
“In the past, it was seen as an elitist sport enjoyed by rich, old guys with yachts, sailing out at sea where nobody could see them. The last two campaigns have turned that on its head and really captured the imagination of the broader public.”
The boats were too boring in the past, states Spithill. Now, with the new generation, high-tech catamarans, America’s Cup is the F1 of sailing and sponsors have been quick to respond. ORACLE Team USA bears the badges of BMW, official timing partner, Bremont, and enjoys the support of nearly 20 suppliers.
“It’s appeal is mainstream,” continues Spithill. “America’s Cup sailing is enjoying a meteoric rise in popularity. There’s the boats, the athletes, the risk, the broadcast technology and ability to educate people on the racing. There’s a lot of choice out there for sponsors and the public. I’m pumped with the incredible TV deals secured for AC35. For the first time ever, we have networks and sponsors negotiating a Rights Deal.”
For AC35 in Bermuda in 2017 – skipping a year due to the 2016 Rio Olympic Games – there will be six to eight teams. Confirmed so far are Artemis Racing, Emirates Team NZ, Land Rover Ben Ainslie Racing, Groupama Team France and a Japanese team, SoftBank Team Japan under Kiwi skipper, Dean Barker. Then there “a couple in the wings” who have yet to confirm, possibly another Asian team.
“It will be great for evolution of the America’s Cup,” says Spithill. “The Asian markets are huge sport and technology fans and AC35 will cater to both.”
While the heroes of the AC are undoubtedly the athletes, the boats are the stars. Known as the AC45, the new, one-design, foiling, wingsailed catamarans are “brutal”, according to Spithill.
“In testing, our heart rates are frightening. Sailing these boats is hard on elbows, shoulders, ankles. It’s extremely physical, and you’ve got to think while you’re doing it. It’s really narrowed the field to sailors at the peak of their game.”
Bermuda is already preparing for an influx of visitors in 2017. The small island nation beat San Diego, Newport and Chicago to become only the sixth country to host the world’s oldest sporting trophy, along with Great Britain (back in 1851), and in more recent years the US, Australia, New Zealand and Spain.
A natural amphitheatre, the Bermuda race area offers unrivalled viewing from all vantage points and spectators will be able to see the start and finish lines from the shore. Mid-Atlantic Bermuda is in the ideal time zone for broadcasts to the US and UK markets.
Ahead of the next round in the prologue to the real thing in 2017, the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series will run 16 to 18 October in Bermuda. All six teams are comfortably ensconced in purpose-built facilities at the America’s Cup Village at the Royal Naval Dockyard and champing at the bit to get racing.
“We were impressed with the turnout at the World Series racing in Portsmouth, in July – nearly 300,000 spectators over the four days. The bookings in advance show there’s no doubt, there will be crowds in Bermuda.”
At 36, Spihill is realistic. The America’s Cup is not an old fellas’ sport.
“What gets me out of bed each day is racing,” he says. “Mentally, I never want to stop, although I realise there will come a day. Maybe I’ll move on to working as part of the team in another role, or perhaps try a Volvo Ocean Race. That’s real adventure. But right now, I am only focused on the next campaign.”