James Spithill: How Sydney to Hobart near disaster helps America’s Cup campaign

Plane sailing: Comanche rounds Tasman Island on the way to victory in the Sydney to Hobart. Photo: Rolex, Kurt Arrigo Success is sweet: The crew of Comanche celebrate in Hobart. Photo: Rolex, Stefano Gattini

James Spithill has built his reputation on fighting his way out of a corner.

It is a trait the Australian sailor, nicknamed “the pit bull” for his aggressive starts at the helm, had to draw on to drag Oracle-Team USA from 8-1 down to Team New Zealand in the 2013 America’s Cup final series to win it 9-8.

But for the 36-year-old Bermuda-based Sydneysider and two-time America’s Cup winner, there are still moments when he is taken aback by the human spirit and resolve when all is seemingly lost.

That is how it appeared to be for the US-registered super maxi Comanche during the Sydney to Hobart race when it sustained serious damage on the first night in the thick of a brutal southerly. Skipper Ken Read notified officials of their intent to withdraw, turned around, began the journey back to Sydney but, after the crew repaired the damage, opted to rejoin the race and eventually take line honours.

Spithill was a crew member of Comanche, which is owned by American businessman Jim Clarke and his Australian wife and former model Kristy Hinze-Clarke

The come-from-behind win was different from that of the last America’s Cup, but Spithill still sees a common theme.

“Winning was obviously the rewarding part,” Spithill says. “But when you look back at how we won both races, it makes them incredibly rewarding because you are doing them as a team. Somehow you figure out a way how to do it.”

On Comanche, Spithill observed the quick thinking and resolve of Australian crew member Casey Smith as he grabbed a bag of tools and tried to repair the broken dagger board rather than quit. His initiative motivated others to chip in to help and, ultimately, Read told race officials Comanche would continue.

The crew then began chasing the race leader, US boat Rambler 88, and, after 13 hours, Comanche regained the lead and sailed to a remarkable line honours win.

“You see it everywhere, sport and all walks of life,” Spithill says.

“It is such a simple lesson and so easy to say … but when it’s tough going sometimes … it becomes easy to let it go. But you’ve just got to keep digging deep and punch your way out of the corner.

“It’s all good and well when things are going well, but when you really see a team when it has challenges to face, and this was a perfect example of it, especially given the conditions …

“It was rough, in the middle of the night. It was terrible conditions. We were getting smashed around in Bass Strait in the middle of the night. It would have been a tough repair at the dock, let alone out there.

“[Smith] deserves all the credit. He somehow figured out a repair to get us back in the race. We were heading back, thinking: ‘There is no way we will be able to fix this’.”

But then, Spithill recalls, once Read decided to race on, “everyone flicked a switch”, and their minds focused on the race, while still wary of doing more damage.

“It was a matter of, ‘Well we have to put the throttle down’,” Spithill says.

“But we also had to make sure we kept the thing in one piece. That’s always a really tough balance.

“We also had to essentially race the boat asymmetrically because it was a lot different tack to tack as we had snapped this dagger board.

“That made it really challenging but, when you have a good team and good guys, it’s amazing how you can figure out a way to do it. In those conditions, it’s pretty tough to go through it clean.”

With a win – and such a win – behind him, Spithill hopes Comanche will return to the Sydney to Hobart, even though Clark is reluctant, despite his wife wanting to race it again.

“I want to see it break the record,” Spithill says.

“If they got the same conditions Wild Oats had when it set the record [one day, 18 hours, 23 minutes and 12 seconds in 2012] – or conditions close to it – it would smash the record.

“It already is the fastest monohull in a 24-hour record, so the boat has proven it can do it.”

For Spithill, last year’s Sydney to Hobart was his fourth, after sailing it on Syd Fischer’s Ragamuffin in 1998, on George Snow’s Brindabella in 2000 and on Comanche in 2014 when it was second behind Wild Oats XI.

He is naturally thrilled to have won line honours, but it is not lost on him that behind Comanche in second place was Ragamuffin 100 owned by Fischer who appointed him at the age of 19 to steer his boat Young Australia in the 2000 America’s Cup.

“He cracked the door open for me,” Spithill says.

“It ain’t easy walking through it, but he gives the opportunity. That is all you can ask for as a young guy.

“He is a really tough guy, but he taught me a lot of lessons.”

But as valuable as the Sydney to Hobart win was for Spithill, he was also able to take something from his America’s Cup experience, despite the contrasting styles of regattas, boats and conditions between the two events.

“It is just about getting out … thinking,” Spithill says.

“If you are driving along [behind the helm] and looking at the boat, a dagger board or something … it triggers a new idea that relates to the Cup.

“It’s not exactly the same discipline, but it’s close enough that it is keeping your brain engaged and you are picking up new ideas.”

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