Why I Think Jimmy Spithill is Wrong About the America’s Cup

It's the LVACWSNY this weekend.

Or, to put it slightly more comprehensibly, the America's Cup World Series is in New York this weekend.

Exciting, isn't it!

Or is it?

I honestly don't know. Sometimes I am actually quite enthused by the whole thing, but then I slip back to somewhere between apathy and rage (if there is such a place).

I'm veering more towards the apathy/rage place this weekend. Partly it is because I can't actually watch the event. Last weekend I was able to watch the medal races from Hyeres for the Olympic classes, for free, on YouTube:

But here in Ireland, unless I pay for a TV channel that I don't want, I can only get highlights of the LVACWSNY (what? that's what they call it) at specific times, that aren't recordable, or rewind-able or replay-able. (I know, I know. First World Problems. True enough, but I am talking about the America's Cup, so if you were expecting anything other than First World Problems then you're probably reading the wrong article)

But there is another reason I'm feeling a bit apathetically livid.

I was reading the Scuttlebutt newsletter the other day and it pointed me in the direction of this short Q&A with Jimmy Spithill.

And it made me grumpy.

At first I wasn't entirely sure why. I mean, I like Jimmy Spithill. I understand he's not everyone's cup of tea, but I enjoyed him in the press conferences during the 2013 America's Cup - he was spiky, funny, driven, psychologically fascinating and incredibly media-savvy. It was fun.

Mixed Nationalities

I was pretty disappointed, then, with a couple of things he says in the article. Let's start with this:

Having a mix of nationalities on board the boat helps.If you are all from the same culture, then you have similar ideas on to how to tackle a problem, even though it might not be the best way. By having Italians, Australians, Americans working together, you end up with different, and often better, solutions.

I'm happy that Jimmy Spithill is improving his sailing (and developing as a human being) due to his multinational team but, like so many things about the America's Cup, he spectacularly misses the point.

Firstly, the America's Cup is about a lot more than Jimmy Spithill, or Oracle Team USA, or, in fact, the competition itself. For better or (quite possibly) worse, it has become one of the flagships for bringing sailing to the wider world.

Jimmy Spithill

So what difference does having mixed nationalities on the boats make, when looked at through this bigger-picture lens?

Most (if not all) sport fan-dom is tribal. Most people support a team that is from their local town, or their national team, or the team that their mum or dad support, or that their friends follow. Essentially we support a team for reasons of "community", big or small.

So, what community would we be part of if we chose to support Oracle Team USA?

Despite the team name, it isn't an American team. In fact, for this leg of the World Series there is only one American on the boat - the rest are all Aussies. I doubt there are many that believe the team to be American, and I think it is probably fair to say that many resent the team name.

Of course some people will follow Oracle because of Jimmy himself (or one of the other personalities within the team), but even this is a tenuous connection to the team. Oracle have already demonstrated that they're willing to sack anyone that is underperforming - just ask John Kostecki. Or  Jimmy himself:

Whereas it is very common in other team sports to make changes in personnel, it is a place where sailing lags a little bit behind. Little tweaks can improve the dynamic of the rest of the team so if someone doesn’t work out, they can be replaced.

There's not much that a fan can commit to, is there?

It's hard to avoid the notion that Jimmy Spithill is (a) towing the company line, and (b) looking after his own interests. I don't blame him for this - a lot of people do this every day themselves - but let's not dress this up as something it's not. Oracle chose to use mixed nationalities (or actually almost entirely Australian sailors) because they think it gives them their best shot at winning.

Competition Format

But maybe I've got it all wrong. Perhaps it is about the spectacle. Here's Jimmy again:

The old America’s Cup format was boring. If you could get to the first mark in the lead, then 85 percent of the time nothing would change. It’s now different with the introduction of hydrofoiling yachts, because there are so many mistakes you can make, and you are punished for every little one. It makes for much more exciting racing. People want to see manoeuvres.

The idea that they decided to use hydrofoiling catamarans because people want to see manoeuvres is, frankly, ludicrous. You lose so much speed manoeuvring a hydrofoiling catamaran that you really want to keep manoeuvres to a minimum.

I'm not anti-foiling - in fact, I think it's great. A new development like this breathes new life into the sport. But, as anyone who has watched the Extreme Sailing Series can testify, just making boats faster or cooler doesn't automatically make the racing better. Watching large catamarans sailing in a small venue, barely getting up to full speed before having to tack doesn't make for a scintillating spectacle. Beats with a maximum of 3 tacks (and often just one) turns races into borderline processions. The novelty wears off pretty quickly.

But I'm being a little unfair - the America's Cup World Series isn't the same as the Extreme Sailing Series. I think perhaps he's really referring to the spectacle of massive yachts flying around at 40 knots.

I think back to that first race in the Cup in 2013, with the boats missing each other by inches at the first mark, the great leeward mark rounding from Oracle that lead to them overtaking New Zealand on the first beat, the good work upwind from New Zealand to regain the lead and finally cement it.

It was exciting.

But it was exciting because it was close and there were position changes. And you get those racing Lasers or Optimists or 470s or ... well, you get the picture - any competition with closely matched crews and equipment.

And as for getting "punished for every little" mistake - that happens in any top level competition, whether you're sailing an Sunfish or a 72-foot foiling cat.

Self-Serving and Self-Centred

So these comments bothered me.

We all know that Oracle Team USA want mixed nationality crews because it gives them the best chance to retain the Cup.

And I can't help but suspect that the foiling catamarans are there to provide a spectacle for when the racing itself does not, but that won't last long. The Louis Vuitton Cup was sailed in 72-foot foiling cats and no-one was remotely interested in it because it was completely devoid of competition, and competition is what creates long-term fans. Some people might start watching motor racing for the crashes, but the people who stay watching do so because they form allegiances and because the competition is good.

But the real reason these comments annoyed me is that they serve to highlight how incredibly self-serving, self-centred and out of touch the America's Cup has become from average sailors and general sports fans. At times it borders on the downright insulting - like in this interview where Spithill says they "don't pick people based on what they look like, the country on their passport, or the color of their skin". The implication seems to be that excluding someone from your team on the basis of their nationality is on a par with excluding them because of their race.

The worst part of all this is that these kinds of things have happened before - people setting up or bending the rules to suit themselves. And we have surely learned that all it does is dilute interest in the Cup.

Thankfully the days of catamarans against a monohulls and trimarans against cats are behind us. I worry, though, that if the two finalists next year - Oracle and the successful challenger - if they aren't closely matched in terms of performance then we will see exactly the kind of Cup that Spithill described as "boring". After all, how exciting would the last America's Cup have been if Emirates Team New Zealand had won race 12 (and therefore the Cup by 9-1)?

So I hope that whoever wins the America's Cup next year continues to move away from controversy, and focuses on creating a fair, close and exciting competition that fans can get behind. (And that we can watch!)

In short, I hope that the next America's Cup is one that we can all be proud of.

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