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Jimmy Spithill: Foiling boats offer the excitement needed to grow the sport of sailing

Continuing his series of columns, Jimmy Spithill explains how excitement around foiling boats can get children involved in sailing.

On that cold day in Valencia in early 2010, when we won the America’s Cup for the first time, I thought maybe that would be the first and only time I’d ever race a multihull in the Cup. Standing at the back of that giant trimaran doing ridiculous speeds was such a blast. I thought we’d be returning to keelboats after that, which — don’t get me wrong — wouldn’t have been all bad. I mean, that’s where I’d come from, that’s what I’d done pretty much all my life up to that point.

But after getting that taste in 2010, I’m very happy to still be racing the awesome multihulls that we’re working with now. I’d done a little bit of multihull sailing as a kid, and when we were out sailing monohulls and we saw a cat fly past us, I remember thinking, “Gee, that looks pretty cool.” I didn’t give it much more thought after that though, because the game of match racing was in keelboats at the time, so that’s where I focused my attention.

However, the 2010 campaign with the trimaran was really the catalyst for the America’s Cup shifting from monohulls to multihulls. It was like a lightbulb went off. The first time I went out sailing in a multihull, I started doing some A-class racing with Glenn Ashby [now skipper of Emirates Team New Zealand]. It was just incredible: the performance, the fun factor and the risk, how much harder you had to push. You’re always at risk of capsizing, which we never had with the monohull. As soon as you tried it, you had a feeling that you couldn’t believe what you’d been missing.

Sailing the Version 5 keelboats 10 years ago and more, you would always push as hard as you can, but the risk just wasn’t there, and the consequences just weren’t as great if you made a mistake. But now, every single day you go sailing there are consequences. It’s surprising how quickly you get used to the speed and the risk, but on windy days especially, the boat still really does drag you out of your comfort zone. And it’s the same for everyone. It’s kind of like that surfer dropping into the big wave at Jaws or Mavericks — it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve done it, it still gets your attention. And that’s ultimately why these boats are so addictive.

The other big change is the pace of development. By the end of the keelboat era, we were spending hundreds of hours in search of a speed advantage that probably didn’t add up to even two-tenths of a knot. The past few years we’ve been on a massive learning curve where the pace of development is astronomic by comparison. That’s very exciting to be part of and this has re-energized the entire team: design, engineering, construction and shore crew. Even with large parts of the design locked in by the America’s Cup Class rule, there are some big areas of potential advantage.

Basically, there are three technical areas that will win this America’s Cup:

  • Getting the shape of your foils right;
  • Control systems: how you control foils, wings, getting boards up and down and essentially manoeuvre out there;
  • Aerodynamics. I think that will still be a factor, although maybe not as much as the other two.

People talk about the ability to keep the hulls dry all the way around the course, foiling nonstop from the start gun to the finish line, as the silver bullet or the Holy Grail of this Cup. Well, I think it’s going to be essential to be able to do that. The way things are going, the way all the teams are improving, there’s no doubt in my mind that our goal has to be that the hulls shouldn’t touch the water. I’m convinced that if they do, someone will lose. Although saying that, it could just be what we call a “touch and go.” (Funny how we’re starting to borrow terms from the aviation world!) You go through a tack and you touch briefly, you kind of bounce off the water, and that’ll still be OK as long as you lift up and get going again. But make no mistake, as soon as you fall off the foils and the hulls hit the water, it’s going to cost you big time.

It’s great for us, as professional athletes, to feel like we’re pushing at the edges of what a sailboat can achieve in terms of speed and performance, but there’s another side to this that I feel passionate about. There are a lot of sports out there that are struggling. And the question you’ve got to really ask yourself is why would a kid get involved in sailing? You and I know it’s a great sport! I can talk about it all day, but the fact is for kids today it’s got to be fun, fast and exciting, and it can’t take up your whole weekend like sports did when I was younger. It also needs to be cheaper.

Although there’s some great little boats that could get kids out on the water, they want to go out there and have fun. If we can encourage more kids to say, “Look at the America’s Cup,” and think, “Wow, that looks amazing, I’d love to do that,” and introduce them to sailing, then our sport will be in a better place. But unless we generate that kind of excitement from a kid, the sport might not grow as well as it should.

I think these foiling boats have really led to a resurgence of kids getting to sail. They see it and they’re inspired. They look at the Red Bull Youth America’s Cup and the Red Bull Foiling Generation, and they can actually see something of a pathway through to the America’s Cup.

It’s really, really important for the Cup to help create this trickle-down effect to grassroots level. The America’s Cup Endeavour program that gets schoolkids in Bermuda out on the water and integrates sailing into their academic school curriculum is another important example of this.

So, for me, the America’s Cup needs to be exciting; it needs to be cool, fast and fun. All those things are a must. Kids have got plenty of options nowadays, and we need to make sure sailing is one of them.

Some teams didn’t even put up a crew for the Red Bull Youth America’s Cup at the last campaign in San Francisco; I thought that was a real shame. For us, taking that on in the last campaign — setting it up and getting it all going — wasn’t helping us win the America’s Cup, but it was definitely the right thing to do with the sport for the next generation. For me and for a lot of people, including Larry Ellison and Russell Coutts, it’s been an important balance between the projects. It’s not just about ourselves. More importantly, I think, it’s about the next generation. That’s the only way of ensuring the sport keeps growing.

For those kids who are inspired by the America’s Cup, how does a young sailor get to where we are today? What’s the magic ingredient? For me, it’s really quite simple: hard work and dedication. I’ll choose someone with a great attitude who works hard over someone who has talent any day of the week. If you’ve got both, great. At this level, hard work and a good team player attitude is by far the most important ingredient to success.

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