Book Review: Chasing the Cup by Jimmy Spithill (with Rob Mundle)
Review by Steve Morrell, SOUTHWINDS Editor
While reading this book in the Fall of 2017, I was asked by an old friend what I was reading. I answered, “Do you know who Jimmy Spithill is?” He replied that he did. My friend was somewhat into sailing and had watched the America’s Cup races in recent years, absorbed in them ever since the big foiling cats raced in 2013 in San Francisco. If it was 1995—the year that New Zealand won the America’s Cup in San Diego—and I had asked anyone who the skipper of any one of the America’s Cup boats was, I doubt that anyone, including myself, could answer that question.
Jimmy Spithill not only made history as the youngest captain to win the Cup, but also as the captain of the winning boat when the foiling cats made big-time history that year in San Francisco. And then there’s the comeback he skippered during that remarkable series in the finals. Jimmy Spithill was in the right boat at the right time. This book tells the story.
Chasing the Cup starts off with Spithill telling his story from childhood when he first started sailing in Australia. Reading about his youth, you understand why he became a good racing sailor. He dreamed of winning the cup since those young years. Brought up in a middle class family who moved out of the city to a piece of waterfront property in a back bay not far from Sydney, Jimmy—nine years old—and his sister started sailing on a small boat that was taken from a trash pile. From then on in, his future was sailing.
But what grabbed my interest right in the beginning (page one, in fact, so I am not spoiling anything) was that Spithill was born with one leg two inches shorter than the other, and one foot three sizes smaller than the other. Surgery at a young age helped solve the shorter leg concern, but he lived his life with the different foot sizes (which made for some interesting shoe purchase problems). This helped shape his attitude, drive and spirit. And he comes across in the book as very likeable and competent. He comments about these “handicaps” he was born with in hopes that he might be an inspiration to other young people who might also have a “handicap” to deal with.
At a very young age, he commented on and dreamed about winning the cup—and it seemed like he was driven towards that goal all his life. In Chasing the Cup, Spithill tells his story, which is both interesting and well written. But when the book really takes off is when he joins a team in Australia that was working towards a youth America’s Cup team in the late 90s when he was 19. From there, he moved up in the professional sailing world and was recognized as a very competent skipper.
One of the more memorable passages in the book was in the chapter titled “Dogzilla.” I had never heard of Dogzilla before this book, even though I had somewhat followed the Cup since 1995 when I had a boat in a charter company in San Diego, when all the teams were practicing in the run-up to the America’s Cup that year. But after that, I didn’t give the Cup much attention for the next 17-18 years, beyond announcing the Cup races in SOUTHWINDS. It was during that time that Dogzilla came on the scene, unbeknownst to me.
It was Dogzilla that I believed changed everything in the Cup. Dogzilla was the name given to the 90-foot trimaran with the wing sail that the American team—which Spithill skippered—created for the 2010 cup in Valencia, Spain. Spithill had skippered another boat in the previous Cup series and made it to the challenger finals, but not to the final Cup race.
Spithill’s description of Dogzilla,* the unofficial name given to the boat officially named Oracle USA 17, was encapsulated in one whole chapter. I didn’t follow this race at the time, but learned some interesting facts in this chapter: The 90-foot tri was the only tri in the race. The other boats vying for the cup were all catamarans. But Dogzilla was in its own class. At 90 feet, it had a mast that was 226 feet above the waterline—too tall to sail under the Golden Gate Bridge. They test-sailed the boat with a conventional sail, but the final rig was a wing sail—and a very, very big one. No one had ever tested a sailboat out with a wing sail that big.
When the wing sail was put on the boat in Valencia, they realized they had a monster. They took the rig off in the beginning and stored it in a big tent. A storm came through and this enormous wing started rising from its sleep. Spithill and crew rushed to the scene and barely succeeded in taming it. But as time went on, it was too much work removing and re-rigging the boat every day, so they left it on, anchored just offshore. Another storm came through and Dogzilla again woke up, restless and jumpy. Spithill describes it best: “I could see Dogzilla bucking like a wild bronco desperate to dislodge its rider.” They tamed it, but they knew they had a boat that was dangerous. With a wing sail, you can’t lower or shorten sail. It just has to be there and you hope for the best. At 226 feet above the water, the winds aloft are much greater, too—like a shot of adrenalin when the winds pick up.
Spithill skippered Dogzilla to win the America’s Cup—his dream and quest come true. But he and the team were all relieved when it was over, as they knew they had a wild animal, and they were lucky to escape without anyone getting hurt. There’s a photo in the book of Spithill at the helm while Dogzilla is sailing on the starboard outer hull. He is at the helm, alone, up in the air—maybe 40-plus feet above the water—near the windward hull. He looks like an ant compared to the size of the boat. A photo I will always remember. The stories in the chapters on that year chasing the cup are numerous and interesting, Spithill calling it “one of the most stressful experiences” of his life.
With the 2010 win, Spithill became the youngest skipper to ever win the Cup.
The rest of the book continues on with more stories and allows the reader to delve into the life of a professional racing sailor and life in the world of the America’s Cup. After Dogzilla came the road to the foiling catamarans and the 2013 Cup, his spills and thrills on that quest and how that win happened, and how the loss in Bermuda in 2017 came about and why. His stories of practicing with the foiling cat again show how dangerous these big boats can be.
The book is well written, and I enjoyed it immensely. There are some great photos in the book too. A short read at 197 pages, but it’s concise. My respect for Spithill went up considerably.
*Dogzilla. The boat was given this name by the crew and team that supported it. The “dog” in the name is based on the America’s Cup Deed of Gift, which is the original document of the America’s Cup, which states: “Three races shall be sailed, and the winner of two of such races shall be entitled to the Cup…if of one mast [the yacht] shall be not less than forty-four feet nor more than ninety feet to the load water-line.” So, the challenge was: Who could build the fastest 90-footer?