He’s the youngest America’s Cup winning skipper in sailing history and over the weekend Jimmy Spithill added Sydney to Hobart line honours to his bulging resume, overcoming sea sickness and race-ending boat damage to help Comanche to a sensational victory in the most brutal of conditions.
Despite starting in glamorous weather inside Sydney Harbour, the toughest open ocean sailing race in the world soon lived up to the hype, a brutal southerly bashing the fleet to see an entire third of the field retire.
Comanche and helmsman Spithill were part of that statistic for a brief time and on their way back to Sydney before a miracle effort by the crew saw the world’s quickest single hull boat not just re-join the race but reclaim the lead and eventual victory.
“We got out to a nice lead but we all knew we were heading into a brick wall – that southerly buster,” Red Bull skipper Spithill says.
“We just saw it in the sky getting darker and darker. You see those conditions coming and just mentally prepare yourself for a bit of a hiding really. You’re probably going to take a few.
“We hit it late at night – about 40 knots of wind. Heaps of rain. And at about 3 or 4am we broke a dagger board – in maybe three or four metre waves. It went under the hull and started banging about and then took the rudder out and broke the steering system. It was all but over."
That damage and the emotional tax
When it went, everyone was hugely disappointed. We’d built a huge lead and it was really disappointing. We just started limping back to Sydney. But then the boys, led by Casey Smith, somehow managed to fix it with a bit of bush mechanics. And when Kenny Read, who is the skipper of the boat, said “we’re back”, we just went from the depths of despair to full adrenalin. It pushed us though those waves. And it makes it that much more rewarding. It was a bloody tough Hobart race.
My first one was in 1998 aboard Ragamuffin – that was a pretty brutal race. And this one was right up there in terms of the relentless, punishing conditions, wind against current and decent sea waves. It was a real test of endurance for the team. We had three to four metres swells and when the wind goes against the current, the waves just stand up. And for a couple hours we had it bad. They were steep and short and with a 100 foot boat it’s very difficult to go around. It was a matter of getting the thing through without smashing it to bits.
We had a few guys get sick and I was feeling a bit ordinary but actually didn’t get crook. Being dropped six feet and landing hard for minute after minute, hour after hour doesn’t get easier ever.
I tell you what, the team on this boat was just sensational. They’re no doubt one of the best out there in terms of open ocean racing. They’re the best at what they do around the world. And Casey Smith, An Aussie actually, I can’t speak highly enough After that rudder broke, we were heading back to Sydney. It was race over. There was no way we’d be able to repair. But he thought he could and got stuck into it. And sure enough, he did. And it's not like working down inside a boat at the dock either. The wind’s against the current, with massive sea waves, middle of the night and the boat just getting smashed around. It was an incredible effort of seamanship from him and the team and I can’t speak highly enough of the entire crew or the effort. It was just so enjoyable.
I was really impressed with Kristy Hinze. She’s an ex-supermodel and she was on the front foot the whole time. She didn’t waiver. She was up on deck when the southerly hit, she was driving at the end through Bass Strait. And I tell you what, you never cease to be amazed in this sport. I’m sure she has a whole newfound respect for what the guys go through and we have nothing but respect for her. I think she’s hooked!
The difference to America’s Cup
It’s a sprint race v endurance. A 400 metre foot race compared to an ironman or marathon. They’re polar opposites. America’s Cup are 20 to 25-minute races at max heart rate – a full-on head-to-head brawl with another boat. Where as this thing is a mission – bloody hard work for days. It’s physical and so taxing just hours on end. You don’t get a lot of sleep and you’re at the mercy of open ocean and weather. But it’s great fun.
Probably the last thing you need after that race and no sleep is to go and grab a drink. But sitting at Customs House, the traditional post-race pub, all by ourselves waiting for the rest of the fleet to arrive, it was a something special. Our navigator and skipper did such a good job on the tactics we had the pub to ourselves all night . They didn’t start coming in until the next morning. But it was pretty cool hanging out with the locals and having a bit of fun with the team.