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Jimmy Spithill Reflects On The Greatest America's Cup Comeback Of All Time

It all came down to glue and sticky tape.

24/06/2017 10:32 AM AEST | Updated 24/06/2017 10:32 AM AEST
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Spaceships on water.

The America's Cup is on right now. Remember that quadrennial sailing competition Australians used to care about in an extremely passionate way until we stopped being any good at it?

Well it's happening in Bermuda, and we're already well into the finals series between the American defenders Oracle and challengers Team New Zealand.

The boats are the insane hydrofoiling AC50 America's Cup Class yachts that basically function like "aircraft wings balancing on surfboards".

And the teams? They're the same two that fought our the 2013 Cup, and there's a very, very familiar vibe. Right now, New Zealand leads 3-0 (they've won four races but started at minus 1 in the finals due to qualifying regatta carry-over points).

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These boats literally fly. And we mean literally literally. It's only the foils that touch the water.

You might recall that's pretty much how things went four years ago in San Francisco, when New Zealand established a huge lead -- only to blow it.

In that infamous series, the Kiwis led 8-1. The first team to win nine races would take home the oldest trophy in sport. You recall what happened next, right?

Right. New Zealand lost. Or perhaps should we say, Oracle won. Steered home by their incredible, cool, tactically brilliant Aussie skipper Jimmy Spithill, the American boat somehow recovered, grabbed the last eight races and won 9-8 overall. Wow

"It's one of those stories that if you'd written, you'd take it straight to Hollywood," Spithill told HuffPost Australia when we caught up a little earlier this year ahead of the 2017 Cup.

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He's a lovely, engaging guy to talk to. And a beast on the water.

No kidding.

The funny thing is, even the prelude to the 2013 series started badly for Spithill's Oracle crew. The boat capsized in training in San Francisco Bay and was dragged out to sea under the Golden Gate Bridge in incredibly strong currents.

"It was like the O.J. Simpson chase," the Red Bull-sponsored athlete joked, in reference to the choppers and other onlookers who captured every moment of his highly embarrassing movements that day.

Sinking the boat at the centre of a $100 million campaign and drifting out to sea was embarrassing enough. But being 8-1 down in the finals series was probably worse. So talk us through the night after the ninth race, Jimmy. One more loss and the Cup was kaput. Crisis meeting?

"There was something of a crisis meeting, yes," he said. "We all got together with the engineer and design team and a few of the key guys and said 'all right, who's got some ideas?'

"The hardest part was knowing what to change without doing too much. The America's Cup is about using the science to generate speed, but at that point it was kind of about instinct."

Long story short, Spithill and his team clearly got the blend right between technical changes and gut feel. They won the next seven races. Eight all. One to go.

Stephen Lam / Reuters
Eight down, one to go.

"Race 17 was the hardest race of all. The New Zealand media had virtually conceded. They were like 'you've done it, you've pulled off the greatest comeback'.

"All anyone wanted to talk about was the comeback, but what's a comeback if you knock-on and don't win? The weight kind of came off the Kiwis' shoulders at that point too, so that was the toughest one by far."

Things would get a lot tougher before the starting line. Oracle broke a wing (what they used to call a mainsail) out in the Bay while warming up. Cue the sort of frantic action which would put a Formula One pit crew to shame.

"We had guys grinding carbon fibre plate, sending up epoxy resin and injecting it, and the whole time this is happening, Team New Zealand were doing laps training."

"An America's Cup campaign is such a team effort. At any time someone might have to step up. In this case it was one of our riggers, just going up the wing and staying up there and getting a repair done for the loads that thing sees.

There were so many stories like that of someone stepping up in their respective role. It happened the whole way through the series. It builds a responsibility. You don't want to let people down."

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Jimmy did it.

Oracle won that final race pretty easily in the end. New Zealand led early but they were soon overtaken and that was that. We asked Jimmy if the boat was pretty much held together by glue and sticky tape at that point.

"Yeah you could pretty much say that," he replied.

We thought you might appreciate this story so you can get interested in this year's America's Cup before it's all over. The event has certainly captivated the whole of New Zealand.

And we thought maybe Jimmy Spithill might be interested if he's got a spare minute to read it sometime this weekend. The Kiwis have all sorts of edges this time around, and he's going to need all the help he can get.


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