The Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race starts on Boxing Day. It’s one of those events we sports fans are always told we should care about, but let’s be honest, not many of us are into sailing, right? Right. So it’s tough to get into this event the way we get into the cricket or footy.
Having said that, we just found a guy who’ll make you care. His name is Jimmy Spithill. Apart from being a top bloke, the 36-year-old Aussie happens to be a crew on Comanche, which finished a narrow second in the Sydney Hobart last year, and which starts as second favourite with the bookies this year.
Jimmy Spithill is pretty much the biggest thing in the world of sailing, full stop. The 2014 Rolex World Sailor of the Year skippered the last two America’s Cup-winning boats. The 2013 victory in particular is the stuff of legend.
Spithill was the skipper of Oracle Team USA. His team was down 8-1 in the series where the first boat to secure nine races wins the whole shebang. Somehow, Spithill engineered one of sport’s greatest comebacks, triumphing 9-8. To make things even sweeter from an Aussie perspective, he vanquished New Zealand.
Naturally, humiliating our near neighbour was one of the first things we discussed as we sat down for a pre Sydney Hobart chat.
HuffPost Australia: So Jimmy. Are you able to show your face in New Zealand after dashing the dreams of probably the most passionate sailing nation in the world?
Jimmy: I can but I have to have a small security team with me. I’ll never forget the first time I went there after the last Cup. I got within about 20 metres of the customs guy and I’m just walking up with my forms and my passport and he just looks at me and he goes ‘turn around, you’re not coming in’.
HuffPost Australia: Really?
Jimmy: He was dead serious. I copped the full secondary search and they just hammered me.
HuffPost Australia: Does a secondary search involve orifices?
Jimmy: No, to be honest when they got me in the room they just wanted to know how we did it. They just wanted to have a talk. It was all good fun. We have this great rivalry between Australia and New Zealand so whenever I go back there I usually get held up a bit.
HuffPost Australia: Great story. But of course you can joke about that America's Cup now because you won. Does losing scare you, though? Let's put it this way. What's scarier: losing races or sailing in really rough seas?
Jimmy: For me it's losing. I hate losing. But in this race -- and I think that’s whey there’s a real attraction for everyone -- you’re at the mercy of mother nature. I mean we just saw mother nature's force in Sydney last week yesterday and I can tell you when you’re out there in the boat it’s not like you can go and hide in the building. You’ve got to deal with it.
HuffPost Australia: What's it like in really rough seas in a race like the Sydney Hobart? Your boat Comanche has an unusual design with a big flat deck. Does that make things a bit more comfortable onboard?
Jimmy: No, it’s very uncomfortable. To make a boat powerful you really have to make it quite wide, and so this is probably the widest boat out there at the moment. But what it does if you get into very short big waves is it slams. It’s incredibly uncomfortable below. It’s very loud because it’s a big carbon fibre drum. It sounds like a war zone’s going on upstairs. It's quite frightening and very violent actually.
HuffPost Australia: Does it get messy downstairs?
Jimmy: It can do. I’ve only seen a couple of people in really bad conditions not get seasick. I don’t know what it is but they’re able to deal with it. I’ve been sick in the past but it was a long time ago.
HuffPost Australia: But apart from the vomit...
Jimmy: Yeah. But the key thing is keeping everything in order because at night time, if you get into trouble or a bad storm, you can’t have a disorganised boat. There's not much gear. You travel very light because it’s all performance and you don’t want to carry a whole lot of weight, but you definitely want to keep it clean. There are sails everywhere and there’s no real cabin. It’s a racing machine. It is just a big carbon shell with frames and some pipe cots.
HuffPost Australia: Does the bathroom have a door?
Jimmy: There’s a carbon fibre toilet and there’s no door.
HuffPost Australia: Not even a curtain?
Jimmy: I don’t think there’s a curtain. But it’s so black down there anyway you can’t see anything.
HuffPost Australia: There's no lighting?
Jimmy: Not much. And there’s no mirror, no vanity mirror or hair dryer unfortunately.
HuffPost Australia: We’re not aboard a cruise ship here are we.
Jimmy: No, we're not.
Comanche was first out of the heads last year but second up the Derwent
HuffPost Australia: Change of tack. (See what we did there, Jimmy?) Do you think celebrities competing in the Sydney to Hobart belittle the event or add much needed publicity to help attract a wider audience?
Jimmy: I think they bring a following and a new audience. I think they also bring credibility. If Michael Clarke comes back ashore and says 'well that’s pretty tough, that’s a real test', I think you’ve got to believe him. For him this is out of his comfort zone but if you want to learn something about yourself or as an athlete or just an everyday person, you’ve got to get out of your comfort zone. Plus, and this is more important, they’re raising money for a great foundation so I think you can only applaud these guys because hey, to be honest, at this time of the year you usually want to be just sitting on the couch, having a couple of drinks and maybe watching the cricket. But the fact they’re out there having a go for a good cause is in my opinion awesome.
HuffPost Australia: What’s the strangest marine creature that you’ve ever struck Jimmy? We always hear about boats striking sunfish at this time of year. What even is a sunfish?
Jimmy: A sunfish is almost like an oversized flounder but they swim vertically and they have big fins out the side. The reason they get hit is because they're quite lethargic so they don’t get out of the way. But yeah, I've seen sharks, flying fish, whales. It’s funny, you know. It's amazing to see a big creature like a whale live. It's awesome.
HuffPost Australia: Your boats are pretty amazing these days, aren't they?
Jimmy: We’re the Formula One of the water. The boats are doing 80 kmh and are literally flying these days. The sailors are all athletes nowadays too.
HuffPost Australia: But like all athletes, we're guessing they don't mind a beer or two at the end of a race like this one.
Jimmy: This is my fourth Hobart and the after party is kind of like the racing down there. It’s relentless and it can be brutal. The thing is, by the time you get there you are exhausted. You haven’t really eaten that much depending on the conditions so probably the worst thing is to go out and have a few beers.
HuffPost Australia: But you do anyway, right?
Jimmy: Well it’s that real camaraderie thing. You’ve gone through some real challenges, you’ve gotten through it, you’ve made it, hopefully. Usually there’s another boat there that you’ve had a close battle with and it’s like having two guys come into the change room from different teams.
HuffPost Australia: Well we hope yours is the winning change room this year. Have a safe race Jimmy.
Jimmy: Thanks mate.