Mike Wise gives us an insight into the Youngest man ever to helm an America's Cup Yacht. He gives his thoughts on the progression to the big time, the age of Peter Gilmour, and the local laws of New Zealand.
The prodigy wanted to talk about the mentor, how one Australian sailor had helped nurture and guide another, so they both might one day cradle the world's oldest sporting trophy.
James Spithill made sure his reverence shone through: "It's sad, but it's all over for Peter Gilmour,"
Spithill said of his 42-year-old skipper. "It's just life. He's got old legs and old arms. He just can't keep up. If you're over 25, you got to get off the boat, mate."
The kid is all fire-red hair, freckles and facetiousness. If Opie Taylor had grown up to drive a $3 million yacht, James Spithill is probably what he would have looked like. At 19, he was the youngest competitor to captain an America's Cup entry. At 23, he is steering a sleek ocean racer, belonging to the billionaires Craig McCaw and Paul Allen.
The boy king from Broken Bay, they call him. Or "Jimmy Fatboy Spithill,"
which his 14-year-old brother, Tommy, uses as a term of endearment. His is the most prominent face of sailing's new generation, one who put off college as a teenager because he believed more strongly in a seafarer's education.
Composed, ambitious, cocksure, he burst into world-class yachting the way Kobe Bryant and Tiger Woods entered their respective sports: without a clue they were supposed to act their age.
"That's what I like about those guys,"
Spithill said of Bryant and Woods, "they don't want to wait. They just have that attitude, `Let's get on with it,' ya know?"
How the son of a $25,000-a-year high school teacher and a part-time medical secretary from a minuscule island in the Australian bush ended up putting Dennis Conner's boat out of the running for the America's Cup - and now threatens to do the same to the Italian challenger Prada - is one of the more astonishing tales along the Hauraki Gulf.
It begins on Scotland Island, just north of Sydney, where groceries and an elementary education were only accessible by boat. Spithill began sailing at 7 years old in a two-person sloop with three miniature sails.
"It was a little tiny boat, like a bathtub,"
Arthur Spithill, James's father, said. "His sister was his crew. The neighbour was throwing the boat away and he had kept it underneath his house. It was old and decrepit. We painted it, but people still scoffed at it. After he and his sister won the first race they entered, they did not scoff anymore."
James grew into bigger boats. First, a dinghy. Then a small keel boat maybe 30 feet long. Finally, a racing yacht. "He doesn't think he's young; he sees the America's Cup as the next logical step,"
Arthur said. "The boats just got bigger."
To be 23 and a skipper in yacht racing's oldest and most storied competition is unheard of. Most America's Cup helmsman are in their late 30's, early 40's or older. They did not drive their BMX bicycle to their first competition or make $180 in New Zealand currency per week.
In 1999, Spithill was chosen as a member of Young Australia. The campaign was somewhat of a publicity stunt by Syd Fischer, an Australian tycoon who wanted to use the competition as a training ground for young sailors. Eleven of the crew members were under 21 years old.
So Spithill and several of his friends now racing for OneWorld - Joey Newton, Ben Durham, Andy Feathers and Ed Smythe - pulled into the Viaduct Basin here three years ago. The people in designer khakis, blue Louis Vuitton blazers and Sperry topsiders nearly covered their eyes on Syndicate Row.
Young Australia came in on a floating barge. It sat on a rusty floating crane and its holey sails could have used some duct tape. Their entry was a dilapidated old America's Cup yacht that Fischer had purchased for a pittance.
"Eventually it had to be towed back out because it was too ugly for the Viaduct,"
Durham said. "Our sails would be sprawled out in front of apartment lawns. We had a plea, `We're broke.' "
Without a shot of winning, the young Australians were embraced as underdogs. The hospitality tent aboard the barge consisted of an upturned crate with some plastic cups. Elderly New Zealand women began bringing cakes and setting them on the barge. The crate became a centre for donations of rice and beans. "We hardly had anything, but it was a great time, a great experience,"
Spithill said. "We worked hard, sailed hard and partied hard."
Newton added: "After two weeks, we got a note on the door from Syd. It said, `Do you know the laws of New Zealand? The drinking age is 20, the legal age of consent is 16, and all members should be in his own bed, alone, by 9:30."
"So it would be about 20 past nine when all the doors would open and there'd be a mass exodus."
They won few races and their boat nearly sunk once when it was towed out to the race area. During one race, Durham put out a bathroom fire when a battery turned over and started shooting sparks. Spithill often won the start because, as his father said, "No one would want to go to close to them."
James Spithill said, "But we never crashed the boat or had any major injuries."
Sitting around a table at the OneWorld compound, the Young Australians talk about 1999 like exchange students living on a Europass and cheap wine. Today, they have other life experiences in common: a personal chef at the dock, six-figure salaries and, for some, a three-bedroom town house above picturesque Herne Bay in Auckland.
Gilmour had a big hand in their good fortune. He is the man who lost the Cup back to Conner in 1987 and has competed in the last four competitions. He convinced skeptics at OneWorld that Spithill was not too young to drive their entry.
"They didn't want a kid,"
Gilmour said. "It was a huge risk. They worried about his testosterone, about his discipline. Think how many college kids don't have the discipline. But I had seen his composure and poise in situations where others would have cracked or made a mistake."
The thinking is that by handing the wheel to Spithill, Gilmour is gradually building an Australian challenger team for the next Cup. Between a diminishing cash flow and a recent arbitration panel hearing that went against OneWorld, it would not surprise many observers if McCaw left the America's Cup game. All the Australians need is their own Larry Ellison or Paul Allen.
Arthur Spithill, smiling, said, "If they can find a billionaire, we're ready to go."
So the boats are not the only things getting bigger for young James Spithill, who long before 23 knew that he wanted to sail for a living. Gilmour recalled a conversation he had with Spithill in 1999, after the America's Cup. "He came over to me and asked, `Where do I go? What should I do?' I told him to go to school, get an education and come back.'
The skipper laughed at his advice.
"James didn't pay any attention,"
he said. "He decided to go get an education in life. I'd say he's about halfway to his master's in sailing."