Jimmy Spithill won his first sailing race at the age of 10. In the three decades that have passed since that moment, he has collected various other victories and is one of the world’s most decorated sailors. Now the Australian is looking to add to his impressive resume as the skipper of the United States SailGP team.
Now in its third season, the racing league features 10 teams from around the world and is considered the F1 on water. Teams race on 50-foot hydrofoil sailing catamarans that are designed for intense racing and can reach up to 60.
Jimmy Spithill joined the American team during the second season and helped lead the team to within reach of the top prize after they finished the previous season. It was a great step for the new crew, but the veteran knows a lot more work will be needed if they are to continue to challenge the Australian team, which Spithill regards as the benchmark in the league and last season’s winners.
Muscles and fitness spoke to Jimmy Spithill about how sailing has changed and what it takes to succeed on F50 catamarans.
Jimmy Spithill is not your grandfather’s sailing league
I think when people initially think of sailing, they probably think of jumping on a crashing yacht, grabbing a gin and tonic and sitting back in a chair. Now it’s a completely different matter with the physical demands, making decisions, how quickly they have to be made and the consequences when you get it wrong how serious it can be.
The things we’re going through now are exactly what motorsport is going through in terms of safety and crashes, the gear the guys wear and the training you have to go through. The key part today is that you can leave no stone unturned. Look for any competitive advantage you can get. When you look at all the individuals on the teams, they’re all great athletes and they all have a range of skills. At the end of the day, when you look at this style of racing, you just want to be as consistent as possible. You can’t compete at this high level with the data that is available and everyone is in the same boat and without mistakes. You really have to try and average. You have to be consistent, and if you can get into the race for the podium, then you’re going to do your best somehow. It’s definitely a loaded environment.
When I started, there was no downtime — certainly in the technological sense. The tools you had for analysis and analysis were kind of rudimentary. Now, when you look at boats, they can go four times the speed of the wind and they literally fly over the water. While it’s a good problem to have, you also have so much data that it’s too much. Part of the art is really focusing on the right areas to extract key information. The other big change in my career is the fact that now you can have the best guys in the world on the same rig, but you can see everyone’s data and they can see ours. We are all live mics during the race, cameras are attached to the boat and there is no hiding. It’s a fascinating thing because what it produces is a very good race. It’s an amazing thing to be a part of. In addition to all that, you push yourself so hard that the learning and level you reach is definitely the highest I’ve seen.
Jimmy Spithill gets uncomfortable during practice
Everyone trains a little differently depending on their role on the boat. For me personally, what I like to do in terms of training are things that push me a little bit to the point of exhaustion or under pressure and then I have to make a decision. I have always enjoyed a variety of things that make me uncomfortable and put me in a stressful situation.
For this reason, I still do a lot of boxing training for hand-eye coordination. I don’t do any sparring anymore, but a lot of pads and getting to that point of exhaustion is what I focus on just to stay sharp because eventually, on the race track, there’s going to be a bunch of times where you’re going to be stressed and you have to make split second decisions and you have to do it collectively. The more you can put yourself in a situation where you have to make decisions when you’re stressed and exhausted during training, that’s a good way to prepare yourself when the moments come.
I’ve definitely tried different things. You have to be versatile and try new things. In order to grow, you must be open-minded. At the same time, one of the great things about technology is that there is always something new or different. For example, we are quite lucky in the American team where we have Red Bull as one of our sponsors. They have a huge high performance department that is part of their company. When you look at the stable of athletes they have in all different sports, the ability to connect with other athletes on the roster, the ability to spend time with high-performance teams, the mental side of understanding how the brain works, especially when you make mistakes — it’s remarkable. The key thing is really the culture within the team. You really have to have a culture where everyone is really willing to drop their guard and put their egos aside and ask the questions, what can I do better and what will help the team? That’s something we’ve been working pretty hard on with the American team.
Jimmy Spithill is training smarter after 40
I’m in my early 40s now, and when you’re younger, you can go full throttle all the time and not worry too much about what you put in your body. Back in 2013, I started getting a lot of injuries and I was involved in various sports. I’ve been doing CrossFit competitions, boxing, board racing and long distance stuff. A surgeon friend advised me to do some tests. I went and had a bunch of tests done to try and understand what my body was reacting to. I found out a lot of things that my body is not tolerant to. It was never enough to stop me, but they were things that just didn’t sit well with me. One thing was sugar, and the others were dairy, gluten and whey proteins. At the time, it was instilled in me that after a hard workout, the best thing to do for recovery was a whey protein shake. For me, it was probably the worst thing you could do because a lot of these things led to inflammation in my body that interfered with my recovery and sleep. If you put s***ty gas in the car, it won’t run as well. When I cut them out the gains were amazing and what I was able to do with that dietary change.
Good night is hard to come by
It’s definitely a struggle and I travel a lot. I race and work in different parts of the world. I will be in Australia, then back in California, then in Europe and we have a global circuit. All the teams experience arriving at a place that could be after a long flight and they are only there for four days, and they have to perform and get out. Without a doubt, the sleep cycle is a battle, but as you learn and understand some of these hacks that work well, it all adds up. It reminds me of when you’re training for a sport and trying to add up all the little things. That can make quite a difference on the race track, and the same with your sleep and recovery program. All those little things, diet, recovery, stretching and going to the sauna and ice baths, it all goes into performance. The better you’ve recovered, the better decisions you’ll make and the faster you’ll be able to process things. One of the joys for me is that what we do is really hard. Everyone has the same challenges and that’s what makes winning so rewarding. You all push each other and also grow as you go through it.
There isn’t much time to practice
With SailGP, I guess it’s a bit like Formula 1 where there’s a real limit on training. The boats basically come in, you get two days of training, you race them on the weekend and then they get packed away. So, like Formula 1, if the boats don’t race, they go to the next place. That in itself makes it a challenge for a new team, which we are. A few of us have never raced together, and you’ll be up against teams that have sailed together as a unit for years. I think we have a fantastic group. The Australians are probably the best example as they have spent the most time racing and sailing together over the years. But with the right approach, work ethic, support, staff and coaching and real data verification, you can really make good gains. That is certainly what we will focus on this season.