'There is no favourite': Team USA chief ahead of Singapore's first SailGP

Sailing champ Jimmy Spithill talks about the even playing field of this high-tech sport

Jimmy Spithill stands in front of a United States SailGP sailboat
Jimmy Spithill in front of United States SailGP sailboat at Changi Exhibition Centre (Photo: Yahoo News Singapore)

SINGAPORE - The inaugural Singapore Sail Grand Prix (SailGP) kicks off this weekend (14 to 15 January), with nine hydrofoiling F50 catamarans capable of speeds to nearly 100kmh hitting the waters along Parkland Green at East Coast Park.

The sailing series, which consists of two days of competitive racing in each leg, started its first season in 2019.

To win a race, teams have to sail the one-design boats operated and maintained by SailGP. This means no one team has an advantage when it comes to the technology, which makes for a level-playing field for participants and elevating the importance of skill and teamwork.

“This series is all about consistency and trying to minimise mistakes. If you make a mistake, things can change very quickly. No one has a technical advantage,” Team USA chief executive officer and helmsman Jimmy Spithill told Yahoo Southeast Asia on Wednesday (11 January).

"If you get a new foil, or a new router, the difference is everyone gets it at the same time," he said, adding that decision making is an important aspect of the competition.

The debrief process, which consists of going through data points, onboard footage and listening back to race conversations, helps with race strategy. Every team has access to this data, further levelling the playing field.

"You can look at your competitors' data, they can look at yours, so even though everyone's doing different things, everyone learns faster," Spithill shared.

Challenges aplenty for sailing race

Jimmy Spithill demonstrating controls in a Team USA SailGP sail boat
Spithill moved to the United States at the age of 20 and has been representing the United States since. (Photo: Yahoo News Singapore)

The American made history by becoming the youngest skipper to win the America's Cup in 2010 at the age of 30. The 43-year-old won his first race at the tender age of 10 and led Oracle Team USA to the America's Cup final in 2017.

Despite his pedigree, the SailGP series comes with its own set of challenges for him.

“One of the hardest things about these events is the small race windows. You come in for a two-day race weekend and then you leave. You really have to try to get on each timezone as quickly as you can because recovery is an important part," Spithill shared.

According to him, the ability to work well under pressure and think a few steps ahead are some of the crucial skill sets sailors should have.

From surfers to alpine skiers, SailGP gathers high-level athletes of different sporting categories. The high-injury risk sport demands participants to be in great physical shape, which consists of training and diet.

“You are going to see some of the best athletes on the fastest boats in the world on a very tight race course. No one knows what the race track is going to be like, and it really means there is no favourite,” Spithill said.

Of Australian descent, Spithill moved to the United States at the age of 20 and has been representing the United States since.

“A lot of my family is American. I live in the US. For me to get the opportunity to represent a team and country like the United States is something that not many athletes in my position will get to do.”

Getting more people to know about SailGP

Brand partnerships and sustainability also form part of Spithill’s responsibilities.

During the races, his focus is on the sporting side: going out and getting a result. In between races, however, he is focused on commercial engagements and team management.

He credits team sponsor Red Bull for opening SailGP up to the world, especially with support from other high-performance athletes in different sports.

Jimmy Spithill stands next to Team USA's SailGP F50
Despite Spithill's pedigree, the SailGP series comes with its own set of challenges for him. (Photo: Yahoo News Singapore)

"We take a whole lot of different Red Bull athletes out on the boat...when they come out, they come out on the boat, go for a ride, and they come in and they just go, 'Well, that's one of the craziest things I've done'," Spithill said, adding that these athletes and their following would also help give the sport "good credibility".

"They're like, 'Well, if Max Verstappen saying this is pretty crazy and pretty full on, then man, I want to check it out'.

“It literally is flying. When you see it live, it is something quite special."

The Sail Grand Prix will continue its remaining three events across Australia, New Zealand and the United States up till May this year.

Tickets for the Singapore leg of the Sail Grand Prix are open for sale. More information can be found on their website.

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