When James Spithill was a boy growing up on Scotland Island in the Pittwater Estuary north of Sydney, he and his friends would sometimes miss the ferry. That meant the only way to make it to school was to swim to the mainland.
“It was a massive swim, had to be a couple of kilometers, at least a mile or two,” Spithill said. “We sort of rated our chances with the sharks, and we figured as long as we were with a couple of mates, we’ve got good odds.”
Although sharks are not uncommon in Pittwater, the odds worked out, and Spithill, an intense red-haired Australian, has spent his life measuring risks and rewards on the ocean ever since.
Now 34 and Oracle Team USA’s skipper and helmsman as it prepares to defend the America’s Cup, Spithill is an appealing character: long on talent and positive energy, bristling with a fierce ambition, and a reputation for leading by example.
But ultimately, Spithill, a prodigy much better known as Jimmy than James, has made his name by taking very expensive yachts owned by other men and steering them with a cold-blooded precision in the heat of the moment.
“He’s very personable around the dock,” said Gary Jobson, a sailing analyst and former Cup tactician. “But on the boat, he’s absolutely fearless.”
That could come in handy starting Saturday, the first day of an America’s Cup final where there is plenty to fear, both from a new class of 72-foot catamarans that can hit speeds greater than 40 knots and also from the threat posed by the opposition.
Spithill’s Oracle Team USA and its billionaire owner, Larry Ellison, are still in possession of the Cup, the oldest major trophy in global sports. But Emirates Team New Zealand — a two-time champion — badly wants it back.
“We’ve been watching them very closely, and they’ve been watching us very closely,” Spithill said. “Looking at the performance data, I think we’ve got a real race on our hands.”
The team leaders have been trading barbs for months, with Team New Zealand’s managing director, Grant Dalton, particularly outspoken about Oracle’s stewardship of the Cup. The event attracted only three challengers to San Francisco, in part because of cost and safety concerns.
Dalton, 56, also accused Oracle Team USA of cheating after details emerged of undeclared modifications to its yachts in a preliminary series of competitions. On Tuesday, an international jury penalized Oracle by docking it two points and suspending some team members for the rest of the Cup.
When Oracle won the Cup from the Swiss team Alinghi in 2010 in Valencia, Spain, Spithill became, at age 30, the youngest helmsman to win the trophy, which dates to 1851.
When Russell Coutts, the most successful Cup sailor in the modern era, took command of Ellison’s team, his first hire was Spithill.