MELBOURNE Temperamental boats, more muscular crews and an evenly-matched fleet mean Oracle Team USA are in for the fight of their lives when they defend the America's Cup in Bermuda next month, skipper Jimmy Spithill has told Reuters.
The Australian is preparing to lead the defenders to a third successive win in the oldest regatta, having been at the helm of the 2010 win over Alinghi and for the epic comeback triumph over Team New Zealand four years ago in San Francisco Bay.
The shift to super-fast foiling catamarans has transformed the 166-year-old regatta into an extreme sport, and the thrills begin in the Louis Vuitton Cup from May 26 when five challengers compete for the right to meet Oracle Team USA head-to-head for the 'Auld Mug'.
The well-resourced defenders, founded by software tycoon Larry Ellison, will be hard to dislodge at Great Sound, but Spithill has seen enough in the last week of practice to be convinced that the 35th America's Cup will be the most open.
"This will be the toughest one to date," the 37-year-old told Reuters in a telephone interview from Bermuda.
"We know now we’ve got six teams who are all competitive.
"Everyone’s got the talent, the resources and technology. This one will be a real fight.
"The team that comes through that challenger series will be battle-hardened.
"We'll have the fight of our life, that’s for sure."
A veteran of five America's Cups and the youngest skipper to win one, there is little Spithill has not seen on the water.
But the furious sailing in practice racing so far has been an eye-opener, as crews battle to control the flighty yachts while grappling with reliability problems.
Team New Zealand have already suffered a broken rudder, and on day two of practice on Tuesday were left cursing Land Rover BAR, Ben Ainslie's British challenger, for a collision that left both boats with repair jobs.
RISK AND REWARD
Balancing risk and reward while pushing for incremental improvements in pace would be key, said Spithill, noting that the teams were still grasping to find that fine line.
"You’ve got the fastest boats in the world here, and man, it’s just F1 (Formula One) cars. You just push that little bit too hard and the thing’s going to spin out," said Spithill, a member of Red Bull's stable of athletes.
"Last time was extremely physical but it’s actually gone up another level.
"The crews essentially are younger and very, very physical.
"We’re pushing the boats harder.
"As a team, we’ve flipped the boat over twice. I’ve had some guys go over(board) and we’ve been lucky to get away without anyone getting injured.
"It’s just a very, very demanding boat but it’s obviously very rewarding when you get it right."
Spithill grew up on the waterfront in Sydney's calm Pittwater estuary but matured in terrifying seas during the 1998 Sydney to Hobart race when six people were killed.
He was a teenaged crew member of the Syd Fischer-skippered Ragamuffin which finished third when more than half the fleet was forced to retire.
He said that experience helped him keep motivated when all seemed lost against Team New Zealand four years ago, when the challengers held match point with an 8-1 lead.
The defenders rallied to win 9-8 in a comeback described as one of the greatest in sporting history.
While seemingly unflappable and an expert in risk management, Spithill suffered a major scare last year following surgery to a nagging elbow injury.
He rushed back to the water without letting his arm fully heal and developed a serious infection that required 10 weeks on an intravenous drip and constant antibiotics.
"If it wasn’t for Dr. Rob Bray, the surgeon known as "Mr. Fixit" for Red Bull, who knows, I might not even have an arm," said Spithill.
"It was a tough lesson to learn but it could have been a really tough lesson to learn."
A competitive animal away from sailing, Spithill tested his elbow out in his other obsession, stand up paddle boarding, in a 40-mile challenge last week in Bermuda.
The race was reduced because of high winds, but Spithill rated it among his toughest experiences.
"Especially in long-distance paddling, everyone’s body starts to hurt and you start to go down and it just becomes mental.
"The America’s Cup is a lot like that in that it’s a long haul."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)