AC72's America's Cup Quest
Credit: Photograpg by Jose Mandojana
One morning five months after the Oracle crash, Jimmy Spithill gets up at about 5:30 a.m., says goodbye to his wife and two sons (five-year-old Owen and two-year-old Joe), climbs into his car, and drives the seven miles from his home in San Francisco's Marina neighborhood to Oracle's home base. The base is located in a run-down warehouse on San Francisco's Pier 80, an old steel-and-lumber port surrounded by cargo containers and railroad tracks. When the team moved in three years ago, homeless people were squatting nearby. Now the building is protected by a chain-link fence, a security keypad, and closed-circuit cameras.

Spithill is 6-foot-1 and 191 pounds, with close-cropped red hair and lips colored permanently white from sunblock. He's built like a boxer, and his eyes are like ice. Spithill rides motorcycles and grew up playing rugby, and he can rattle off a lifetime's worth of injuries: broken ribs, a broken shoulder, a broken collarbone, a broken elbow, a broken leg, and several broken wrists. Surprisingly, he's never had an injury from sailing.

Spithill attends to team business for about an hour, until the Oracle crew starts to trickle in for the 7:45 a.m. workout. The new boats are so demanding that the sailors have to be in peak physical shape; Oracle's head trainer, a New Zealander named Craig McFarlane, says they're fitter than most of the rugby squads he's trained. They burn three or four thousand calories a day just from sailing, and as many as 9,000 calories in all. During a half-hour race, their heart rates might be at 85 to 95 percent of their maximum capacity the entire time. "You look at the data afterward, and it looks like some of our guys are having heart attacks," Spithill says. "There's a lot of fantastic sailors in the world who would never cut it on this boat."

Today is Tuesday, an intense day. As the Foo Fighters' "Everlong" plays over the PA, the Oracle's two 11-man teams split up into groups. The biggest are the grinders: the strongest, burliest guys on the team, responsible for putting out enough torque to control the 3,000-pound wing sail. Their workout today involves a 30-minute set on the computerized grinding pedestal – sort of a stationary bike for the upper body that simulates the hand-cranked winches on the boat – during which they're supposed to put out 300 watts of power at 90 r.p.m. for two-minute bursts. McFarlane says the sailors are so strong they frequently rip the handles off the machines. "We've gone through so many of them," he says. "Guys just tear them up." Craziest of all: The highest setting on the pedestal isn't even half the load they're dealing with on the boat.

Elsewhere in the gym, other sailors are on exercise bikes, or doing circuit training with medicine balls and kettlebells.

Spithill, meanwhile, is doing pull-ups with a medieval-looking chain around his waist and two 45-pound plates dangling off of it. "Good, Jimmy!" McFarlane says. "That's not so hard, right?" Spithill grimace-smiles and does another.

The sailors all agree that Spithill is the fittest guy on the team. "He's a freak," Rome Kirby says. "I'd honestly put him up against the top athletes in the world." Two days earlier, Spithill did a CrossFit challenge, a stand-up-paddle race, and a team sailing regatta, all on a Sunday, his day off. At a recent hydrostatic weigh-in, his body fat was 6 percent. Most impressive of all is that, as the skipper, Spithill doesn't need to be fit in the slightest: The most demanding thing he does on the boat is spin the steering wheel. But going less than all out just isn't part of his makeup. "Rarely," he says, "have I seen a situation where doing less than the other guy is a good strategy."

Other than Spithill, though, everyone on the boat has a physical role. Take John Kostecki, better known as J.K., a 49-year-old America's Cup vet who is currently heaving a 15-pound medicine ball several feet into the air. Kostecki is a tactician, the sailor responsible for plotting the boat's course during a race. It used to be that he could sit at the back and watch everything unfold, keeping an eye on the current, the wind, and the other boats. But on the new boats, he has to grind, too. With a crew of only 11, there's no room for deadweight. "You can't carry anyone," Spithill says.

There are three teams battling it out with Oracle for the America's Cup this year: Artemis Racing; Emirates Team New Zealand; and Luna Rossa Challenge, from Italy. As the defender, Oracle gets an automatic bid to the finals in September; the other three will face off at the Louis Vuitton Cup in July and August, with the winner earning the right to take on Oracle for the trophy. During the best-of-17 finals, the crew will be sailing two races a day. Slingsby compares it to running a marathon and playing chess at the same time. To prepare, they mix into their workouts some mental acuity tests – silly puzzles and matching games designed to stretch their brains while the blood and oxygen are racing elsewhere. "We need to be able to make decisions when we're completely exhausted," Spithill explains. "You make a mistake now and there's gonna be some big consequences – as we've seen."

At 8:45, it's time for breakfast. Today's menu is typically voluminous: scrambled eggs, beans, bacon, grits, toast, granola, cereal, yogurt, fresh blueberries, orange juice, and coffee. Then it's on to the sail team meeting. The sailors crowd into a small conference room with coach Philippe Presti – a dapper, silver-haired Frenchman who looks like the lead from a Godard movie – who cues up some sail footage from a Go-Pro mounted on the mast. The team dissect each maneuver in their myriad accents: English, French, Australian, Dutch, Italian, American. Although Oracle is officially the American team, America's Cup crews have long been mercenary affairs. This year, only two sailors – Kirby and Kostecki – are American.

As defending champions, Oracle put together an all-star team. There's Ben Ainslie, a four-time Olympic gold medalist from England, who was recently knighted by Queen Elizabeth; Shannon Falcone, a bearded Ben Affleck look-alike who grew up on a boat in Antigua and took his first steps on his parents' 44-foot race yacht; Rome Kirby, whose father is two-time America's Cup winner Jerry Kirby, and who has been sailing since he was three years old. (Some of his teammates are his dad's old rivals.) And, in charge of them all, CEO Russell Coutts – with four career Cup wins and a perfect 14-0 match record, the winningest skipper in the history of the America's Cup.

Coutts and Spithill started putting this team together back in 2010, when the campaign began in earnest. America's Cup sailors usually get hired for the duration of a campaign, three or four years, during which it's their full-time job. Contrary to popular perception, none of them are rich, at least not by pro-athlete standards. Typical salaries are in the high five figures or the low sixes, and very few of them come from money. Joey Newton's dad was a mason in Australia; Spithill's was a high school teacher. "It's probably still one of the biggest misconceptions with the game – people think it's rich old fat guys," Spithill says. "That may have been true in the past, but we've taken pro athletes on the boat, and they're just blown away." He was especially gratified when they took surfer Laird Hamilton for a ride. "I can sit and talk forever about how cool this is," Spithill says. "But when a guy who paddles into the biggest waves in the world for a living goes, 'That was fucking crazy,' then shit, it must be crazy!"