Two-time America’s Cup champion Jimmy Spithill is all for improving diversity and inclusion in sailing, whether it’s along lines of race, gender or socioeconomic status.
After all, he needed a bit of help to get going in a sport in which he’s become a superstar.
Spithill is in his first season as skipper and CEO of the U.S. SailGP team, which on Thursday launched Foiling First, a development program designed to be the first professional pathway to foiling in the United States and a catalyst for meaningful change in sailing.
Foiling has become all the rage in sailing during the last decade, in which boats fly above the waves at close to freeway speeds, supported only on hydrofoils that lift the hull out of the water to increase speed. Foiling is now the norm at the sport’s highest levels, including the America’s Cup and SailGP, and it’s even come to the Olympics and the Ocean Race.
However, the transfer of skills required to race the new boats has exaggerated the already high skill barriers in a sport that has historically struggled to include diverse athletes and populations.
Kimo Worthington, the U.S. SailGP general manager, and Matt Knighton, the senior manager of marketing and communications in the United States for SailGP, came up with the idea for Foiling First during last year’s COVID-19 shutdown.
Spithill was hired as skipper and CEO in December. He is an Australian who makes his permanent home in San Diego with his American wife and their two sons.
“We know there’s a lot of talent out there,” Spithill said in an interview from Taranto, Italy, where SailGP will hold the second regatta of Season 2 on Saturday and Sunday. “But the fact is there just isn’t a pathway or program that helps breed that next generation of talent, especially when it comes to foiling.”
Spithill has been involved in other team sports besides sailing.
“One thing you don’t see as much in the sport of sailing is diversity and inclusion. You sort of see the same similar background,” he said. “We thought why not head up two of these important issues at once. That’s how we came to Foiling First, because we want to introduce that pathway, but at the same time, why not really go about using this as a catalyst for changing our sport when it comes to diversity and inclusion?”
Foiling First will offer a long-term partnership program between the U.S. SailGP Team and American community sailing organizations to develop foiling talent, equip coaches and engage with diverse populations. There will also be foiling camps at which U.S. SailGP Team athletes will introduce youth to foiling and provide education on advancing diversity and inclusion in the sport.
“It takes me back to how I started out my career,” Spithill said. “We didn’t have Foiling First because we didn’t have foiling back then, but certainly I got to a stage where if it wasn’t for a program at one of the sailing clubs where I grew up, where boats were provided with coaches to get out there, I don’t think there really was a way forward for me anymore. That was a barrier.”
That program turned out to be a steppingstone. “That really hit home for me,” Spithill said.
Spithill was helming an Australian team in the America’s Cup by age 19, and in 2010 became the youngest skipper to win the Auld Mug, at 30. He has sailed in seven America’s Cup campaigns, winning twice. He was co-helmsman of Italy’s Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli Team, which lost to defending champion Emirates Team New Zealand in the 36th America’s Cup in March.
U.S. SailGP Team has partnered with American boat manufacturer Melges Performance Sailboats to supply the new Skeeta and Nikki single-handed foiling platforms for use at camps to allow new athletes an easy transition between traditional sailing and foiling.
The SailGP team would also like to have organizations purchase boats to remove financial barriers.
The U.S. SailGP Team is also partnering with nonprofits RISE and World Sailing Trust, which will contribute to the social purpose curriculum of Foiling First. RISE has worked with many major sports leagues in the United States to educate and empower the sports community to improve race relations and champion social justice.
Spithill said there needs to be action, not just talk. He said U.S. SailGP Team knows it will take time and effort to effect change.
“But also, the fact is, if this was easy, it’d be done already,” he said.
Andrew Mac Intosh of RISE said SailGP approached his group to provide education on diversity and removing barriers.
“It just felt like there was some good synergy in terms of what RISE stands for and that we do, and also the initiative that SailGP is launching,” Mac Intosh said.
Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/berniewilson