“You can sit in on any meeting within this team and get an amazing lesson in the science and technology of sail boats. For me it’s such an exciting learning atmosphere.”
- Who inspired you to start sailing? My Dad got into sailing, they were fun days sailing together on the weekends with my brother.
- First boat? Trailer sailer with my family and the first boat I had was an international 505.
- First sailing club? Hillarys Yacht Club, Perth.
- When did you know you wanted sailing to be a career rather than a hobby? I finished University and started sailing internationally. At the time the 32nd America’s Cup was happening in Valencia. Teams were employing a lot of sailors and I thought it was something I could do for a job.
- What do you love most about sailing? The teamwork involved and the complexity of winning, speed, tactics, external forces of the weather.
- What has sailing taught you? A lot about effective communication.
- Favourite ever sailing race? The America’s Cup – nothing beats it!
- How do you keep going when you're on the limit? You have to prepare for it, whether it is racing or a fitness test in the gym you need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
- Career highlight? My first America’s Cup campaign with OTUSA, the AC35.
- If you weren't a sailor, what would you be? I would like to be a fireman, or a creative job where I could build things
- Best advice? I think it has to be; “No matter what you are doing, make sure you enjoy doing it.”
- What other sports do you play now? I play water polo at a high level and enjoy stand-up paddling, great fitness.
- Funniest team-mate? Still getting to know everyone but Freddie [David Carr] is very entertaining.
The UK is a second home for Australian-born Graeme Spence as both his parents are from Yorkshire and he has lived in the country at various times in the past. Joining INEOS TEAM UK was a natural choice. “After the last campaign I was pretty set early on that this was the team I wanted to join, and I have in my mind that this team can win the Cup. It has 100% of the budget from INEOS, Ben [Ainslie] knows how to win, Grant [Simmer] is great at seeing the bigger picture and the project as a whole project. I have a whole lot of belief the team can do this, or I wouldn’t be here.”
The 36th America’s Cup will be Graeme’s second campaign, previously he was with ORACLE TEAM USA as a grinder and also had a role supporting the development of the hydraulic and mechanical systems. He will bring this experience to INEOS TEAM UK, transferring his technical skills across to the AC75.
Graeme grew up in Perth, Western Australia – home to the 26th America’s Cup in 1987 - and started sailing aged 12 after his Dad brought a boat. “My dad and his friend knew nothing about sailing but they went and bought a little sailing boat. I hadn’t really thought of sailing much as a sport or activity but I was instantly really interested in boats, how they worked and how you could make them go faster. It felt like it was an adventure and it was exciting that you can travel large distances whilst being powered by the wind.”
“I guess the other thing that kept me interested was that my dad and his mate were rubbish at it to begin with! At that age you are so used to learning things from your parents, but I just felt with this that I was naturally better than my dad and I think that excited me and motivated me to keep going. Although I’m sure my dad would tell the story a little bit differently…
“We had a little trailer sailer and my dad, brother and I would go and hack around at the weekends. It wasn’t anything that we took very seriously but we did have a lot of fun. We were club racing, but it feels really low level when you talk to other people about their introduction to sailing. My beginnings in sailing were not performance driven at all – it was more just trying to get a boat around a race course and have a laugh while we did it.”
Alongside his sailing Graeme also played football [AFL] but stopped at 15. “You get to a point where you’re either going to be good at it and play professionally or it’s time to stop. So I stopped playing when I was 15 and concentrated more on water polo. I then lost interest in that when I was about 17/ 18 which I don’t think is uncommon when you get to that age!”
However, he continued sailing and while at university studying commerce, he met a new circle of friends who were taking sailing “quite seriously”. This rubbed off on him, he learnt a lot more about the sport and subsequently got a lot more interested in it. He sees coming into racing competitively at an older age as an advantage. “I got into competitive sailing quite late in life compared to most but I think that’s OK, I never got burnt out by it and so had - and still have - a lot of enthusiasm for the sport.”
His first experience within an America’s Cup environment came around the same time as he finished his degree in 2006; he was looking for a job and had friends who had been employed as Cup sailors. At the time the 32nd America’s Cup was in Valencia where Defender Alinghi would take on Challenger, Emirates Team New Zealand. The Cup was in a booming period and teams were employing a lot of people, Graeme saw that it had potential to provide him a good route into a professional career.
“Early on when I was first thinking about trying to have a career in sailing, Peter Gilmour was a mentor to me. He took me to some match racing events with him, the first one was a World Match Racing Tour event in St Moritz. It was 2006, the year after Peter had won the WMRT, he was the current number one and we were racing against some really good teams, including teams from Alinghi. They were the current Cup holders and it was ahead of their AC defence so that was massive.
“I wasn’t at a skill level where I could really be successful in that event but Peter must have seen that it was worth while taking me and I learnt a lot. I did another couple of events with him and he spent a lot of time helping me decide what I should be spending my time sailing on, and that was always a big thing for me. It wasn’t until I joined the American Defenders for their 35th America’s Cup campaign in Bermuda that I raced with a Cup team though.”
Outside of sailing Graeme’s hobbies include playing the guitar. “We had a little team band in Bermuda which was fun, so perhaps there could be some interest in this team to start something up too! I’ve had a lot of jobs and considered quite a few things professionally, but there’s too many to list! I was a fisherman once, but I stuck at that for around a week. My advice to young people, sporting or just in life, is whatever you are doing to make sure you are enjoying it.”
This advice rings true for Graeme himself. “For me the best thing about working in this environment is the technology and being able to work with some of the best people in the world in their fields; you can sit in on any meeting and get an amazing lesson in science and technology of sailboats and I think it’s such an exciting learning atmosphere. For this next edition we have got an amazing opportunity here to create something unique and solve problems through lateral thinking. It’s the perfect merge of engineering and physicality.”
The spotlight turned on him during the previous Cup when during a training session on the ACC [foiling 50-foot catamaran] he fell off the boat during a foiling tack, missing one of the boat's four foils by centimetres. Did the incident make him more concerned about the dangers on-board? “These boats are getting faster and more dangerous but the America’s Cup is also leading the way in preparation for accidents and how to minimise them by trying to make them as safe as possible.
“Already with this rule we’ve seen Emirates Team New Zealand and Prada Luna Rossa become a lot more focused on safety regulations than we had last time, there’re harness rules and certain access areas where sailors can go on the boat.”
The AC75 is expected to reach speeds of 60mph and will be physically demanding, taking, “as much power as you can throw at them.” Gone are the days when a sailor can turn up, jump onboard a boat and go sailing. The new concept requires each sailor to have a personalised and strategic fitness programme, taking into consideration weight loss or weight gain, depending on the role on board.
“I loosely continued my fitness schedule from the last Cup to a degree, but I took a year off from the gym, I didn’t lift weights or go on a grinding machine. I continued with a reasonable volume of training but it was very different things to what I was doing during the last cycle. I started playing water polo again and I competed in a lot of SUP races.
“I really like how sailing has gone into a real physical direction but then there is the technical aspect too, that has always been attractive to me. For me I see this next challenge as an amazing high school science project where you are tasked with creating something that has never been created before. As a sailor you are privileged to get to race these boats and at the same time you have a real understanding - and can offer input - into how the boat is designed. I’m under no illusion that it’s going to be an easy exercise but I’m ready to get going again.”