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Different Worlds, Common Values

Australian James Spithill and Brazilians Martine Grael & Kahena Kunze were named male and female winners of the 2014 ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year Awards during a glittering ceremony held in Palma de Mallorca, Spain on Tuesday 4 November.

James Spithill was nominated for leading ORACLE TEAM USA to one of the greatest comebacks in all sporting history. Trailing Emirates Team New Zealand 8 -1 in a first to nine quest for one of yachting’s greatest prizes, the America’s Cup, skipper Spithill’s tenaciousness enabled his team to not just level the series at 8 apiece, but to triumph in the winner takes all final race, and so successfully defend the Auld Mug.

Martine Grael and Kahena Kunze have been leading lights in the 49erFX class all season, regularly topping the podium in ISAF Sailing World Cup regattas and holding the #1 spot in the ISAF World Sailing Rankings. At the 2014 ISAF Sailing World Championships in Santander this September the pair came from behind to secure their first world title in the class.

At first glance there appears little similarity between the hugely confident Australian, and the two young Brazilians. Beneath the surface, the 2014 male and female winners of the ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year Awards show common traits. They believe implicitly they could not have achieved the highest honour in their chosen sport alone. They cite their time on the water in their childhood years as fundamental to their current success. They have a determination and grit to continue fighting when the odds seem against them. They take huge satisfaction from their achievements to date, but remain driven by opportunities to improve and better themselves. They hope others will take motivation from their efforts and fulfil their potential. Worthy winners. Inspirational advocates for their sport.


When James Spithill remarked in a post-race press conference on 12 September 2013, "I think the question is, imagine if these guys lost from here, what an upset that would be. They've almost got it in the bag. That's my motivation,” most present thought him delusional. His team was trailing the seemingly unstoppable Kiwis 6 to minus-1. Spithill’s team would only lose two more races and would go on to successfully defend the 34th America’s Cup in a sporting contest of unparalleled drama.

The competition was already astonishing. 72-foot, wing-sailed behemoths careening around San Francisco Bay barely in contact with the water. Sailing does not get any more spectacular than that for all its diversity. On receiving the award, Spithill was quick to acknowledge that victory was the ultimate in team effort, “Most of the other nominees were individuals in the way they were nominated, but it couldn’t be further from the truth for me. It really was a team effort. I’m nothing on my own, and I’m heavily reliant on the guys around me both on the water and off the water. To all the guys at ORACLE TEAM USA thank you very much, this is for you and let’s do it again.”

Yet whatever the effort in the team compound and onboard, it was Spithill that publicly voiced the desire to win, the never say die approach, the determination not to let go. This resolve evident on the boat, presumably in team meetings and so apparent in press conferences was nurtured 7,000 miles away on stretch of water north of Sydney.

Born in 1979, James Spithill was at one with the water from an early age. When he was three, his family moved to Elvina Bay on Pittwater in New South Wales, Australia, “My upbringing was fundamental to where I am today. It was essentially like a little island. There were no roads and the only way to get to school or the mainland was by boat. Everyday was in a boat to go to school. It was a way of life, spending hours on the water.”

His competitive edge shone early. In 1989, at the age of 10, Spithill entered his first ever race and won sailing a wooden dinghy crewed by his 6-year old sister Katie. Apparently his local sailing club’s honorary secretary sent a letter of congratulations, "A win in your first race must be like scoring a century in your first Test Match ... the club can expect great things of you in the future." Prescience.

Spithill’s sailing career continued to develop through a mix of personal dedication, natural talent and luck. By 1996 he was an irrepressible force on youth match racing circuits in Australia and New Zealand, scooping more than one trophy. In 1997 he was awarded NSW Youth Yachtsman of the Year and at the presentation he was introduced to legendary Australian yachtsman Syd Fischer. This meeting was a seminal moment.

“Syd Fischer was an incredible experience. I got the apprenticeship of a lifetime. Definitely one of the hardest men I’ve ever met. He really came from nothing, and through hard work got there. He gave an incredible amount of responsibility regardless of how young you were or where you were from. It wasn’t an easy time, but no question the most rewarding things usually take the most effort.”

It was Fischer who opened the door to offshore sailing, and ultimately the America’s Cup. In 1999, Fischer selected Spithill to steer Young Australia in his 2000 America’s Cup campaign. Aged 19, Spithill would become the youngest ever helm in the event’s long history. Another renowned Australian sailor Rob Brown, an America’s Cup winner in 1983 and former coach to the young Spithill, raced with him during the campaign and believes it was during this period that his abilities to lead took shape.

Alongside his natural talent and skill, Spithill was developing the mental toughness that was critical last year in San Francisco; an interest in boxing when he was at school helped. “Boxing was a fundamental growing up with red hair in Australia,” he laughs. “But the thing I love is that it doesn’t matter what you look like, once the bell sounds it comes down to who worked the hardest and who wants it most. I think you have to think like that on the boat too. You can’t take any prisoners.” 

In 2003, Spithill was snapped up by the American OneWorld America’s Cup team, and against the odds led the syndicate to the challenger series semi-finals where it was beaten by Oracle BMW Racing.

There is a saying that ‘what goes around comes around’. Spithill spent the intervening years before the next Cup cycle continuing to hone his skills and invariably winning. He finished second in the 2002 - 2003 Swedish Match Tour and won the Nations’ Cup in 2003, 2004 and 2005. In 2005, he won the World Match Racing Championship, the Melges 24 World Championship, and the Bermuda Gold Cup.

Still young, his star was ascending and for the 2007 Cup Francesco De Angelis who he had beaten in quarter-finals in 2003, appointed him as helmsman of Luna Rossa Challenge. The team reached the final of the challenger series, comprehensively beating Oracle BMW Racing en route, outfoxing and outmaneuvering a more experienced team.

In 2010 it was only natural then that he was hired by Sir Russell Coutts and Larry Ellison to skipper & helm BMW Oracle Racing for the 33rd America’s Cup. Following the team’s comprehensive victory over the defenders, Alinghi, Spithill became the youngest-ever winning skipper in America’s Cup history

For the future, Spithill’s mind is on winning the America’s Cup for a third time. At only 35 years of age he is still young, but he is mature enough to look at what is happening behind him, “One of the most frustrating things for me is to have young sailors come up and ask how do I get into the America’s Cup. In my case it was luck. Meeting Syd Fischer was lucky. There needs to be a structured pathway like other sports that starts at school level, college level. Both Larry Ellison and Russell Coutts have been a huge part of making sure there is a pathway for the youth by introducing the Youth America’s Cup.” 

As one would expect, there is no suggestion he intends to give up anytime soon, “With our sailing team now I am now the second or third oldest. There’s no question the boats, the style of racing now, it’s so physical. I’m hopeful I can hang in there as long as I can. I love being competitive, I love being pushed.”


At only 23 years of age, Grael and Kunze have reached a dizzying height of success and recognition in their sport. They appear to have done so by simply having fun. Appearances are deceptive. Their jointly delivered acceptance speech emphasised the strength of purpose that sits beneath the surface.

“Sailing is not only our sport it’s our lifestyle. It gives us a lot of opportunities to discover new places and to know new people and meet different cultures. It makes our life intense. Life is meant to be a challenge, sailing is a challenge and we are always learning something new. We make mistakes, a lot of mistakes, but we learn from them and grow up. We want to reach a point where there is no crew, no boat, but one whole thing that moves together and flows.”

The pair has some years to go to match the experience accumulated by Spithill. They are well on their way and have learnt important lessons in their relatively short career. They understand the value of dedication, determination and the potential of working together, “We have had an incredible year, but we know that we will still have a lot to do. It’s a great honour to be here among all the great sailors and be nominated, and this prize will give us more strength to do what we love and to continue training. We have not done this alone. It was not possible without the help of our sponsors and all the people around us – our super coach Javier Torres.”

Grael and Kunze, both from Niterói on Guanabara Bay Rio de Janeiro, originally met as children competing in Optimists. Although from different sailing clubs and rivals, they got to know each other and became immediate friends recognising a kindred spirit.

The opportunity to sail together arrived by chance. By 2009, both had become adept and competitive double-handed dinghy sailors. Realizing their then partners were too old to compete at youth level, Grael and Kunze teamed up in order to participate at the ISAF Youth Worlds taking place in Búzios, Brazil that year. Signs of their natural affinity were immediate, as the pair won the ISAF Youth World Title in the 420 class.

Their paths would separate after this championship, with each pursuing their own interests. Martine took the opportunity to compete in the 470 class in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to qualify for the 2012 Olympics. Looking for a new partner in 2013, Martine called Kahena. “I immediately felt the chemistry. The first time I returned to sail with Kahena, we were in touch with the boat,” she remarks.

The time apart seems to have strengthened the natural pairing, rather than weakening it. They give the impression of being the perfect match, totally in tune, “When we are sailing the same boat, we are sailing as the same person. What one deserves the other does too. We have a lot of things in common: we have a good lifestyle, we love being outside. We like to practice, we like the same food.” They even wore matching outfits to the award ceremony, completely by chance, “It is much easier to deal with a person who is like you.”

The two are determined to continue their partnership and to develop, and hope they can inspire others with ambition to succeed offering advice well beyond their years, “Nothing is impossible, with enough will and with enough training. You have to dedicate full time if you really want something.”

For Martine, the evening was of course extra special, her father is Torben Grael, an Olympic gold medallist, Volvo Ocean Race winner and recipient of the ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year Award in 2009. His pride as a father was matched by his appreciation of the pair’s achievement, recalling how he had felt when he had presented them with their Youth World Title back in 2009, “I thought that feeling could not be bettered.” The smile on his face was evidence enough that it had.


The ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year Awards took place during the International Sailing Federation’s (ISAF) Annual Conference, which this year was held in Palma de Mallorca. The ceremony, attended by international sailing stars, key decision makers and sponsors is a true celebration of the sport.

The annual Awards, sponsored by Rolex since 2001, are the highest honour a sailor can receive and is recognition of achievement in a twelve-month period, in this case from 1 September 2013 to 21 September 2014.

Competition for the 2014 Awards was formidable, with three outstanding female and five equally exceptional male candidates short-listed from a list of nominations made by the public at large. The winners were decided by the votes of the over 130 Member National Authorities of ISAF. Suspense was maintained until the very last minute, with the nominees and guests unaware who had won until the official announcement itself.

Double Olympic gold medallist and World Sailor of the Year in 2000, Shirley Robertson, hosted the ceremony. The Awards were presented by ISAF President of Honour HM King Constantine and Joel Aeschlimann of Rolex SA. Both winners were presented with a Rolex timepiece and an ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year trophy.

The nominees for the 2014 ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year Awards were:

Mat Belcher and Will Ryan (AUS)
Peter Burling and Blair Tuke (NZL)
Bill Hardesty (USA)
Giles Scott (GBR)
James Spithill (AUS)

Steph Bridge (GBR)
Martine Grael and Kahena Kunze (BRA)
Charline Picon (FRA)

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