Sparring Partners

A friendly rivalry keeps two America's Cup defender teammates on their toes.

oracle team usa
Scott Ferguson reviews the day's work list with Oracle Team USA coach Philippe Presti, who also serves as a go-to between sailors and designers.dave reed

Jimmy Spithill has a cold. But the skipper perks up when the conversation turns to the endless competition at Oracle Team USA between him and design coordinator Scott Ferguson. The rivalry is cutthroat — there is no mercy; no quarter is given. And that’s just after hours. Spithill believes ­competition in just about any form brings out the best in everyone.

For the pugnacious helmsman, a good day is made up of ticking off results on the water that were discussed in theory on land. Then before he heads home, he likes to “go down to the table-tennis table, kick Scott’s ass, and take his money.” When Spithill is asked if he has more compassion for Ferguson, who is older than him and recently became a grandfather, Spithill replies: “To be honest, I feel very comfortable taking Scott’s money. More so than ever.”

As is often the case, eyewitnesses at the same event have different recollections. Ferguson says, “As far as our internal competitions, it will be hard for Jimmy to admit to losing to me at anything, even though it happens often.”

Spithill is quick to reply that Ferguson’s statement “is a lie and it’s disappointing. What’s most important is you’re only as good as your last game, and last game Scott got absolutely hosed, and he’s helping putting my kids through school.” The battles are not limited to table ­tennis. There were spirited matchups on the ­basketball court. That came to an end when two teammates who were playing with them “almost got into a fist fight.”

To keep their minds keen, there are also mental gymnastics used to hone their brainpower, such as poker games. At the last event, Spithill got the better of Ferguson and was eager to report that he made another contribution to his college fund. Bitterly, Ferguson said: “Jimmy had a good day at the table. But he’s also finished dead last. I’ve never finished dead last.”

At an impromptu boxing match between the on-the-water team and the shore crew, Ferguson jumped out of the crowd to volunteer to spar with Spithill in the ring. While there was no knockout recorded, Ferguson admitted, “Jimmy went easy on me.”

While the internal competitions between Spithill and Ferguson have included enough events to constitute a bizarre decathlon, two events are strictly off-limits. One of them is a match race in Lasers. Spithill simply refuses to go there. Ferguson has won the Laser ­Master Worlds not once, but twice. Asked for a comment, Spithill says: “That would not happen. As much as I love a challenge, I’m also not stupid.”

The other competition that is verboten is ice hockey. Ferg, who was inducted into the St. George's School Athletic Hall of Fame for being a three-sport athlete, enjoys a spirited exchange of ideas while playing hockey, either on ice skates or in-line skates. Spithill, not so much.
There is no consensus as to who is winning the off-the-water competitions, but a correspondent noted that communication between the two is effortless.

In conversation, Ferguson and Spithill riff off each other’s ideas and complete each other’s sentences like an old married couple who are addicted to bickering and know each other’s lines by heart. This is their fourth ­America’s Cup together, dating back to the 2004 campaign with the Italians, and they have a enjoyed a productive partnership. Together they made it to the Louis Vuitton Finals in 2007 and won the last two America’s Cups. For them, the recipe for success is simple: Work together to make the boat go fast on the water, then absolutely annihilate each other on land.