Affluence to effluent: the Joe Spooner story

Kiwi grinder Joe Spooner thought his America's Cup career was done, and poured all his efforts into portable loos. Then the call came from the New York Yacht Club. Suzanne McFadden reports. 

He’s a two-time America’s Cup winner who’s now cleaning toilets across Auckland.

It may sound like Joe Spooner has fallen on hard times. On the contrary, the Kiwi sailor is flushed with success (pun intended).

Spooner may be driving a truck around the city this week, servicing portable loos for his company Kiwi Flush. But, in a few weeks’ time, you’ll find him in Newport, Rhode Island, sailing for the New York Yacht Club’s American Magic team. Training for the 2021 America’s Cup.

It would be Spooner’s dream to race for the Cup on his home waters, while looking back to see his sunshine-yellow thrones lined up along Auckland’s waterfront during the regatta.

He’s already offered his sanitation services to Emirates Team New Zealand boss Grant Dalton.  

Spooner loves both of his jobs – comfortably switching between affluence and effluent. He’s proud of the business he and wife, Melanie, set up when they returned home to New Zealand a few years ago.

“I serviced one of the toilets in Castor Bay the other day, and the people were like ‘Aren’t you the guy who did the America’s Cup?’,” Spooner says. “It’s a real leveller, cleaning toilets. But it’s a great way to make a living, and I get to drive trucks. It’s fun.”

At 44, Spooner can’t get the Auld Mug out of his system, even after leaving the holy grail of sailing on uneasy terms.

This will be Spooner’s fifth America’s Cup. The former St Kentigern College student first sailed as a grinder for Team New Zealand in the ill-fated 2003 campaign, before joining Americans Oracle Racing.

He won the Cup with Larry Ellison’s syndicate in 2010 and 2013, and was signed on to sail with them again in Bermuda last year. But Spooner and Oracle Racing parted company in 2015, after a contentious contract battle that ended up in a San Francisco court, and included the unusual arrest of an AC45 yacht.

“I wanted to do that last Cup so badly; I’d signed up, but then we had a falling out,” he says. “I really missed doing it; you kick yourself in a way. But now I have another opportunity to have one more good crack at it.”

Spooner already has a couple of momentous comeback stories in his sailing résumé. The first, when he came close to death after being king-hit from behind.

In 1996, Spooner was a training partner for Finn sailor Craig Monk, leading into the Atlanta Olympics.

As he left a Savannah bar, Spooner was bashed on the back of his head. With a smashed skull and a brain haemorrhage, he lay in critical care in a Georgia hospital for a week.

It was months before he could walk, drive or work. But one of the first things Spooner did was get back in a boat, against neurosurgeons' orders.

Today, the only remnants of the attack are a long scar on the back of his head, and total deafness in his right ear. He gets by with a little lip reading.

The second comeback Spooner was part of, was one of the greatest in sports history, as Oracle returned from 8-1 down against Team NZ on San Francisco’s harbour.

Spooner was a grinder on Oracle’s big cat, who created the ‘Spooner Slide’ - a manoeuvre crossing from one hull to the other, inspired by baseballers’ slides into base. He later got to throw the first pitch at a San Francisco Giants’ game at AT&T Park.

Five years on, Spooner is working with Dean Barker, the Kiwi skipper denied the prized silverware.

“I’m looking forward to sailing with Dean again; it’s the first time since 2003,” Spooner says. “He’s due a win.”

Spooner was invited to try out for the American Magic crew by skipper Terry Hutchinson; the pair have sailed together for years on big boats.

He sailed in trials in Los Angeles, where the strategy was to find the right balance of Cup experience and the next generation of American talent. Spooner will be working in the ‘engine’ of the boat with young US Finn sailors Luke Muller and Caleb Paine, who won Olympic bronze in Rio.

“They’re building a good backbone. There’s a lot of depth in American sailing represented in this team,” Spooner says.

There are also a few mature Kiwis in the squad of 17. Joining Barker and Spooner is Sean Clarkson, who started out as a grinder on NZL20 in the 1992 America’s Cup, and now lives in California. There’s also British-born Jim Turner, who sailed for the GBR Challenge in the 2003 America’s Cup and stayed on in Auckland. He sailed for New Zealand at the 2012 Olympics, finishing fifth in the Star.

When one door closes another opens. Joe Spooner is off to join the New York Yacht Club's American Magic syndicate. Photo: Steve Deane

Spooner says age hasn’t diminished his abilities on a boat, and he’ll be “pushing bloody hard” to be a regular crewman. “They know my date of birth, so that’s not a problem,” he laughs. “I’ve hit the fitness hard in the last month or so, so I’ll hit the ground running in the US. I need to in my old age.”

What he’ll finder harder, he suspects, is being separated from his family. Melanie and their two school-age children, Lucia and Ruben, will stay in Auckland, while Spooner has to live in the US to meet the new nationality rule in the 2021 Cup protocol.

Under the rule, three crew members must be citizens of the competing yacht club’s country, while the rest must be “physically present” in that country for at least 380 days over a two-year period until August 2020.

“It’s a pain in the derriere in many ways,” says Spooner. “We’ve set up the new business, and Mel is heavily involved in it. The kids are at school here. So it’s better if they commute – and come to see me every school holidays.

“I understand the rationale behind the rule, but you have to wonder if some teams who were considering entering have issues with that and can’t actually do it. In countries like Sweden and Japan, training all year round just isn’t possible.”

American Magic's offer was too good an offer for Spooner to refuse.

“One of the things that triggered my interest was the boats. While they’ve gone back to a monohull, they haven’t gone back to a boat we’ve ever seen before. There’s an element of danger to it; they will be fast and fun,” he says.

“There aren’t many of us left now who’ve sailed the America’s Cup in both monohulls and multihulls.”

Spooner will help the American Magic design team draw up the on-board systems and deck layout for the two boats the New York Yacht Club team will build.

He expects the foiling AC75s to be physically demanding. “I think they will be harder than the AC72 cat,” he says. “I loved that boat – especially the change from having a static role on board to a dynamic role. I was sprinting from side to side, around the front of the wing.”

While Spooner is looking forward to swapping out his heavy work boots for boat shoes, he admits he’ll miss the less-alluring world of toilets.

He knows he’s leaving Kiwi Flush in the safe hands of Melanie, who has a master’s degree in public health and runs the business, which has just over 200 port-a-loos, and another 120 coming this summer.

“We set up to supply construction sites and events, and people love them because they have a point of difference – full freshwater flush, freshwater handbasins and solar lighting,” he says.

He’s happy to share his success with Cup rivals - Team NZ tactician Ray Davies had half a dozen of Spooner's loos at his wedding.

Spooner says he will always be a Kiwi; he wears his All Blacks jersey with pride. But on the water, his allegiance, again, lies with the Americans.

“It was great to see New Zealand win the Cup,” he says. “But I won’t be afraid to have a good go at taking it off them.”  

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