Last Friday, the US District Court in San Francisco issued a warrant to seize Oracle Team USA’s prototype America’s Cup foiling multihull sail boat, in response to a lien filed by New Zealand sailor Joe Spooner, whose contract was terminated in January. Spooner is a New Zealander who was a grinder with Oracle Team USA during its America’s Cup victories in 2010 and 2013. He was hired for the upcoming America’s Cup series at a salary of $25,000 per month. The dispute is, in part, over the terms of his work visa which Spooner’s lawyer claimed required him to be working under a fixed-term contract, while Oracle argued that Spooner had an at-will contract. They also claimed that Spooner was fired after asking for a raise to $38,000 per month to cover the expense of relocating to Bermuda.
Without having an opinion of the outcome of the lawsuit, it serves as a reminder of the cost of professional yachting these days. In the last America’s Cup, costs to mount a challenge averaged around $100 million with Oracle spending between $250 – $500 million to defend the cup. And from the current lawsuit, we learn that the going rate for a sailor to grind the winches is at least $300,000 per year.
This is not meant to be as a criticism of Mr. Spooner or other professional sailors. He is a professional athlete and is being paid the going rate for professional sailors. Compared to athletes in sports leagues, professional sailors are only modestly compensated. The average salaries for the NBA, MLB, NHL, and the NFL are $5.15, $3.2, $2.4 and $1.9 million dollars per player per year, respectively. On the other hand, attorneys average salaries around $150,000 per year, while mechanical engineers earn, on average, around $80,000.
Wage disputes between rich yacht owners and their professional crews are not new either. Shortly before sailing to compete in the 1934 America’s Cup in his yacht Endeavour, Tommy Sopwith’s entire crew went on strike over a wages. Sopwith was able to round up what was described as “a crew of eager amateurs.” Sopwith sailing the Endeavour went on to win the first two cup races but lost the series. The consensus was that his amateurs crew let him down.