Most of us had childhood goals (visions really, at that young age), often ignited by something we experienced as kids. Griff Spinney’s first vision was from the lower spreaders on the R/P 66 Aurora, the fire-breathing race boat on which his dad, Latimer Spinney, was captain. T’was Block Island Race Week in 2007 and said yacht was competing so the Spinney family were on Block Island. When Aurora arrived back at the dock after racing one day, six-year-old Griff was hoisted aloft to the first spreaders in the bowman’s harness, perhaps twenty-four feet above deck. “I felt I was on top of the world,” recalls 19-year-old Griff. “It was just so cool.”
Born in Providence in 2001, Griff is a lifetime Newporter. Living in Newport is often enough to get a kid into sailing, but Griff’s track was initially turbocharged through his dad’s work in the marine industry. Like many around Newport, Griff’s first exposure to skippering a boat was in an Opti in Sail Newport’s Learn to Sail program. “Being in the boat just felt natural, a normal place to be, and comfortable,” Griff recalls, opining that he picked up most of his sailing through osmosis, just being around his dad and related marine mates.
After a couple years at Sail Newport, Griff moved over to the Ida Lewis Yacht Club program and quickly segued into the Brenton Cove Racing Program, a collaboration of Ida and Sail Newport to nurture the most promising young Opti sailors. Griff aged out of Optis at the Blue fleet level in 2015 and segued into 420s. Things started to move right along the following year, with a 29er campaign complete with steep learning curve and an appreciation of high speed sailing and related tactical decisions when sailing at close wind angles, upwind and down. When I asked what gets him jazzed about sailing, Griff cited, “the feeling of sailing, the pressure in puffs, the boat loading and unloading in breeze, and the feel of being on a boat.”
When pro sailors Jesse Fielding and Will Gammell were in need of an able hand for a motorsailing delivery of a TP52 from Newport to Stamford, Connecticut, they called Griff. Enter another important mentor.
Ralf Steitz, Executive Director of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Sailing Foundation in Kings Point, New York, is a name well known to supporters of junior keelboat sailing. Ralfie has his eyes, and hands, on lots of cool keelboats and one such yacht was the VO70 Warrior (formerly Camper), which entered the 2017 Ida Lewis Distance Race with 16-year-old Griff as crew. “I did mainsheet grinding and hydraulics,” he recalls, “and traded off with Ralfie on mainsail trim.”
As Warrior left Narragansett Bay heading for Buzzards Tower, the ex-Volvo Ocean Race boat was overtaken by a powerful rainsquall. “We were on the wind and so the boatspeed was not a breath-holder, but having a full main and J2 set on a 70-footer in 50 knots gets your attention,” Griff enthuses. “There was no real way of the getting the jib down. They were round-the-world sails about an inch thick, and a beast to handle. If we’d tried to get it down it would have been a horror show. We just hung on and it blew by.” That race led to the Vineyard Race on Warrior later that summer. “We still hold the record for that race too, I think,” he muses.
A Semester at Sea aboard a re-purposed 139-foot Gloucester fishing schooner built in 1919 slowed the pace enough for Griff to see and appreciate the abundant marine life along the Eastern Seaboard. “The sea life out there was just incredible!” he says. “We saw tons of whales, dolphins, tuna, dorado and other fish of all shapes and sizes…just amazing.”
A spell in a cast resulting from a broken leg saw Griff learning the ropes – literally – at Gorilla Rigging in Newport, gainfully employed making Dyneema loops propped up on his crutches.
High speed, offshore sailing is a discipline where the U.S. is still struggling, Enright and Towill not withstanding. The path to such adventure in America is vastly different from Europe and the rest of the world. In Griff’s case, it is somewhat in the blood and certainly in the town. He has had invites to race and or do deliveries for the Mac races and Halifax races, and he did the 2018 Newport Bermuda Race on Gambler with the Young American Sailing Academy team. By his own estimation, he’s logged about 20,000 sea miles to date.
Griff’s current project is a doublehanded campaign with Warrior 21, a Mini Transat Prototype 6.50 on loan from Ralfie that he and his dad sailed DH in this year’s Ida. Although he’s following developments in “Marathon Sailing” (the mixed gender two-person offshore keelboat event debuting at the 2024 Olympics), when pressed on what path is the more likely, he is pretty clear.
“Sailing on Warrior was a blast,” says Griff. “I really want to do the The Ocean Race.” We spoke of the prevalence of Kiwis in this style of racing and when I mentioned the cross-skills each sailor has (boat building, rigging, mechanical and electric systems, etc.) he replied that building skills was a goal for the time at Gorilla Rigging.
A more serious step to being a multi-skilled offshore sailor is Griff’s present university education: he’s studying Meteorology at Plymouth State College, not that far from Newport. I cannot help but wonder what he will be thinking perched atop the truck of a 60-footer deep in the Southern Ocean, fixing something during a leg of The Ocean Race. How curious life is…on top of the world, at the bottom of the world. ■