Champion Athlete Joe Spooner Is a Grinder and a Pumper

When he thought his America’s Cup career had come to an end, the New Zealander started a portable restroom business. But now at 44, it’s back to the boat.

Champion Athlete Joe Spooner Is a Grinder and a Pumper

Joe Spooner is shown with one of the Kiwi Flush service trucks. (Photo courtesy of Kiwi Flush)

Professional sailor Joe Spooner holds the position of “grinder” during a big race. He’s among the biggest and brawniest guys on the boat — compared to an offensive lineman on a football team — who operate manual winches to raise and trim the sails and move the boom using brute strength.

Spooner is one of the best grinders in the world — winner of two America’s Cup championships and training to win a third for the New York Yacht Club American Magic team in 2021.

“Grinder” also seems a fitting description for Spooner’s other occupation, slinging portable restrooms and driving out of a vacuum truck all day long. With his wife, Melanie, Spooner started a portable sanitation company, Kiwi Flush, in Auckland more than a year ago. And as much as he loves traveling the world over as a sailor, he also loves his family’s new venture.

“Normally when we train with the Cup teams, we’re at the gym training at 6 a.m. anyway, so this is the same kind of thing,” Spooner says when reached by phone on a Saturday after delivering restrooms since the crack of dawn. “When I’m getting into training again, I’m delivering (the units) with water loaded and getting them off the truck on my own. You get a good sweat up.”

No kidding, carrying restrooms is part of the 6-foot, 3.5-inch, 230-pound Spooner’s weightlifting regimen for the next America’s Cup. “We thought about a lifting competition at work,” he says. “It’s all about who can do it better than the next guy. We’re a competitive group, but we all go out for beers on Friday night.”


Spooner loves getting out on the truck and running routes. His father worked in the building trades, and Spooner finds it satisfying to provide a needed service to his hardworking neighbors, many who know him first as a sailor.

“I really enjoy meeting the people, and I don’t mind having a chat with someone,” he says. “It’s a damn good way to see the country and meet nice people. The past 18 months have been — and my wife would say the same — very enjoyable on the whole and we love it.”

It has been an interesting transition from a storied professional sports career to a portable restroom business. Spooner, 44, thought his professional sailing days were over when he, Melanie, and their children, Lucia, 11, and Ruben, 8, returned to his native New Zealand. So they moved on with a business idea that hatched years earlier.

While the family was living in San Francisco and Spooner was sailing with the famed Oracle Team USA that won the America’s Cup races in 2010 and 2013, they remodeled their home and were introduced to the American portable sanitation service.

“We had one in the yard, and it was quite nice,” Spooner recalls. “Then I would come (to New Zealand) to visit my mates (in the building trades) and they would say their (restrooms) were horrendous. We decided to seize an opportunity and have a crack at it.”

Melanie has a master’s degree in public health, so the couple built a brand around better hygiene.

“We see ourselves being more of a service-related business than a product-related business,” he says. “Linking better health and hygiene outcomes is important to us.” And to make the job more appealing to his crew of four, Spooner keeps the work trucks fresh and clean and stresses professionalism and quality customer service.


From the beginning, they used only flushing units, even though only drop tanks are required in their area. And they chose U.S. products because they found them of the highest quality. Restrooms are PolyJohn Fleet models, chemical products are from Walex Products, and units have J-Light solar lighting from J&J Chemical. Truck tanks come from U.S. suppliers, FlowMark Vacuum Trucks and Amthor International to this point, running Conde (Westmoor) pumps and placed on locally sourced Mazda, Hyundai and Isuzu trucks.

The company currently has three trucks with another one on the way and 330 restrooms, with Spooner projecting to reach 1,000 restrooms eventually. He sourced a lot of equipment on his first visit to the WWETT Show earlier this year and already had plans to return to Indianapolis for 2019.

“The WWETT Show is fantastic for getting a taste of what’s out there. And since I’ve been in the truck, I have a better idea of what’s necessary,” he says. “The U.S. companies are so much easier to work with, and they lead the way. The economy down here is booming, and it’s so hard to get stuff made in a hurry.”

Spooner will break away from America’s Cup training for a few days to attend the 2019 WWETT Show with the company’s new operations manager and his longtime friend, Allan Nicholas. Melanie will continue to run Kiwi Flush throughout the America’s Cup run and visit Spooner with the kids during school breaks.


The restroom business has been a lot of fun, but Spooner couldn’t resist answering the call for another shot at sailing’s most prestigious prize.

“I didn’t think we had another America’s Cup in us. Then the opportunity arose and it was too good,” he says. He received the blessing of his children to commit to the American Magic team and prepared to move to Newport, Rhode Island, to train. After a year of preparation and racing in the U.S., the team will travel to Europe and Asia to race and raise awareness for the 2021 Cup challenge, which will be back home in New Zealand.

Sailing is considered a major professional sport in many countries, including New Zealand. “Well and truly before you can drive a car, you can drive a boat,” he says of youngsters from the island nation. Spooner guesses he’s sailed tens of thousands of races to reach the pinnacle of the sport.

Professional sailing has gotten faster and more dangerous over the years, with the boats reaching speeds of 50 mph on open water.

“It doesn’t sound fast unless you’re on one. The inertial and G-forces when you’re changing direction are hard, and we’re wearing helmets, body armor and carrying oxygen. The danger is high, and that’s why you generally want younger guys. Their reflexes are better,” he explains.

Each team requires several grinders on the boat at any time, and Spooner will be training with many great sailors, including an Olympic medalist on the New York Yacht Club crew.

“Age hasn’t caught up with me just yet anyway,” he says. “There will be a lot of younger guys in the same position. I will be somewhat of a mentor to get them up to speed, but I’m definitely going to push them for their spots.”

Boats in the recent past have been a multihull catamaran style, and now the designers are returning to single-hull designs. In both cases, when the boats pick up speed, the hulls rise out of the water and the sails are pushing only submerged T-foils.

Spooner is known for developing the “Spooner slide,” in which he adapted a motion baseball runners use to slide in a way to more efficiently and safely move from one side of a catamaran to the other when the boat changes direction. He describes the move and the dangers of his job are demonstrated in this video:


When he reaches the end of his sailing career, Spooner will be happy to return to Kiwi Flush and continue to build the family business he has grown to love.

A recent interview story by Newsroom, a New Zealand current affairs website, made a little fun of the America’s Cup winner cleaning restrooms, saying he’s comfortable “switching from affluence to effluent … It may sound like Joe Spooner has fallen on hard times. On the contrary, the Kiwi sailor is flushed with success (pun intended).”

“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?’ It’s a real leveler, cleaning toilets. But it’s a great way to make a living and I get to drive trucks. It’s fun,” he tells Newsroom.

Keep grinding away, Spooner. And we’ll see you back on the truck when you’re ready to come ashore for good.


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