Sir Ben Ainslie is the most successful sailor in Olympic history – so why is he risking his winning reputation for the elusive America’s Cup, asks Jeremy Taylor. This feature was originally featured in July 2016.
Sir Ben Ainslie doesn’t enjoy coming second. The last time he did so at a major competition was at his first Olympics in 1996. From then on, gold has been the only colour in his trophy cabinet.
Four consecutive Olympic titles, multiple world championships and knighted in 2013, he was even given the honour of carrying the flag for the British team at the 2012 Olympic closing ceremony. Ainslie put British sailing on the map and it would be understandable if he never stepped in a boat again. However, the 39-year-old isn’t finished quite yet and has embroiled himself in his toughest challenge to date – bringing the America’s Cup home to Britain for the very first time.
‘I had two ambitions as a child, to have an Olympic gold medal and win the America’s Cup. Many Brits have tried for the latter but it hasn’t happened since the event started, back in 1851,’ says Ainslie. ‘Immediately after I won my last gold medal at Weymouth in 2012, I said I probably wouldn’t compete at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. It was quite an emotional moment but my campaign to win the next America’s Cup in 2017 has already proved a massive effort.’
Ainslie actually won the America’s Cup in 2013 with Oracle Team USA. At the time, the victory was described as the ‘greatest comeback ever’, with the Americans trailing Team New Zealand 8-1 in San Francisco Bay. Then Ainslie was asked to take charge of the yacht as tactician. In a remarkable turnaround, he used all his sailing know-how to bring Oracle back from the brink, winning the 17-race series 8-9. ‘It was amazing to win in 2013 but now I want to bring the cup home. This is probably the only major trophy we haven’t won. The Tour de France eluded us for a long time too, then Bradley Wiggins cycled into the history books in 2012.’
The America’s Cup is the oldest trophy in international sport. Originally awarded by the Royal Yacht Squadron for a race around the Isle of Wight, the first event in 1851 featured 15 British boats and just one team from the USA. However, the schooner America proved more than a match for British yachtsmen and finished 18 minutes ahead of its closest rival. Later, the trophy was renamed the America’s Cup after it was donated to the New York Yacht Club.
‘Despite numerous attempts to win it back, every one has ended in glorious failure. It’s part of our British maritime history – the last great sporting hurdle we have to cross. My team is aiming to right that wrong. Had I been involved in that first race in 1851, I would have been furious. The British were absolutely trounced. It would have been very embarrassing for everyone who took part. It’s that 166 years of hurt that needs to end in 2017.’
Before he takes on holders Oracle USA in Bermuda next May, Ainslie is guaranteed another special moment this summer. He and his wife, Georgie Thompson, a former Sky News presenter, are expecting their first child. ‘It’s due this month [July], so that’s a very exciting prospect. I have named all my racing boats Rita but I can guarantee that if the baby’s a girl, she will have a different name!’
Ainslie’s single-minded determination to win the America’s Cup for Britain saw him set up Ben Ainslie Racing (BAR) in 2014, based in Portsmouth. He then had to raise £85m to get his boat in the water. ‘The challenge of raising the money was a completely new experience – way beyond anything I had ever done before. Thankfully, we had the support of many individuals and companies like Land Rover, BT, JCB and Siemens.’
Ainslie says he was driven about his sailing career from a young age. ‘When I was eight, I woke up on Christmas Day to find a dinghy in my bedroom. It was a fantastic present and I remember dashing to pull on my coat and wellies to head straight out onto the water. My father, Rod, sailed in the first Whitbread Round the World Race in 1973 and has had a big influence on my career. I caught the sailing bug because of him and have never looked back.’
He calls his latest, 45-foot catamaran a ‘fighter jet on water’. Capable of reaching 50mph, the AC45 T2 flies on foils the size of a wakeboard, rising out of the water in strong winds to skim across the surface and reduce drag.
‘It’s the most amazing ride. And because you aren’t protected from the elements, the and noise and sensation of movement is amplified to the point where it feels like you are taking off.’The rigid sails are the same size as the wings of a 747 jet, helping the boat trap as much wind as possible. Much of the hydraulic technology on board has been borrowed from Formula One too, with ex-McLaren guru Martin Whitmarsh now part of the team. His talents will make Ainslie’s boat go faster still.
At least Ainslie doesn’t have to worry about his diet so much this summer. In the larger boats used for the America’s Cup campaign, crew weight isn’t such an issue. ‘Before every Olympics I had to bulk up from 85kg to 93kg, eating whatever I liked and drinking those awful protein drinks. It sounds unhealthy but I used to burn up to 5,000 calories a day dinghy racing. Now I’ve retired from that, I don’t have to worry about maintaining my weight so much. Finally I can throw those shakes away for good.’
Ainslie says it will feel strange not being at Rio this summer to support his friends in the Olympic sailing team – and for the first time in 20 years he will watch the event on television. ‘I’ve had offers to commentate but, to be honest, we are so flat out with testing that I haven’t got time. I’ve also moved on from my Olympic career – winning the America’s Cup for Britain is the next great adventure.’
The America’s Cup
The America’s Cup is the oldest international sporting trophy. It was made by Garrard of London, the world’s oldest jeweller. It was named after the New York Yacht Club’s yacht America, which won the Royal Yacht Squadron’s Annual Isle of Wight regatta in 1851, with an 18-minute lead. The New York Yacht Club defended the Cup for an unbroken 132 years, ending in 1983, when it was won by the Royal Perth Yacht Club in Australia.
Big Ben Moments
1985: Eight-year-old Ainslie takes to the water with his family for the first time at Restronguet, Cornwall
1992: Wins the Optimist dingy national championships
1995: Wins gold at the youth world championships in Bermuda
1996: Wins silver in the Laser Class at the Atlanta Olympics
2000: Wins gold at Sydney Olympics
2004: Wins Finn dinghy world championships and gold at Athens Olympics
2008: Wins gold at Beijing Olympics
2012: Wins sixth Finn world championship and gold at London Olympics
2013: Knighted and wins America’s Cup with US team
2014: Launched Ben Ainslie Racing campaign to win America’s Cup for Britain for the first time
This interview was originally featured in July 2016. The 35th America’s Cup takes place on 26 May 2017.