Sir Ben Ainslie is poised to win the America's Cup
He may be the greatest Olympic sailor of all time, with a silver and four gold medals won in single-handed dinghies, but it was the big boats that fired his imagination, from the time he saw Peter de Savary’s challenger Victory 83 off the Cornwall coast when he was six years old.
It was that fourth gold medal, collected after a dramatic come-from-behind victory on home waters at the London Games, that sealed his reputation.
But at the same time he was learning the America’s Cup ropes. And his pivotal role in another Lazarus-like recovery – he came on board Oracle in the 2013 Cup when they were 4-0 down and helped engineer a comeback from 8-1 to win it 9-8 – sealed his bid to win the Auld Mug for Britain for the first time in its 166-year history.
He got personal backing from Sir Keith Mills, the man behind Nectar, Air Miles and the London Olympics, and the Carphone Warehouse founder Sir Charles Dunstone, and raised the £25m to get the bid off the ground in just two months. He put his name to the team, built a spectacular headquarters in Portsmouth, won the preparatory World Series, hand-picked 120 staff, and brought in sponsors including Land Rover and Aberdeen Asset Management.
He has spent around £90m on BAR. Ben Ainslie Racing. It is, he knows, down to him.
But when the racing starts in the Great Sound of Bermuda later tonight, and he takes his futuristic catamaran to the startline of his attempt to take on his former team for the world’s oldest international sporting trophy, it will revert to an old, and very familiar tussle.
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Shut the f*** up and sail the boat, Jimmy
Sir Ben Ainslie
Land Rover BAR’s first match of the Qualifier Series is against the Swedish team, Artemis. At her helm will be Iain Percy, a friend of more than 30 years and a fellow British Olympian.
And in the back of both their minds will be Andrew ‘Bart’ Simpson, former team-mate and dear friend to both men, who was killed when he became trapped underwater after capsizing during training with Artemis for the last America’s Cup.
Simpson’s death still shadows the fleet, and on its fourth anniversary last week all six boats rafted up in the middle of the Great Sound for the sailors to share memories and a few tins of cider.
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“We spent a few minutes just thinking about Andrew,” said Ainslie. “It’s great that even in this ultra-competitive environment we’re in we get a moment like that. It was very special.
“We started sailing Optimists back in the mid-80s and grew up together, racing each other, all the way to now – such great memories. And through it all we’ve always managed to retain a strong friendship.
“Iain and I have become closer by being competitors in this. We share the challenge of leading teams and quite often we find ourselves on the phone sharing our thoughts and ideas.
“If we weren't able to go through and ultimately win this thing then we’d love it if Artemis did because of my friendship with Iain and a lot of the guys there. But when we’re out there on the water, we want to beat them.”
Ainslie’s crew has drawn admiring glances from all their rivals with their fluency during practice racing, but the boat has been worryingly slow. Upgrades have brought them closer, but the clock measures not months or even days any more.
“We’re still lacking some straight-line speed and that’s our focus right now,” said Ainslie. “We’ve got a few key components which we are upgrading and we’re pretty confident they will increase our speed. If we get it right, it will make a big difference.”
I have been fortunate enough to see Ainslie in action at close quarters, on the water and off. On land he is so very English – humble, polite, charming, considerate, generous, even a little self-conscious. Step onto a boat, and he is transformed into a hunter; utterly focused, ruthless.
Sir Ben Ainslie has spent a lifetime dreaming of the America’s Cup
He sails angry. He looks for confrontation. He finds the limit – and then pushes beyond it. There was a moment during the deciding race in 2013 when he stopped the voices on board by telling Jimmy ‘Pitbull’ Spithill, who had already won the Cup once: “Shut the f*** up and sail the boat, Jimmy.”
That is why despite BAR’s struggles, the Oracle skipper refuses to write them off.
"The British team have not had the results but the fact is we haven’t got to the real stuff yet,” said Spithill.
“I have great respect for Ben as a sailor, although as competitors we want to kill each other on the water.”
Words such as those are music to Ainslie’s ears.