Spectator sport

Sailing’s coming home: the stunning Ben Ainslie comeback

23 January 2021

9:00 AM

23 January 2021

9:00 AM

Alan Bond was a rogue and a rich man, in every way your typical Aussie larrikin. In 1983 he bankrolled Australia’s challenge for the America’s Cup, the blue-riband sailing trophy held permanently until then by the New York Yacht Club. Sensationally, Australia won and that triumph did as much as anything to put rocket fuel under the young country’s confidence and self-belief. Australians still remember the massive crowds pouring out to welcome their winning boat’s return to Sydney Harbour. Now, whisper it, something very similar could be happening for Great Britain across the Tasman Sea.

There on the waters of the Hauraki Gulf off Auckland, Sir Ben Ainslie is leading one of the most remarkable recoveries in the history of sport. After a dismal start, the Team Ineos yacht Britannia is now in pole position to mount the challenge against New Zealand for the America’s Cup. A complicated series of elimination races are taking place with Britain, Italy and America racing to see who takes on the title-holders NZ. Who would bet against Ainslie?

This racing is as far from a gentle tootle in your dinghy as Formula One is from a weekend spin in the Austin. It is more like flying than sailing, with practice speeds clocked at nearly 100 kph, as these futuristic boats mount on to their foils and fly across the waves. The boffins are as important as the sailors as modifications are continually made to the boat’s operations. And on board while Ainslie helms, his tacticians are working out how best to take advantage of the ever-changing conditions.

When he was a teenager Ainslie told a friend he had two ambitions: to win an Olympic medal and to regain the America’s Cup, which we hadn’t held since 1851. Well, he’s won five Olympic medals in ferociously tough and demanding dinghy racing. That leaves just one target then.

Ainslie is a true sporting genius, ferociously motivated (it’s said he was bullied at school and resolved never to let anyone put one over on him again) and ruthless on the water. He leads a huge team on and off the boat; the America’s Cup is all about teamwork and leadership, and he is turning out to be as skilled at those as he was at the helm of a dinghy.

Yacht racing depends on everyone performing to the ultimate, and Ainslie has pulled his crew back from the pits. What’s behind it? Force of personality and sheer talent. Ask any leading sports performer how they do it, and they often don’t really know. When he was an Olympian, he was asked what made him stand out. He muttered something about being able to read the wind and the waves better than his opponents.

Now Ainslie is the undisputed master of the waves, a cold-eyed killer on the seas: not a man you’d want to take on at poker. The British effort is being publicly backed by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and financed by Sir Jim Ratcliffe, who doesn’t seem to be a bloke who likes backing losers. Very rich men have come forward before to lead British challenges in this race — the aviator and plane designer Thomas Sopwith and the merchant Thomas Lipton. Their attempts failed. Will Ratcliffe’s succeed? It might be a clearer passport to immortality than a billion-dollar petrochemicals company.

If Ainslie wins the qualifying regatta going on as I write, the final — Britain vs Team NZ — would start on 6 March, the best of 13 races. And if he can bring the America’s Cup to the Solent this could do more to lift not just the region, but the whole of Britain — especially now — than anything for decades. It’s said that Ainslie once seriously toyed with the idea of becoming a Tory MP. If I were Boris Johnson I would want Sir Ben on board pretty damn quick.

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