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Insight: Ben Ainslie

By Mark Chisnell 

The one person in Land Rover BAR that needs no introduction is Ben Ainslie – the clue is in the name, BAR stands for Ben Ainslie Racing. The Team Principal and Skipper is the most successful Olympic sailor in history, with four golds and one silver medal, gained in a 16 year span from 1996 to 2012. The following year he added the America’s Cup to the list, with victory in the 34th edition in the most remarkable of comebacks. Emirates Team New Zealand were five points up against the Americans when Ainslie was substituted onboard Oracle Team USA. The score dropped to 8-1 before the comeback to end all comebacks began. OTUSA won eight straight races to defend and hold the 34th America’s Cup.

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The sense that this had created a unique opportunity was very powerful. The comeback had been covered by every news outlet, whether sports or mainstream. When combined with all those Olympic medals, it had made Ainslie’s visibility so great that no door in the land was closed to him. Suddenly, anything was possible. It was a perfect storm of opportunity, the man with the ambition and the talent to bring the Cup home, now had the A-list celebrity status needed to find the financial support and resource that a competitive America’s Cup challenge required. The professional and financial risks were still immense. Ainslie was the hottest property in professional sailing. He had many options within the sport and could name his price, but he took on the immense challenge of starting his own America’s Cup team.

Ben Ainslie began sailing because it was in the family; his father, Roddy Ainslie had skippered a boat in the first ever, crewed round the world race in 1972. They had moved to Cornwall after Roddy had sold up the family business in Cheshire— Ben was almost eight — and moved into their dream home; a former fisherman’s cottage by Restronguet Creek, not far from Falmouth. Living so close to the water and with Roddy for a father, Ainslie junior’s interest in sailing was probably inevitable, but it was kicked into high gear one winter morning when he got a little Optimist dinghy for Christmas. The Optimist is a children’s trainer (think the marine equivalent of a go-cart) that has introduced millions of children all over the planet to sailing.

“I woke up to find this Optimist in front of me, my parents had bought it second-hand from friends of theirs. I’d never seen a boat that small before, but they explained it was for kids up to the age of 15, and I was to sail it on my own. So we didn’t waste any time getting it out on the water. We took the boat, Opalong down to the beach and launched it. There was a really nice pub about 400 metres along, it was the place where my parents hung out with their friends. My Dad just said, ‘Off you go. We’ll walk up to the pub and see you there for lunch in fifteen minutes.’ I’d never sailed on my own before. I just had my duffel coat and wellies on. I asked my Dad, ‘What happens if I turn the boat over?’ He replied, ‘Oh, I think you’ve got to stand on the centre-board to get it back. You’ll be all right. See you at the pub.’”

It’s no surprise that having survived that test on some innate ability alone, Ben progressed quickly. The local club was Restronguet Sailing Club, a modest single-storey affair with grassy terraces that led down to a shingle beach. It was an old school, family club with a strong tradition in breeding sailing champions. It had a great junior programme and early mentors included Dr Phil Slater and his wife, Jill, and Eddie Shelton, the father of Jamie, a friend of Ben’s. The dream to win gold comes to every boy or girl that grows up obsessed by an Olympic sport, and Ben was no different. The dream to win the America’s Cup needed a bit more of a nudge. It came one summer afternoon when Eddie Shelton took the boys out for a spin around Falmouth Harbour in his motor boat.

“We came across two beautiful and majestic 12M yachts out on a training sail and I was transfixed. They were Peter de Savary’s America’s Cup yachts and I remember being in complete awe of these massive racing yachts. Eddie Shelton told me, ‘One day, you’ll be doing that’ and I laughed it off. I thought it was just a dream but I have never forgotten those comments and the support for the idea that I could do it.”

It was 1987 and following a spectacular contest earlier that year, Cup fever was running hot amongst the sailing community in Britain. There was talk of three teams coming out of the old country. One of them was owned by entrepreneur Peter de Savary — who had run an impressive first campaign for the 25th America’s Cup in 1983. De Savary’s new Blue Arrow team had their base in Falmouth, and they were out sailing ahead of their next challenge. The Blue Arrow boats sowed the seed; after winning Olympic gold Ainslie would dream of bringing the Cup home to Britain.

© Bernat Armangue

No one could imagine back then that winning Olympic gold would eventually mean surpassing Paul Elvstrom’s fifty two year old record to become the most decorated sailing Olympic champion. A silver medal in Atlanta in 1996 at the age of 19 was followed up with four consecutive gold medal performances at Sydney, Athens, Beijing and finally on home waters at Weymouth in 2012. Less well known, particularly outside sailing circles, is that Ainslie had run his America’s Cup career in parallel to the Olympic sailing.

It had started when he joined the One World Challenge after winning gold at the Sydney Olympics, enticed into what had looked on paper like a dream team - top designers, Cup-winning sailors from the previous winner (Team New Zealand) and a billionaire backer. It didn’t work out quite like that, financial security disappeared with the dot.com bust and while the team eventually finished third in the series to find a Challenger, Ainslie had already left a year previously to return to Olympic sailing and the Finn in which he made history.

Ben Ainslie starts the 2012 Olympic Torch Relay from Lands End. Cornwall Credit: Lloyd Images - Lands End - United Kingdom
© Mark Lloyd
Lloyd Images

Ainslie’s next foray into the America’s Cup was with Team New Zealand, when he joined right after the Athens Olympics. He ended up steering on the testing or ‘B’ boat, trialling against the race or ‘A’ boat, to work up the latter’s performance. It was a great opportunity to learn the role of helmsman and skipper, but it meant that he would watch the final racing from the sidelines — frustrating for someone as competitive as Ben Ainslie. Especially when the 32nd America’s Cup in 2007 turned out to be one of the best ever.

It was in the golden glow of that America’s Cup that Sir Keith Mills started Team Origin. Ben Ainslie signed as skipper and a strong team gathered around him only for the whole operation to be derailed by the Cup’s hiatus in the New York courts, the 2010 Deed of Gift match and the subsequent change to huge multihulls for the 34th America’s Cup. It was a series of events that ultimately resulted in Sir Keith Mills pulling out.

“It’s one of the key reasons for founding my own team,” said Ainslie. “I didn't want to – as a professional sportsman – be in that position again. I knew that the America’s Cup was where I wanted to go career-wise, and I didn't want to be in a position where I was beholden to any one individual. This was the only way I could see to be able to try and grow an organisation where I could guarantee that, come what may, we would be able to move forward.”

And so in 2011 ‘Ben Ainslie Racing’ was launched through a partnership with Sir Russell Coutts and Oracle Team USA. This enabled Ainslie to launch a British team into the America’s Cup World Series for the 34th America’s Cup in 2012/2013, with the goal of growing this into a full blown challenge for the 35th America’s Cup. Back then there was just his long-term commercial and business manager, Jo Grindley and a commitment of support from Sir Charles Dunstone and Sir Keith Mills. A few months after the success of the 34th Cup however, the campaign was already in full swing with a handful of people in an office in Whiteley, then a temporary sailing base in Southampton Docks and an AC45 – ‘T1’ – that was converted to foiling.

Three more test boats followed ‘T1’ into the water, the most recent being T3 and T4, both sailing on the Solent since the spring of 2016. The team’s first America’s Cup Class boat, R1 was launched in Bermuda early in 2017. A purpose built waterfront building in Old Portsmouth was completed in June 2015, certified as BREEAM Excellent (an internationally recognised achievement in sustainable architecture), which subsequently won eight awards including the RICS National Award of Commercial Project of The Year.

The team has also initiated the launch of their own official charity, the 1851 Trust, to encourage young people from a wide demographic to experience sailing and provide opportunities for them in the sport, particularly through the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and maths. The team also has its own youth academy, the Land Rover BAR Academy, currently competing on the Extreme Sailing Series circuit.

And then there are the racing results. In nine events of the World Series, the team have only been off the podium twice, recording four event wins (Portsmouth x 2, Oman and Fukuoka), bolstered by a second (Chicago) and two third places (Gothenburg and Toulon). The World Series win means that the team will take two vital bonus points into the next round of the competition, the America’s Cup Qualifiers, starting 26th May in Bermuda.

Land Rover BAR win the 2015/16 America's Cup World Series
© HARRY KH

It’s been a remarkable three years, and not just in the business. Ben and wife Georgie are now parents of daughter Bellatrix. “I think that when you become a parent, you realise how much support children need. I know how much my parents helped me in my sporting career as a youngster. There's absolutely no way I would be sitting here today without that support. I know what they must have sacrificed, in terms of their own free time, and their passions to give me these opportunities. I'm sure that realisation only grows as your child gets older and older, and you start taking them off to different activities, and have to give up your own time to take your daughter or your son off to netball practice, or sailing, or whatever it is that they're doing.”

Not every talented child has a parent with the resources and energy of Ben’s to help their children’s dreams come true. It’s something that Ainslie is only too aware of, and wants to do something about. “Sailing has this issue of an exclusive image, most people, when they think of sailing, think of the exclusivity. Sure, the America’s Cup is full on, it's an expensive game, but no more so than trying to win the Tour de France. Cycling's a mass participation sport, and at the grass roots it's relatively inexpensive; but so is sailing. I think this team is about trying to help people to understand that, and understand their pathway through from the grass roots to the top.

© HARRY KH

“This is what we're aspiring to through the 1851 Trust (the team’s official charity), and their work with other foundations or charities that are helping to get kids out on the water. Then there is the Land Rover BAR Academy to give talented youngsters an opportunity to become a good professional. There's a pathway there that means that any child who's into the sport and talented enough can potentially go all the way to being involved in the America’s Cup.

“That's the one thing that I think we'd all like to see; a situation where any child from any background can actually get into the sport; and if they like the sport, and are good at the sport, then they have the opportunity to go the whole way.” This sense, or need to do something for the greater good, to make it about more than just winning the America’s Cup has infused everything that Land Rover BAR have done. Ainslie is aware of the potential for distraction however.

“The challenge is making sure that the core focus stays on the goal of trying to win the Cup as the organisation continues to grow. I guess that's the big challenge.” Fortunately, the sailing demands focus. “When you're sailing these boats, most of the time you have to concentrate so hard it's rare that when you are going along at 40 knots, that you have any time to think about anything other than keeping the boat on track. To experience what it feels like. But when you do get the odd moment when you can actually sort of stick your head up and take it all in, I mean, it's just the most thrilling boat to tear around in it at over 40 knots.

“When you actually think about what you're doing it's incredible. Certainly as a kid, growing up sailing Optimists, I never would have dreamed that this is what boats would look like 25 years later, it's very cool.”

© Jack Brockway