Ben Ainslie: Fire and water - steely master on the bridge of Britain's golden fleet sets sail for Athens

His easy charm belies a fiercely competitive streak that can spark controversy. Nick Townsend meets a winner with new horizons
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The Independent Online

If water, wind and fire are the three elements of competitive sailing, Ben Ainslie is master of them all.

If water, wind and fire are the three elements of competitive sailing, Ben Ainslie is master of them all. Since his first Olympic adventure, as a teenager, at Atlanta in 1996, the character acknowledged this summer as the flagship of the Great Britain Athens fleet has recognised that a cerebral and physical affinity with his sporting domain were not necessarily sufficient. A rather un-British ruthless streak, in which he sailed close to the limits of legality, was demanded as well.

"You could say I've had a lot of run-ins over the 10 years I've been involved," he concedes wryly. "There's been more than one occasion when people haven't been happy with me..." As we speak on dry land, after a training session at his Lymington base, he exudes an easy charm. He is as threatening as a beach bum after a heavy night. Once waterborne, though, an alter ego dominates, one which has provoked death threats, apparently from followers of his former rival, the Brazilian Robert Scheidt, following Ainslie's controversial victory over him at Sydney 2000.

"I had some pretty nasty emails from Brazilian sailing fans," recalls Ainslie. "I was a little bit concerned about the death threats. The Australian police were involved, scanning all emails that came to competitors. I guess it was just a couple of wacko losers in Brazil with nothing better to do. You laugh it off, but it was a little worrying at the time. You think, 'What if it was actually serious?' However, I'm 100 per cent sure it was nothing to do with Robert."

Four years earlier at Atlanta, in the same Laser-class event, Scheidt had narrowly defeated the then 19-year-old Ainslie. Revenge was in the air, and the Briton achieved it after "the toughest, most emotional race of my career". The points system meant that Ainslie did not actually have to win that finale, but merely ensure that his rival finished no better than 20th of the 45 starters. He succeeded, with a strategy which included blocking Scheidt at the rear of proceedings and inducing the Brazilian to commit infringements which resulted in penalties.

Ainslie's tactics were adjudged within the rules. Although Scheidt protested, he was disqualified, and ended with the silver medal. Back in Brazil, there was uproar. "I was told that after the Olympics, people were running around the streets of Sao Paolo [Scheidt's home city] with effigies of me, kicking them and setting them alight," Ainslie says. "Sailing's really big over there. People like Robert Scheidt are on a par with F1 drivers and tennis players. That was a bit of a worrying story. They were obviously a bit upset."

You thought sailing was a clean, pure, wholesome sport, with the worst kind of foul play a failure to chorus "three cheers" to your defeated rival, and buy the first drinks at the post-race party? Not quite. Words are frequently exchanged, few of them polite. "At any sport at the very top level, there's a lot at stake and a lot of pressure," says Ainslie. "When you're at close quarters, there's often a bit of aggression. In the middle of a race, tempers do flare in the heat of the moment. But swearing doesn't go down too well with the on-water juries, so you have to be careful." Particularly with a name like the Brazilian's, which is a ready-made expletive.

"Obviously, the relationship went a bit cold at that time," says Ainslie. "He felt a bit hard done-by. But now we get on fine. I'm sure when we're old men we'll probably laugh about it." He pauses, then protests: "I'm actually a pretty mellow guy. On land, I go out of my way to try and be polite and courteous. On water, well, maybe that's a different story." It is perhaps fortunate that, in Athens, the routes of Ainslie and Scheidt will not cross, the former having moved to the more physically demanding Finn class.

"The Laser is strictly one-design. Throughout the world, all the boats are the same, manufactured to very tight tolerances. The Finn, though, is a development class, where you design your own sails and use different hull shapes." He adds: "That represents an important part of the future for me, because it's also what the America's Cup is all about: design and technology. The more understanding I get of that, the better it will help me in my future sailing."

Ocean sailing still entrances him, despite an unsatisfactory introduction to it after Sydney, when he joined the United States' OneWorld team, owned by Craig McCaw, a telecommunications billionaire based in Seattle. "Unfortunately, it did not quite work out the way I thought it would. I saw myself helming these boats. In fact, my job, primarily, was looking for the wind, sometimes going up the mast to look for it when there wasn't very much about."

Finding yourself as Jim the Cabin Boy instead of Captain Pugwash, you suggest? A man more in keeping with Cut Throat Jake smiles. "No, not really; it was a great job and quite an important role on the boat. But not what I wanted to do. I just found it incredibly frustrating. I also missed the intensity of Olympic sailing. It was definitely the hardest decision I've ever had to make to leave the team before the actual Cup, but I came back, and decided to have a go in the Finn."

It certainly hasn't deterred him. He harbours ambitions of ultimately putting his own America's Cup team together. "You probably wouldn't win it first time around, either. You'd probably need two goes at it, which means you're looking at overall investment of about £100m. It would be hard to get that purely through commercial sponsorship. You'd need a sugar daddy as well who's really prepared to go for it."

Another Olympic gold can only enhance those aspirations. Since switching boats, Ainslie has secured three consecutive world championships in the class. The latest, at Rio de Janeiro in April, was the 15th major gold medal of his career. It has been a virtually seamless transition for this talisman of a Great Britain squad from which significant feats are expected this month.

Some optimists suggest results could prove even better than the Sydney tally of three golds in the single-handed classes - for Ainslie, Iain Percy and Shirley Robertson - and two silvers. This time, six golds are not out of the question in a sport where the preparation, at international level, is rigorous, the organisation and back-up highly professional.

Such is his affinity with water, you gain the impression that Ainslie, 27, was born more sea mammal than human. Perhaps, appropriately, his Swedish girlfriend, Boel, is a marine biologist.

The Macclesfield-born yachtsman, whose family moved to Cornwall, first discovered himself "before the mast" at the age of four. "My parents [Roddy and Sue] had bought a boat, a 40-footer, in Ireland, and we sailed it across the Irish Sea to Liverpool, and then up the Manchester Ship Canal to be refitted," he recalls. "After that, we had lots of great family holidays on her, cruising down the French coast." Ainslie Snr had skippered a boat to victory in the first Whitbread Round the World Race in 1973. "My mother was going to do the race as well, but became pregnant with my sister, Fleur. Mum and dad were both really keen sailors and it was natural that they wanted me to get involved."

Little could his parents have imagined that by 27 their son would have twice been named World Sailor of the Year. Indeed, he transcends the boundaries of his own sport, and has helped to transform the image of sailing. "Because of the British success in the last couple of Olympics, people understand now that you have to be really fit to race at that level, and train on a full-time basis," he says. "[They realise] that it's not about gin and tonics on the aft-deck at Cowes week."

If ever Ainslie was seduced into a mood of complacency, one particular memory ensures that he maintains his sense of equilibrium. It was just after the 1996 Olympics, when the double-handed boat he was sailing, together with Iain Percy, off Hayling Island was involved in a collision with a faster, larger craft. "It [his boat] broke apart," says Ainslie. "We had to be rescued by the RNLI. As we were towed past the Sailing Club, which is right on the beach, everybody was clapping and cheering. That was definitely the most embarrassing experience of my life."

Eight years on, Ainslie is seeking one of the most enriching performances of his career. His rivals include the Pole Mateusz Kusnierewicz, who won the gold at Atlanta '96. "He was one of the favourites in the Finn class in 2000, but bombed out," says Ainslie. "However, he's starting to get a bit of form again. He's one I really need to watch out for." Apparently, the Polish yachtsman relishes making the observation to Ainslie: "I'm not trying yet. I'm going to start trying soon." The Briton is not fazed by such psychological trickery.

The omens look auspicious for Ainslie to repeat his 2000 success and inspire a British gold haul. But the answer to that, my friend - as the great man said - is blowing in the wind.