Ben Ainslie: 'Doing well in smaller boats counts for nothing now'

Brian Viner Interviews: After single-handed success in Athens, Britain's double Olympic sailing gold medallist has joined Team New Zealand as helmsman to plot a new course for glory in the America's Cup next year

As summer approaches in Auckland, preparations for next year's America's Cup, just off Valencia, are gathering steam. For the rugged crew members of Team New Zealand, only the forthcoming international rugby union fixtures will provide any sort of sporting distraction from the job in hand, and among them is a man who hopes the All Blacks get walloped by England. Ben Ainslie might be an honorary Kiwi, but his loyalty extends only so far.

I met Ainslie in Valencia, where he and the team are based most of the time. They have returned to Auckland to fine-tune the boat but will be back in Spain for Christmas. He showed me round the impressive Team NZ base where the soft furnishings, the wood and even the electricity sockets have been imported from New Zealand to make everyone, except perhaps him, feel at home. Not that such expenditure counts as particularly lavish in the big-spending world of America's Cup sailing. Ainslie pointed out the base of the rival team Oracle, and told me without any discernible envy that it has escalators, a crèche and a cinema.

Ainslie is not yet 30 but is already a sporting veteran, with a veteran's easy manner and unruffled charm. He was only 19 when he won a silver medal in a Laser in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. It was followed by gold in Sydney in 2000, and gold again, this time in the Finn class, in Athens in 2004 (below), making him one of the finest racers of men's single-handed sailing boats that Britain has ever produced. This begs the question: why, instead of carefully plotting further Olympic success at Beijing in 2008, has he signed three years of his life away in pursuit of glory for New Zealand, and not even as a first-team player? In Team New Zealand's energetic campaign to repeat its 1995 success in the America's Cup, Ainslie is helmsman on the reserve boat. He concedes that to outsiders it must look strange for such an accomplished sailor to have settled for a job on the reserve boat.

"I was supposed to be on the race boat as a strategist," he explained, "but it had always been my goal to be a helmsman, whose main responsibility is to make the thing go as fast as possible. You're the guy on the wheel, you're the guy who ultimately decides what happens. So I had to give up my space on the race boat. We always go sailing with two boats, and we need a back-up in every position."

There is, he added, a friendly rivalry between him and Dean Barker, the first-choice helmsman."

"I've known him since I went sailing in New Zealand when I was 16 and he was a bit of a local hero. We're good friends. But at the same time, he knows that I'm the only person who can take his job away from him."

As for the reason he has temporarily turned his back on smaller-scale vessels, the explanation is simple. "My childhood dream was to win an Olympic gold medal and the America's Cup," he said. "I've done one of those things, and now I'm trying to do the other."

In an ideal world Ainslie would be spearheading a British campaign to win the America's Cup, but sadly there isn't one, which is why he has embraced the New Zealand cause. It is a cause, moreover, which engages the entire nation. If Team New Zealand were to win the America's Cup, the ripple effect - which seems like just the right metaphor - would be extraordinary, far more powerful than it would be here.

"Yeah, it's really high-profile in New Zealand," he told me. "Even other sportsmen get involved. We had the golfer Michael Campbell out on the boat in Auckland, hitting a few balls off the bow. Our chase boat was about 150 metres away, and Grant Dalton, our team boss, bet Campbell a thousand bucks that he couldn't hit the chase boat. So he drilled it, not like a normal golf shot, only about 10m above the water. The guys on the chase boat were like, 'Oh shit' and it went straight into the side of them. It was so funny."

Ainslie is one of 12 non-Kiwis in a team of 110, of whom 28 are in the actual racing crew. An engagingly modest man, he is the first to acknowledge that others collaborated in his Olympic success, yet the huge collective effort involved in the America's Cup is a far cry from the kind of sailing in which he made his name. "It's like the difference," he said, "between karting and Formula One. America's Cup sailing is about technology, design and sponsorship as well as individual talent."

But more individual challenges lie ahead. "I'm very keen to be in Beijing," he said. "The biggest issue is actually qualifying, because there's only one spot per nation per class, and it's hard for me to find time to fit the training in." None the less, when he went out to China in August and raced a Finn in the pre-Olympic test, having scarcely been in the boat for months, he blitzed the opposition, and believes that his America's Cup experience has helped him as a sailor. "It's easy in Olympic sailing to take things for granted," he said. "This has helped me understand what makes a boat go quickly, about sail shapes, mast shapes, about running a campaign, about logistics. It's all useful knowledge."

The money invested in all he describes could fund a medium-sized war. There were 12 teams beavering away in Valencia when I visited, including the America's Cup holder, Alinghi. The remaining 11 were fighting for the right to challenge Alinghi next summer, and at the moment, Team New Zealand are in pole position. So Ainslie is on track to add the America's Cup to his Olympic medals, and if it must be as back-up, so be it.

Moreover, it is single-mindedness, not single-handedness, that counts in the America's Cup. Ainslie is respected by his team-mates but held in no greater esteem than anyone else. "The fact that I've done well in smaller boats really doesn't count for all that much," he said. I challenge his choice of words - two Olympic golds and a silver does not equate to "done well". He smiles, modestly. "Yes, but this takes time to learn. We have a coach called Rod Davies, who is an America's Cup legend. This is his eighth one. And he's taught me so much, I've avoided so many pitfalls through his guidance. The main thing is that you've got to make sure you've got the crew working for you." This must sometimes be hard, I ventured, for a man who does not seem given to shouting the odds. "Well, I enjoy giving people a rev-up sometimes. But mostly I prefer to lead by example."

America's Cup races rarely last longer than two hours; Ainslie is a speed rather than an endurance merchant, and regards with a kind of amused awe the achievements of his near contemporary Dame Ellen MacArthur. But while his own achievements are comparable, nobody has ever suggested he might be in line for a knighthood, or even an appearance on Parkinson. He's more than comfortable with that. "I'm a private person, it doesn't bother me at all." As for MacArthur: "I'm amazed and very impressed by what she's done. We were both up for the Young Sailor of the Year award about 15 years ago, and she spent all night telling me about the boat she'd sailed around Britain. I couldn't get a word in edgeways. But I do remember being impressed by her passion. What Ellen does is about perseverance, whereas what I do is more about impulse, because every second counts. The longest race I've done was the Sydney-Hobart on a big monohull. The second night out was pretty rough, there were some interesting moments, not least because it was pitch black. You should be scared but you're not, it's just the biggest buzz.

"The longest time I've been racing was five days, in a race from Malta around Sicily and back, that should have taken two days. We spent most of the time drifting around a live volcano, spewing lava. It was, 'Oh, there's a volcano' and the next day, 'Oh look, there's the volcano again'.

"I'm sure I haven't come anywhere near to experiencing what the likes of Ellen do. The biggest test I've had was being disqualified in a race in the last Olympics. That was tough to deal with, mentally, because you're dealing with things that could ruin years of effort. It's hard to describe. It was soul-destroying."

Happily, Ainslie was able to discard one race and had no other disqualifications, so the gold medal was his. This time, he at least gets to share the downs as well as the ups as he chases sailing's greatest team prize, with or without escalators.

Emirates Team New Zealand will be competing in the Valencia Louis Vuitton Act 13 live on Sky Sports next April. The America's Cup is exclusively live on Sky Sports next June

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