Golden boys of sailing take an unusual bow

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The Independent Online

Iain Percy and Ben Ainslie compete - even in fun.

Iain Percy and Ben Ainslie compete - even in fun.

For once, the two Olympic sailing champions were late getting to the start line, arriving at the Royal Victoria Dock by taxi after lengthy delays on the Barnes to Waterloo line (rail regulators please note).

Iain Percy and Ben Ainslie, respective gold medallists last month in the Finn and Laser classes, do not take kindly to hanging about, as they showed in marshalling crews of motley ability around a course being used this week for the Royal Yachting Association's National Match Racing Championships.

Although each of the four yachts in this promotional race contained Olympic sailors - Britain's other individual Sydney gold medallist, Shirley Robertson, was there, as were Adam May and Hugh Styles, who were sixth in the Tornado class - they also had others who were not even occasional sailors. Some were Olympic rowers like Luca Grubor and cox Rowley Douglas, from the winning men's eight, and two members of the women's quadruple sculls silver medallists, Bev Gough and Elise Laverick. Others - myself included - fell into a sub-section of not sailor, not rower, not much use.

Percy and May, the guiding lights of our craft, bore up stoically to the challenge of organising its four other occupants - with only partial success. Percy, an economics graduate from Bristol University, has a laid-back approach which puts one in mind of Jamie Oliver knocking up a pukka curry. Even though this spin around the Docklands lacked some of the intensity of Olympic competition the competitive gene that is part of a champion's make-up could not be entirely denied.

In truth, it took hold even before the yachts had got under way. Glancing across to Ainslie's boat, Percy observed: "There goes the most competitive man in the world... he even wants to be the first to be ready."

The smile which accompanied this remark spoke of long experience. The two schoolfriends - both attended college in Winchester - have been sailing together for the last 15 years. Initially rivals, both have established themselves as the dominant force in their events. They emerged from Sydney to a welter of media invitations and offers from agents keen to maximise the appeal of two clean-cut young British champions.

"It was a relief when we both won in Sydney," Ainslie said. "If one of us hadn't achieved our ambition, it would have been difficult for both of us. That was what made it extra special."

The plan now is to move up to racing larger boats, with a view to sailing transAtlantic events or - if Britain can mount a challenge after a 20-year hiatus - the America's Cup. "We realise that we are a neat marketing package after Sydney," said Percy, "but the most important thing for us is the sailing. We have a lot of respect for each other and our styles are complementary. I am probably stronger on the technical side, while Ben is more the raw instinct steering talent. It would be nice to think we could be involved in something like the America's Cup - it's an anomaly that Britain has not taken part for so long."

The Most Competitive Man in the World - at 23, one year Percy's junior - won the first of the two races around the dock and finished second in the other.

He was given something extra to think about at the start of the second run in the form of an almighty thump imparted by the bow of our boat, which Percy - not overly chuffed to have finished last in the first race - directed unerringly at that of his old mate. For a while it was bumper cars before the yachts sorted themselves out.

"There's no drama if there's no smashes," declared Percy airily. Clinging to my rope (attached to the jib, as I recall, but don't push it... ) I could only agree. This time round we moved up one place and Percy, bless him, wanted to race on. These Olympians - they just can't leave it alone, can they?