Sailing: Ainslie in strife on the ocean waves

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Walking slowly through the breakfast room of the luxury hotel overlooking the picture-postcard harbour resort on the island of Elba, Ben Ainslie could just about raise a weak smile.

Walking slowly through the breakfast room of the luxury hotel overlooking the picture-postcard harbour resort on the island of Elba, Ben Ainslie could just about raise a weak smile. It is unlikely that any of the staff knew they were watching a man with two gold and one silver Olympic medals, one of the finest natural talents in the world, a man acknowledged by the peer group all around him as very special.

Ben Ainslie is 28, and would be seen by most as having a glittering future, but his world, which is now the Emirates Team New Zealand America's Cup challenge, is in turmoil. The short-term cause of the hunched shoulders was the frustrating disappointment of the way he had tumbled out of the Toscana Elba Cup, the opening event in Europe of this season's Swedish Match tour.

But the real problems are much deeper-rooted. By way of contrast here, Ainslie's friend and fellow gold-medallist Iain Percy, who has also followed the America's Cup trail as skipper of +39, one of three Italian challengers, was upbeat about finishing sixth in a talent-packed field. As apprenticeships go, Italian-style is proving sunnier than Kiwi-style.

Ainslie is a complex character. His success had been as a single-handed sailor, where he thrives on intensity and self-sacrifice and prospers from near-genius ability. On shore he is shy, diffident, unassuming. On the water he is ruthless, and can succumb to explosive temper.

In his new world he has to work within a team, and he has found that difficult before. He joined the OneWorld challenge for the America's Cup in Auckland in 2002-03 but found himself marginalised. After leaving, he confined his reflections to saying it had been tough, but a great learning experience.

He went back to Olympic sailing, where he could run his own programme, make his own decisions, and his results demanded he be given the job he wanted. Now, he says: "Have I made life more difficult? Of all the options, this was probably the hardest. I used to set my own goals. Now it's hard for me to set the goals."

What he does know is that he will not be helming the New Zealand A boat this year, that he will probably not even be on the bench for the event itself in 2007, and that he even has to share the helming of the tune-up boat with someone else, Kelvin Harrap. The match-race circuit he is now on is quite glamorous, but that has no appeal. "That's not why I sail, and I don't give a toss about five-star hotels," he says. "I want to win."

Learning to lead will always, for him, be a matter of example rather than political manoeuvring. He is too honest to be a politician.

He has a strong belief in his own ability, but has surrendered the control of his own destiny. He knows that his boss, the blunt-talking Grant Dalton, has just about decided that the incumbent helmsman and skipper Dean Barker, who naturally wants to protect his own position, will stay in the job, and Ainslie is not allowed to switch to another syndicate. So he must soldier on for two years, by which time he will be 30. You cannot be a starlet at 30. But hope triumphs over reality. "Grant says I am not good enough, and I say I have got two years to prove you wrong," he says.

Asked to choose just one prize from this season: to win the Finn European Championship, to achieve a top-three overall on the match-racing circuit, or to helm New Zealand's A boat in a warm-up regatta, there is no hesitation. "Definitely, helm TNZ at an AC regatta," he says. "That's the goal. It's the America's Cup."

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