Sailing; Ben Ainslie: Ainslie happy to be in charge of his own destiny

Britain's leading Olympic sailor puts difficult experience on America's Cup boat behind him to focus on Athens goal
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The Independent Online

It is a warm, altogether heavenly summer's afternoon and I am spending it in the engaging company of Ben Ainslie, Olympic, world and European champion sailor, watching him as he whizzes left and then right, right and then left, a manoeuvre which in nautical terms I believe is known as tacking.

Unfortunately for him we are not in the water but on dry land, in the form of the East Course at Wentworth, and Ainslie, who is relatively new to the landlubber's sport of golf, is having a torrid round. "You should see my sailing," I say, in an admittedly feeble attempt to humour him as his ball squirts into the trees for the umpteenth time. He smiles weakly.

Watching Ainslie all at sea is a novelty for those of us who have followed his frankly awesome progress in a series of dinghies. Next month off Cadiz he will defend the world championship he won in Athens in the Finn class, having bagged Olympic gold three years ago in the smaller Laser class. Four years earlier, in the Atlanta Olympics, he finished in silver-medal position, then won the Laser world championships in 1998 and 1999. That amounts to a lot of medals for a lad who is still only 26.

These past couple of weeks he has been back in familiar waters near Athens, this time competing in the pre-Olympic regatta. And in winning the Finn gold medal he has again demonstrated his class, apart from the race last Sunday - "the worst race I have ever sailed" - in which he ended up bailing quite a lot of Aegean sea out of his boat with a sponge.

There seems little chance that he will not qualify for the British Olympic sailing team in Cadiz; to do so he needs to finish in the top eight ahead of all the other Brits, or in the top three regardless of how his compatriots get on. Last weekend's tribulations notwithstanding, the form book rather suggests that he will finish in the top one.

Ainslie's achievements in the Finn are already the stuff of sailing legend. He had been sailing the 15-footer for less than six months when he won the world title, which is akin to Frankie Dettori switching to steeplechasing this autumn and then winning next year's Grand National.

Quite apart from the technical complexities of the larger vessel, Ainslie ordinarily weighs in at about 82 kilos, ideal for racing the much simpler Laser, but inadequate for the demands of a Finn, which requires sheer weight to balance the boat against the wind.

"For that I need to be between 95 and 115 kilos. I'm about 95 at the moment, but it's a big challenge putting on the extra weight," he says, tucking enthusiastically into chicken on a toasted ciabatta. We are now back - to his manifest relief - in the clubhouse.

In career terms, he is also relieved to be back in charge of his own boat and thus his own destiny. After the Sydney Olympics, seeking to broaden his sailing horizons, Ainslie accepted an invitation to join the OneWorld America's Cup crew. He had to live in Seattle for four months to gain his American residency qualification, before heading out for Auckland. But gradually it became clear that he would not be given the opportunity he craved to helm the boat, not even in training. Instead, the Olympic champion found himself being hoisted to the top of a 110ft mast, to look for the dark patches of water which announce the presence of wind. Which was more like Frankie Dettori switching to steeplechasing and being given a stable to muck out.

"It was hugely frustrating," he says. "It was an opportunity to join a team packed with some of the best big-boat sailors in the world and I felt I had to take it. Even though I was new to big-boat sailing I thought I would get more of a chance, but I wasn't given anything." Not a chap to throw his 82 or even 95 kilos around, Ainslie kept his discontent to himself. "But it grew and grew inside me, and it even got to the stage where I wasn't looking forward to going out on the water. It was doing me in. So I made the decision to quit."

It was a rare defeat in a gilded career. Ainslie, whose parents were both keen sailors, was just nine when he started sailing competitively, down at Restronguet Sailing Club near Falmouth. At 12 he was part of the England junior team, even though the upper age limit was 15. At 19 he was in gold-medal position going into the final day of the Olympic sailing events off the coast near Savannah, Georgia, before being controversially disqualified in his final race and having to settle for silver.

Then came Sydney and one of the most dramatic of all Olympic sailing races, the culmination of his long rivalry with, as Ainslie puts it, "the guy with the great name": the Brazilian Robert Scheidt.

Because of sailing's system of being able to discard the two worst races, Ainslie entered the last race in Sydney knowing it needn't count for him, and was thus able to focus all his energy on stopping Scheidt finishing in the top 20 of 45 starters, which would have given gold to the Brazilian.

"It is hard," he explains, "to slow someone down within the rules." But to Scheidt's fury, he managed it. "I made him infringe me so he had to do two penalty turns, then I waited for him to do those turns and blocked him. We were right at the back of the fleet, with him trying to wriggle free. There were a few nasty words uttered from both sides, although at least he could shout at me in Portuguese. I had to do my shouting in English, and the International Sailing Federation take a pretty hard line on foul language. The judge boat is always close by, too, in fact I've got in trouble in the past just being angry with myself. It is a very aggressive sport."

The jostling with Scheidt sounds, I venture, like an episode from the Wacky Races. Ainslie nods earnestly. "It was. He protested, but in the end he was the one who got disqualified."

Scheidt consequently ended up with the silver medal. I don't suppose Ainslie is on his Christmas card list? "Er, no. We do speak, but we didn't for a while afterwards. Actually I met him that night and bought him a drink. I said: 'No hard feelings, I think you're a great sailor.' But he wasn't having any of it. He just walked off. And in his shoes I probably would have done the same."

The rivalry will not resume in Athens next year because Scheidt is still racing Lasers. Ainslie, however, prefers the extra challenge supplied by the Finn. "The Laser is a one-design boat, but the Finn is open class. You can have differently designed sails and masts, you can make adjustments... it's good for me to get a grip of the technical aspect of the sport."

The Finn is also a sight more expensive to operate, which was an issue when he came back, dragging his wounded pride, from the miserable America's Cup experience. Deciding to revert to single-handed racing, he also decided to step up to a different class. "But I had to buy three or four masts, at £2,600 each, and about 10 sails, which are £600 each. The British sailing squad is well supported by the Lottery Fund, but even so, a lot of it came from my own pocket."

He needed sponsorship urgently, and got it, from Volvo, BT OpenWorld, and Collyer-Bristow, a London-based firm of solicitors eager to promote the sports side of the practice. "They have all been fantastic," he says. I ask him whether he makes a good living out of sailing. It's a slightly impertinent question, but then we have just spent quite a bit of time together knee-deep in bracken, so I feel we can be candid with each other.

"It's quite hard to make a living out of Olympic sailing," he says. "So it is sometimes frustrating to see footballers earning masses of money when they're not necessarily that good, and you're at the top of your sport and not getting wealthy out of it. But the top 10 people in the world at professional big-boat sailing make a really good living. There are some very wealthy owners who want the best people in the world to sail their boats, and they are prepared to pay top whack. Money is not what motivates me at the moment, but if it leads to making money out of big boats in the future, that's great. For now, I just feel lucky to be doing it."

Big-boat sailing, specifically the America's Cup, is still firmly within his sights. "That's my ultimate goal after the Olympics, but in the right way this time, and hopefully with a British bid. It's a shame it hasn't happened yet for Britain. We've certainly got the technically-minded people, and we've certainly got the sailors...

"And even though I didn't enjoy [my time with the America's Cup crew], I learnt a lot from it. When you're sailing on your own you only need to be at your own level, but with a team you need to be at the team's level. There's no point running round like a headless chicken if nobody else is. I find that an interesting process and I'd like to do it again. Also, sailing in the America's Cup is about technical knowledge and experience, so you can keep going right through your 40s, which appeals to me. This is more for younger people."

What about the Ellen MacArthur form of sailing? Does he not fancy the odd bit of global circumnavigation?

"No, I have huge admiration for Mike Golding, Emma Richards, Ellen MacArthur, but it's almost a different sport. We race two races a day for an hour and a half each time, and it's very full-on, but at the end of the day you go in, have something to eat, have a sleep, and start tomorrow fresh. For them it's this huge endurance thing, which is not something I'm interested in."

He concedes, however, that he has reaped some of the dividends of the increased interest in sailing generated by the exploits of MacArthur and Richards. "You pick up the broadsheet papers now and find sailing stories where you never used to, which is thanks mainly to Ellen and the others. We need to make people aware that sailing is actually a tough, physical sport, not just gin and tonics on the aft deck."

Nor, of course, is golf just half-pints of Pimm's on the terrace at Wentworth, although you'd never know it from looking around us. We rise to leave, and Ainslie kindly offers to give me a lift - in a Volvo, of course, on loan from his sponsors - to the station at Virginia Water.

He has just the one car but two boats, one currently out in Greece, the other in Cadiz ready for the world championships, which begin on 17 September. I ask whether he has formed a sentimental attachment to them, as MacArthur did to her boat Kingfisher. "Not in the same way, but then she spends eight months in hers, so it's a bit different. But I do call all my boats Rita. My mum decided that." He smiles. "I'm not quite sure why."

Ben Ainslie the life and times

Born: 5 February 1977, Macclesfield

Height: 1.85m

Weight: 72kg

Family: Father and former coach is Roderick Ainslie, winner of the 1973 Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race

Home sailing slub: Royal Cornwall Yacht Club, Falmouth

Early career: Started sailing at the age of four and first competed at the age of 10. Holds the record for the youngest ever British team member. His first international competition was the 1989 Optimist World Championship in Japan, where he finished 37th

Manor honours

1992: Optimist national champion

1993: Laser Radial World champion

1994: Silver medal at World Youth Championships

1995: Gold at World Youth Championships

1996: Silver medal at Olympic Games in Atlanta

1998: Laser European champion; Laser World champion; International Sailing Federation World Sailor of the Year

1999: Laser European champion; Laser World champion; Pre-Olympic champion

2000: Olympic champion Laser class; European champion Laser class

2002: Finn World champion; Finn European champion

2003: Finn European champion; Finn Olympic Test Regatta champion

He says: 'If I had not sailed I would probably have joined the Navy, and I'd perhaps be in the Gulf now. But even that comes down to a love of being on the water.'

They say: 'Ben might look comfortable but like all great champions he works bloody hard. He's exceptionally talented and is blessed with a focus that few people match in any sport.' Stephen Park, British Olympic manager

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