Win or lose, the 34th America’s Cup is looking good for Ben Ainslie, knighted after winning four consecutive Olympic gold medals last year having warmed up with a silver when making his Games debut in 1996 at the age of 19.
Specifically targeted by Larry Ellison, boss of the Oracle team which has been fighting to defend the trophy in San Francisco, Ainslie found himself promoted from skippering the tune-up boat to the role of tactician on the race boat when it was decided that a “shake up” was needed when Oracle went four losses to one win down and the challengers from New Zealand were looking like runaway winners.
There were only two Americans in the 11-man crew anyway and that went down to one as John Kostecki, originally from Pittsburgh but learning all his craft on the bay, handed over and Ainslie was lauded in the US media as the man to save the day. Not an easy job.
But not a bad situation either. “It’s great to be there,” he said, “and there is still an element of anything can happen. Anyone who thought sailing is a dull pastime has only to look at what has gone on here. The television pictures are up there with any sport and people have been blown away by the type of racing. Going forward, the images we can show to potential sponsors are better than anything that has gone before.”
Which is what is really important to man who has not always been comfortable in the America’s Cup bubble. He started in 2000 when Peter Gilmour brought him into the U.S.-flagged OneWorld challenge in Auckland. The team was rocked by a design-hacking upset and Ainslie was rocked by the near-auxiliary role he was given, rather like a soloist being asked to play in the rank and file.
The hard school of Team New Zealand in 2007, switching from tactician to B-team helmsman against Dean Barker for the in-house trialling, was invaluable. He learned a great deal and the team coach, Rod Davis, was mighty impressed at the speed Ainslie was able to learn, improve, and provide an aggressive challenge to Barker.
A combination of disruption by court cases, the one-on-one challenge by Oracle against the then holder, Switzerland’s Ernesto Bertarelli, and the switch to the present wing-powered catamarans led to the withdrawal from the fray of the British challenge Team Origin, organised by Sir Keith Mills.
That, in turn, led to the establishment of Ben Ainslie Racing (BAR) and the determination to form his own team to challenge for the cup next time. “The whole way it is shaping up at the moment is good,” said Ainslie. “The introduction of a nationality rule which would require a significant percentage of the crew being from the challenging country would be good for us in Britain.
“We have a big involvement with Downing Street in the Great Britons concept and with both this year’s defender and challenger saying that the problem of costs must be tackled, that would help too.”
But the whole thing will come down to funding and the sooner the better. Ainslie has been backed enthusiastically by JP Morgan Asset Management and the show in San Francisco has had the hospitality managers finally purring because they have invitations which people can covet and boast about.
If the event moves to New Zealand then the commercial numbers will always be more difficult and live television in the middle of the night hours of a European morning can cut the audience. At least the Kiwis care passionately about sailing, the America’s Cup and, along with rugby, their beloved team.
By being promoted to the race boat, awareness of both Ainslie and the event has been improved but as well as wanting to challenge, Ainslie wants to head a team with a realistic chance of winning. “The trick in the coming months is how quickly we can raise the funds,” he said. “After that, we have the designers, we have the sailors, and it is going to be very hard to move this event backwards. The racing is breathtaking.”