Ben Ainslie: Far from plain sailing as Ainslie pursues Olympic glory once more

Britain's triple gold medallist anticipates his title defence being his greatest challenge. Glenn Moore joins him on the water...
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The Independent Online

"You can't get in the same boat as Ben."

"Why not?"

"It's a safety issue."

"But I've never sailed before, surely I'll be safer with Ben in the boat."

"It's not your safety we're worried about."

Ben Ainslie has three Olympic gold medals and one silver, nine world titles, three European crowns, and has thrice been named International Sailing Federation's world sailor of the year. It might be stretching a point to describe him as Britain's greatest sailor since Nelson – this seafaring isle has, after all, also produced the likes of Sir Chay Blyth, Sir Francis Chichester and Dame Ellen MacArthur – but he's certainly one of the great Olympians.

All that experience has taught Ainslie that terrible things don't just happen at sea; they can happen on the Queen Mother Reservoir, under the Heathrow flight path, as well. An erratic hand on the tiller, a flying boom, and one of Britain's hottest medal hopes for 2012 could be left spark out and floating. So the promise of a sailing lesson from Ainslie is adapted slightly: he'll be alongside in a motorised dinghy, shouting instructions.

He does risk getting in a boat with me long enough for a photograph, but, in the interests of journalistic honesty, I should declare that we do not cast off. Before my lesson Ainslie goes out on the water with 10 eager youngsters from Datchet Water Sailing Club who, I note with alarm, are all wearing wetsuits as well as life jackets as they circle his dinghy with a practised air. They are wide-eyed at meeting sailing's golden boy, who is here at the behest of one his sponsors, British Airways, as part of the latter's campaign to celebrate national talent, from grass roots to Olympians.

Ainslie is a sponsor's dream. High-achieving, well turned out, and giving the impression he is enjoying it all. This is no accident. He realised early on that to succeed in an expensive sport he needed to find and keep financial backing. He once said one of the ingredients needed to reach the top is "good communication skills to attract the right support". That, he confirms, was a reference to the need for sponsors.

"It is expensive, there's travelling, coaching, support staff, equipment. At the start it was hard with my parents supporting me. I got some support from the RYA [Royal Yacht Association] and with some other grants because I was quite young, but really I relied upon my parents financially. The silver medal in '96 helped me secure sponsorship for 2000 and I was able to fund myself. I have [since] been very fortunate with the support I have had over the years and with the sponsors we have for 2012. One of the bonuses for us as competitors is that with the Olympics being at home there is that much more interest."

Ainslie's father was a leading sailor, but opportunities to make a living from it were even fewer then. "He entered the first Round the World Race [in 1973], but it was purely amateur then," said Ainslie Jnr. "He went back to work after that race and never really got into sailing professionally. There weren't many opportunities in those days. He ran a business making wooden utensils, kitchen table tops, handles, all sorts of products. He had to go back for the sake of the family."

Roddy Ainslie never lost his love of sailing and Ben was toddling around a boat by the age of three. At eight he went out on his own, and "just loved it immediately – to have that freedom was so liberating". At 18 he won the World Youth Championships, then qualified for the 1996 Olympics. "I had to make a call between uni and training for the Olympics – it was a pretty obvious call for me." A silver in Atlanta was followed by gold in Sydney, again in Lasers, and gold at Athens and Beijing in the Finn class.

Along the way he has been made, successively, MBE, OBE and CBE. The only frustration has been the collapse of a 2013 America's Cup challenge by Team Origin, which Ainslie was due to skipper. That was, he said, a "huge disappointment", but that chagrin was doubtless magnified in Ed Wright and Giles Scott. Such is British dominance of the Finn class an Olympic 1-2-3 would be possible, except there is only one entry per nation and Wright and Scott had expected to contest that. Then Ainslie returned and quickly re-asserted his position. After winning last month's Sail for Gold at Weymouth he is all but certain to compete next summer. A knighthood will surely follow if he wins at London.

Not that the sailing is in the capital; it is 120 miles away, at Weymouth and Portland, starting with the Men's Finn in a year and 11 days' time. Will the sailors not feel detached from the Games? "Not really," says Ainslie, "it's something we're used to. Sailing was at the centre of the Olympics in Sydney, and that was a great atmosphere, but we need a pretty big expanse of water. It is a shame, but it enables us to focus on our own sport without all the hype the others will have to deal with."

The other problem with Weymouth is that the conditions can be very windy, which will not suit Ainslie. Sailing a small boat, as I discover, is physically demanding and at 34 Ainslie's body takes longer to recover than it used to. There are 12 races, of about 75 minutes each, in eight days and Ainslie says: "It's hard physically, a real challenge, and it is getting more and more physical as the rules change slightly. The guys I'm racing against are younger and fitter than ever. I'm getting pushed hard."

Ainslie is also light by the standards of Finn sailors, which means he can tuck into a burger as we talk without a shred of guilt. "In China the winds were predominantly very light, that was perfect for me; experience and a good feel was what you needed to be successful. Weymouth can be rough, but unfortunately it is not all about eating burgers. I have a big weight-training programme."

There's no burger for me, but I'm probably heavy enough already for my outing in a Topper, an 11-foot dinghy popular with beginners. Besides, to my relief, the winds are light. Joe Snowdon, Datchet Water Sailing Club's chief instructor, gives me a frighteningly brief but excellent lesson, on land and water; then I'm sent out to try to tail Ainslie's dinghy. Keeping the boat straight is relatively easy with my right hand on the tiller, but I gain an indication of the muscle strength required in more demanding conditions when using my weaker left. As Ainslie hollers encouragement tacking goes better than expected, though there's not much grace as I scramble around on my knees. The Australian may jibe that Britain only wins gold medals in sitting-down events but it is hard work, requiring keen concentration.

Then there's a gust of wind, I'm spun around, and suddenly I find the mast heading for the water and the boat tilting alarmingly. The photograph The Independent's snapper has been eagerly awaiting looms. From Ainslie's dinghy comes a shout: "Release the sail!" I loosen the rope, the sail billows and the mast is perpendicular again.

Back on the safety of dry land Ainslie is very polite about my efforts, but somehow I don't think I'll be asked to crew when he finally gets to lead an America's Cup challenge.

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