Sir Ben Ainslie leads British major charge as start gun fires for America’s Cup 2017

Four-day Portsmouth festival is platform for machines that can fly over the water

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It crashes, it bangs, it sets up a banshee scream of wind noise, and it has an ooh-aah factor which stops old ladies walking their dogs on the shore to watch a weird and wonderful, man-made contraption skimming at high speed across the water. They are not watching graceful sailing, they are captivated by the image of paceful sailing. Peaceful it ain’t.

Like magnificent men on their flying machines, the five-up, helmet-clad crews have left behind old-style sailboats. Instead, they are sweating profusely inside their body armour while the mental pressure and speed of thought are also running at a frantic pace on the 45-foot, wing-powered twin-hulled catamarans.

The spectacle has changed completely from the day in 1851 when the yacht America gave a thrashing to the best of British in a race around the Isle of Wight.

At the back of the boat is not someone wearing a blazer, a white top captain’s hat, maybe even sucking on a pipe, but Olympians, in Britain’s case led by a silver and quadruple gold medallist called Ben, now Sir Ben, Ainslie.

His medals were won at an average speed of five to seven miles an hour; now he flies over the water at 45-47mph.He has probably the best chance Britain has organised in modern times of winning the 164-year old trophy and is budgeting £80m., including a shiny new headquarters on Portsmouth’s old waterfront, to see Land Rover BAR first past the post in Bermuda in two years’ time. If there is a Novak Djokovic factor of marriage changing his attitudes and approach it is not immediately obvious and his will to win has always been a dominant force. He adds:” I do feel more settled, it’s good to know that this is my life now, and it helps after a tough day to have someone to go home to talk to - but I can't say that it's changed my approach when racing.

“It would be great to start our campaign for the Cup on a winning note, but ultimately the result that matters is in 2017. We are showing good progress as a team and everyone is looking forward to getting out racing again.” So, the Portsmouth event may have little to do with the America’s Cup proper, but it is an important showcase both to his adopted city and in persuading more backers to come on board.His Kiwi crew boss, Jono McBeth, highlights the need for good communication when you can hardly hear yourself think, the need for physical fitness that leaves former, more traditional campaigns as different as night and day, and an event which is throwing up “the best fleet for a very long time.” He adds: “We are super-excited about it.”

The road to the next Cup, the 35 defence, starts in Portsmouth this weekend when all five challenger teams from Britain, France (Groupama), Sweden (Artemis), New Zealand, and Japan (SoftBank) line up against the defender, the now Bermuda-based Oracle Team USA. In a training session the British boat sailed away from Oracle, Artemis, and SoftBank. There will be two more world series events this year in Gothenberg and Bermuda. Next year’s programme has yet to be announced but Portsmouth will feature again.

All the fun of the mer is promised as ramp-it-up predictions forecast a visitor surge of over half a million people over the four days, many paying for their privilege viewpoint tickets, others making for the free fanzones. Not all will watch the four yacht races, two on Saturday, two on Sunday. A Spandau Ballet concert and a Red Arrows aerobatic display provide diversionary options. A blizzard of prayers to the weather gods seems to be coming good for an event costing north of £5m.

Pompey will host on the final day, Sunday, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. She is an involved patron and enjoys sailing.

Her champion, Sir Ben, has his abrasive side. When winning his fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal off Weymouth in London 2012, he warned his closest rival, Denmark’s Jonas Hogh-Christensen: “You don’t want to make me angry”. Sir Ben the next year replaced John Kostecki for skipper Jimmy Spithill as tactician on the defending American team Oracle USA. Deep in the doo-doo in San Francisco in 2013, it came from 1-8 down in a first to nine wins match against Emirates Team New Zealand to win 9-8. Some in the cheering British media gave the victory to Sir Ben. A couple of design boffins called Scott Ferguson and Paul Bieker were closely involved in the performance improvement.

Now Spithill and Ainslie are rivals and the mind games have begun. Spithill, who has also been involved in a long-running campaign by Oracle to destabilise Emirates Team New Zealand, of which Ainslie was once a member, dismisses Ainslie. He is “a typical English gentleman ashore” who switches to being aggressive on the water but whose real talent lies in being a singlehanded sailor. Ainslie can afford to shrug off any mild sledging from an Australian well known for his punchy attitude, though he will take no truck from anybody when the racing is on.

Ashore, Ainslie has matured as boss of the British challenge team. A nervous, head in shoulders characteristic has all but gone as he approaches a microphone or camera interview with confidence. It took Steve Redgrave, also knighted for Olympic success, a long time to emerge; the gold medal rower is now a public favourite.

The team is growing in commercial support – new sponsorship support is to be announced on Thursday - with Land Rover adding its name to the team title. In former McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh, Ainslie has put considerable faith in adding Formula 1 structure and analytical rigour to a highly technical organisation and management. That leaves him more time to run the team on the pitch. Whitmarsh does not have to win a single race; he just has to make sure there is the kit to do it.