Sailing: Ainslie takes stylish break from world of hard competition

Single-handed champion sees Cowes Week as a chance to relax, while the wealthy take it seriously enough to pay big entrance fees

By Stuart Alexander
Friday 15 November 2013 04:22
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If the kings of yachting are the people with the big cheque books, then, as in motor racing, the princes are those talented people who drive the complex racing machines over tight inshore tracks and the highways of the ocean. Cowes has also seen kings and queens of the royal birth variety progressing down its High Street, but the princes are often to be seen in the hospitality tents and bars.

They also turn up for Skandia Life Cowes Week on the same start line as ordinary mortals in a way which would be like Nasser Hussain playing at a village cricket festival, or Jonny Wilkinson at a pub sevens tournament. It generates a feeling of inclusiveness, something which the gifted, and not so gifted, amateurs relish almost as much as taking a notable scalp.

There are some prized ones up for grabs from today, including three Sydney Olympic gold medallists, and among them the man who over the last month has won first a European championship and then a world championship in his first season tackling a new event.

Ben Ainslie had a flying start, but he is having to pedal awfully hard to stay in the air. Now 25, he already has a silver medal from the 1996 Games and a gold from 2000 to hang around his neck.

They were won in the smaller of the two singlehanded dinghies raced by the men, the laser. Now, after a flirtation with the Seattle-based OneWorld America's Cup squad – 10 out of 10 for talent, a lesser mark for politics – he has moved back to the Olympic scene and up to the bigger singlehander, the Finn, in which his old rival Iain Percy dominated to win gold.

The last month has seen Ainslie do what he does best, rise to the top on his own, totally focused, happy with the cut and thrust of a competition which is both highly physical and, compared with the laser, much more technical. There is almost a monastic, martial arts element to the thing he enjoys.

The coming week sees him change gear completely as he skippers a luxury 70-foot Swan cruiser racer, entertains the sponsors' guests, looks after some aspiring youth sailors who have won a place alongside him, and tries to win some races. Cowes Week is mainly an amateur affair, laced with some who are able to separate time for skill from time for partying, although it also epitomises the game's inability to differentiate between sport and recreation.

Like a Hussain or a Wilkinson, Ainslie can call on some top-class help just to make sure the boat has a core of people who know what they are doing.

The husband and wife partnership of Neal and Lisa McDonald – they are due to move on at the end of the week to help Bruno Peyron to try to break the record for sailing round Britain and Ireland in the 110-foot catamaran Orange – have recently both skippered yachts in the Volvo Ocean Race. That is doubly appropriate as the 70-footer will be carrying the name of Volvo for Life during the week as the car company builds on its initiative to support youth sailing.

Also on board will be Ozzie Stewart, who won bronze in the soling in 1992 alongside Lawrie Smith, and some pretty handy veteran pros in the shape of Rick Deppe on the bow, Mike Richards as navigator, Joe English and Richard Faulkner. Shirley Robertson, who won gold in the Europe singlehander in Sydney, plus Percy are also due to guest for a couple of days.

Is that what Ainslie really wants to do? Yes, he enjoys the use of a Volvo car, and he has other support in the form of gear from Bainbridge and clothing from Henri-Lloyd. But the main finance comes from either the lottery or the World Class Performance fund and it falls a long way short of the £100,000-plus he needs each year to buy boats, develop new kit and campaign around the world. Says Ben: "In terms of any serious financial freight, there is nothing there at the moment, so there's a big hole developing in my bank account."

Cowes, at least, should be fun. "I am looking forward to it," says Ainslie. "After two months of very high pressure it will be nice for things not to be so intense. You meet a lot of people, perhaps even a potential sponsor, and you can have a few beers at the end of the day. It's not that easy not to take it seriously once you start racing and the competitive thing in you comes out, but, as I get older, I am trying not to worry about it so much. I am trying to realise it is not the same as Olympic sailing."

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