Sir Ben’s new tiller girl
The year 2012 was an annus mirabilis for Sir Ben Ainslie. He became the most successful sailor in Olympic history, consolidating his haul of medals – four of them gold – from five consecutive Games.
This year hasn’t been too bad either: in September, as a member of Oracle Team USA he was on board the £5 million catamaran that made one of the greatest comebacks in sporting history. At 8-1 down in the America’s Cup against challengers Team Emirates New Zealand, they rallied to win 8-9 in an edge-of-theseat contest that turned landlubbers around the world into avid sailing fans.
In victory interviews Sir Ben downplayed his role in the win but, seconded as replacement tactician when the scoreline was 4-0, there can be little doubt of his contribution. He is the first British member of a winning America’s Cup team in 110 years, hence his nomination as BBC Sports Personality of the Year, to be announced tomorrow evening.
To say I was in awe of this sporting hero is an understatement – but not so much so that I’d pass up a chance to crew for him. So one day recently we set sail from the Royal Lymington Yacht Club near Sir Ben’s home in Hampshire, aboard a sleek, top of the range Bordeaux 60, making for The Needles, the craggy chalk stacks off the western end of the Isle of Wight.
It was a bright day in nearperfect conditions, with a gentle swell and steady wind ensuring full sails. We were eight in number, including Matt “Catflap” Cornwell (he earned this nickname after a nifty escape following a romantic liaison) who is a former Match Racing World Champion and bowman for Sir Ben’s team; two charter skippers and my friend Toby.
I love to sail and have spent wonderful family holidays on Lake Windermere and in the British Virgin Islands. In 2010, I sailed the Atlantic as part of a crew delivering an 80ft Oyster yacht to the Caribbean. I was desperate to grill Sir Ben about the America’s Cup as we stood together at the helm, the Olympic hero scrutinising my technique while I negotiated a starboard tack.
“The cup is the Formula One of racing,” Sir Ben told me, “So it was mentally hard, technically hard and we had a huge mountain to climb to win.” He calls it “one of the best moments of my sailing career”. Where, I wondered, do you go from there?
Straight on to an even bigger challenge, it seems, as Sir Ben is now putting together a British crew to confront his former team in the next America’s Cup, the date and location of which will be announced early next year. He laughed when I asked if he’d be recruiting girls. “It’s one of the most physically tough sailing events out there, so unlikely,” came the brisk reply.
To be in with any chance of winning “The Auld Mug”, as the trophy is known, Sir Ben needs a crack crew of 25 in a process not unlike the football transfer window, in which he must persuade the world’s best sailors and boat designers to choose him over potential rivals. The other major difficulty is the search for investors to raise the likely £36.5 million it’ll cost to get his team afloat and he jokes about spending “more time in a suit than sailing gear” at the moment.
But back to the sailing: by now the Isle of Wight was parallel to us we were steaming along. It was in these very waters, just five months ago, that Sir Ben and his team smashed the world record by 16 seconds during the 50-mile Round the Island Race on board J. P. Morgan Bar AC45. They were racing in aid of the Andrew Simpson Sailing Foundation, a children’s sailing charity set up in remembrance of their friend Andrew, known as “Bart”, who was sadly killed in a sailing accident in May while training for the America’s Cup in which he’d been due to compete. Many will have seen Sir Ben paying tribute to his friend in the post-race interviews he gave in San Francisco after that stunning victory, and it is clear that memories of Bart are never far away. In previous interviews Sir Ben has said that the tragedy made him rethink his whole sailing career.
At this point I offered to abandon my notebook and take the wheel again, but Sir Ben declined, saying I was doing “just fine” at calling out orders of “lee ho!” as we tacked to avoid the shipwreck that sits just metres away from The Needles Lighthouse. Perhaps he was wise not too have too much faith in my helming.
We shared some early sailing memories and I told him I’d learnt on a reservoir at the Burghfield Sailing Club in West Berkshire, one of the largest inland clubs in the country. I spent weeks of the school holidays completing my Royal Yachting Association dingy certificates on whizzy little Toppers and Optimists. Sir Ben, now 36, also started young: his father Roddy was a keen sailor, having competed in the first Whitbread Round the World Race in 1973, and a young Ben got his sea legs when the family moved from Chester to Falmouth, Cornwall, in 1984.
“I was given my first boat aged eight,” he remembered, “a very old wooden Optimist that had bumper rings and the sail number 185.” Within two years he was competing, and at age 15 he travelled to New Zealand where he became a junior world sailing champion. After that, there was no stopping him.
Few sailors are so successful that their boats are in demand by museums, but that is the honour currently being enjoyed by Rita, the Finn (single-handed) boat that Sir Ben sailed to gold medals in the last three Olympics, which is currently on display in the National Maritime Museum Cornwall. “The name was my mother’s suggestion,” he told me, laughing, “after Saint Rita, who is Patron Saint of the Impossible. It ended up being a lucky boat, so all the boats I’ve had since have also been called Rita.”
We were heading for home – or rather lunch in Yarmouth – cruising nicely at a speed of 10 knots, when my friend Toby suggested we attempt a ‘Titanic’ moment – à la Rose and Jack – in the bow of the boat. I feared a possible soaking so opted to climb up on to the boom instead for photographs.
Lunch at The George Hotel was a wonderfully cosy affair. Oysters, followed by steamed plaice with a cockle and mussel broth, were delicious and filling. Did Sir Ben cook, I wondered? Our hero has a signature (perhaps only) culinary dish, it turned out – chicken breast wrapped in Parma ham. And does he drink rum, like a true sailor? No, he prefers a beer with his mates. Watching his waistline clearly isn’t an issue at the moment, though he says he has to pay more attention when preparing for races. For the Finn Class Olympic events he puts on weight as heaviness is an advantage, but for the America’s Cup he has to lose it, particularly if he’s the skipper, to allow for a bigger and stronger crew who do the heavy lifting.
Sir Ben’s general fitness plan, however, involves building core strength, which is crucial for balance and avoiding injuries: sailing has given him enduring back problems from being hunched up all the time.
After lunch, a Scorpion Rib Serkat took us back to the Royal Lymington – at a hell of a pace. I assured Sir Ben of my vote for BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award – despite the fact that he’d clearly rejected me as a potential starter for Team Ainslie. His loss, I think.