Sir Ben’s new tiller girl

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

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.


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