Sport is about doing it when it matters. Champions are decided in key moments. Medals, championships, (local races even), are won by those who can handle the pressure. As the famous film quote goes: “Life all comes down to a few moments.” We’ve seen it time again when the red hot favourite, or the person in form, is beaten by the one with ice in his veins and a steely determination to win. In Bermuda at the opening round of the terrific Sail GP season, it was the tale of the tape – again.
Acres have been written about Ben Ainslie over the course of his sailing career, and rightly so, for he is the one person that you would trust to sail for your life. Some, like my friend Tom Ehman, say Pete Burling is better of the current generation. I disagree. Ainslie is on another planet and only Paul Elvstrom in his prime was the closest. The trait they share is that in pure sailing terms, they are a generation ahead.
All the rarefied air of Ainslie & Elvstrom need is a boat (and a crew) capable of winning and they will do the rest. For sure there are others – Coutts and Conner come to mind as two who could put the whole package together in the America’s Cup – but if Ainslie continues on this path, surely at some point the design element has got to come good? He is one, maybe two, generations ahead and proved it once again out on the Great Sound in Bermuda.
As pressure masterclasses go, Ainslie did it right at the moment when it mattered most. Tom Slingsby had been the class act in the big breezes right up until he met the steely determination of the charging Brit complete with an A1 Ineos Team and the absolutely sublime Hannah Mills – who sports a silver and gold and is on the same Ainslie trajectory to sailing immortality whilst being possibly the nicest Olympian you can meet.
Slingsby was mugged. It wasn’t so much a shake-down or a pick-pocket as a gun to the temple in the medal race. After slamming a penalty on the Aussies at Mark 1, Ainslie should have been in cruise mode but the relentless Slingsby brought it back and kept the racing honest but just couldn’t eke in front and it was the Ineos works team that scored the win by just 4 seconds to take the opening round of the new season. Devastating for Slingsby but utter elation for the Brits who recovered well from an opening day where the boat was set up wrong and everything seemed against them.
For the rest of the fleet, it was a case of head scratching and ‘what-might-have-been’ as the big breezes caught them on the hop and as a season opener goes it was high octane stuff with speeds regularly surpassing the 50 knot sound barrier. Jimmy Spithill had an unadulterated nightmare weekend with a collision with the Japanese and subsequent capsize, the icing on a pretty naff cake. The Kiwis, replete with the Burling/Tuke dream team seemed to be in catch-up mode and never really got in the groove after a week of Covid-induced boat preparation issues, a hydraulic issue on Saturday and then some uncharacteristic errors creeping in on the Sunday. They will be back.
The nice surprise, although on investigation no surprise, was to see the French up in the chocolates. We miss the French in the America’s Cup and they are too good a sailing nation to sit out the next one. Billy Besson is a class act having grown up in French Polynesia before winning both the Dart 18 and F18 world championships and then progressing as all ambitious Gallic sailors do to the maxi tris of Sodebo and Banque Populaire. They were rapid all weekend and rounded out with a deserved podium.
So the first round is over and as a flavour of things to come it was electric. The season promises much. It’s true grand prix racing and as a filler for the vacuum that the Cup leaves, it is perfect. We can see the form. We can see the direction of travel and we can read the tea leaves of what the next Cup will be like. Everyone knows who the man to beat is but for sure the Slingsby/Burling/Spithill superstars amongst others will all be primed for the podium as the season progresses with a few surprises along the way – there are plenty from top to bottom who can challenge.
How it all translates into the Cup arena is a whole other story and we can only hope that Ben gets the right management structure in place with the right designers to have a proper tilt at winning the damn thing. The talent is undeniably there in the sailing department as is the money, it’s the rest of the package that needs sorting urgently. Blind alleys and excuses won’t cut it any longer. Delivery needs to be strong.
But just like Elvstrom before him and the modern-era Gods of the Cup, give Ainslie an equal or edgier vessel and the Cup will be winging its way to the UK before this generation is out. Deliver another donkey and the long wait continues…