Sir Francis Drake would approve. Whilst the sight of the Spanish Armada hoving into view whilst he played a gentlemanly game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe wasn’t such a welcome vista, the imminent landing of the foiling beasts of the Sail GP circuit certainly would be. Allegedly the cool-as-a-cucumber Drake carried on, ignoring the marauding invaders and insisted there was time to finish his game before responding. Ballsy. There’ll be no such assumptions made in July though as the world’s best pro-circuit sailors convene in Plymouth, or ‘Janner’ as it’s known in local dialect, but it’ll be an Englishman once again at the heart of the action.
The Larry & Russell Circus bigtop is coming to town and all eyes (and pressure) will be on Britain’s modern day Drake, in the form of Ben Ainslie, to please the crowds and keep the App eyeball numbers high. Clowns will be in short supply although some (ahem) did their best in Bermuda to stake a claim. Plymouth will be a fabulous host venue and crowds will stand on ‘Armada Way’ from far and wide with the interest in everything foiling piqued following the success of the Cup in Auckland. It’s also a good tester for the Ineos hierarchy to gauge public reaction to grand prix foiling racing on home waters. Wink Wink.
Such is the mercurial nature of Ainslie however that he transcends the sport in the UK. In sailing circles he is rightly revered whilst in common parlance he’s almost, and yes I’m stretching this a bit, as recognisable as a Premier League football player. Think sailing. Think the Olympics. Think the America’s Cup. And you’re immediately thinking Ben. And with Jim Ratcliffe’s continuing largesse, he’s approaching not only the apex of the sport but the peak of his abilities. It’s Ainslie’s time – now or never in the biggest league – and if you look back in the history of the America’s Cup there’s a moment where experience, bitter loss and failure dramatically reverse and ugly ducks become mighty Swans. This cycle has to be the time when it comes good.
‘No excuse to lose’ and ‘Too big to fail’ are the mantras doing the rounds in the Clubs and the Cup community right now. The Ainslie generation have the aces in the pack and it’s the decisions being made right now on personnel that are going to ultimately decide their fate.
One of the hardest thing for the Brits to get over is the inherent campaign structures that inevitably form within. I called it the ‘echo chamber of belief’ during the last cycle and that’s the most dangerous vortex to get sucked into. As recent history proves, it’s impossible to extract from when the first gun fires. And it usually emanates from the design team who get single tracked down a path that they believe in passionately, debate convincingly, get listened-to, get backing and ultimately come up short. Will it, can it be different this time around? It simply has to be.
Design, aero and foil packages have been the British nemesis for too long. As has unchallenged management – people in ‘power’ who alienate and divide – and the cliques that form in the sailing teams. Go back to the 1980’s, and ever since, and it’s not necessarily the best people in the right positions that got on the boat or even the shore teams for that matter. Honesty. Honesty. Honesty. That’s what will win the Cup for Britain – and no sacred cows.
If we take New Zealand sport as the absolute template for success – at least in sports that truly matter – there’s an inherent Tall Poppy Syndrome where they cut you down if you get too big for your boots. The All Blacks are famous for not living on past glories or past form. It’s all about the here and now and in days gone by ‘the chat’ with Steve Hansen, the formidable former Head Coach, would be something that every player feared. His replacement Ian Foster will be no different. It’s brutal and it’s all about winning. Team New Zealand are equally ruthless in the modern-day Cup and go back a generation or two to the days of Coutts and Blake and very little passed by those two that didn’t make the boat go faster.
Ainslie needs to be ruthless in not only his recruitment but also his assessment of the team and his own strengths and weaknesses. Another near-miss and it’s all over. This cycle is run on the fumes of abject failure of the past two campaigns and that’s the harsh, brutal, non rose-tinted-spectacle view and the Brits are incredibly lucky to have the Ineos billions behind them so squarely.
A stunning win and the Cup returning to the Royal Yacht Squadron for the first time since it departed in 1851 and we can start dismantling the statue atop Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square and replace it with Sir Charles Benedict Ainslie CBE. That’s the goal. That’s the dream. Nothing must stand in the way of that. Plymouth will be a nice sighter for the spectators and pundits and an opportunity for the pros to keep their eye in plus we should have news of what the 37th Cup will look like by then. It’s going to be win at all costs whatever the format and Ainslie should be the man to lead the sailing team to victory if he’s given the modern day equivalent of the Golden Hind.
Sir Francis Drake would approve of that. Britain expects.