It’s a story gaining momentum. Fuel is being relentlessly poured on what was a flickering flame as debate now rages about a topic that has been taboo for some while now. But the whispers and hushed tones are hard to ignore. Can he survive? How long has he got? He’s done by the summer. He’s lost the room. Those around him are all preparing for a leadership challenge. His judgement is poor. His agenda has shifted. And yes, they are probably right if those accusations are levelled at our cheese and wine consuming Prime Minister, but they’re not. Big Ben is ringing.
Let me be clear here, I don’t buy this story one scintilla, but people are talking about Britain’s greatest sailing Olympian and after that ding in Sydney at SailGP, questions are being asked, conclusions are being drawn, aspersions are cast, assumptions are being made.
Could Ben Ainslie be benched in the next America’s Cup? Baloney in my book and speaking to people recently who I massively respect (you know who you are) and who have sailed at the very highest level of international competition, they agree with my call that racing incidents happen no matter who you are and we’re going to see a lot more of them in the coming years ahead of AC37.
But in a 24/7 ruthlessly woke world, there are many that are seeking to cancel Ben, call time on his career, demand his demotion and it’s all pretty galling stuff. The nickname ‘Crash’ is starting to stick, footage of Ben leaping from his Finn in anger at a camera boat at the 2011 World Championships in Perth have re-emerged, questions are being asked, mutters are being muttered. Readers here too have been fired up enough to write in at length and, as an example, I received this from an esteemed sailor of the highest pedigree:
Now this will be blasphemy if uttered in the RYS but I have watched this morning’s SailGP footage a number of times and I can’t help wondering if Sir Ben is going to be the logical choice to be helming the Ineos boat in AC37. I have no doubt he has the pedigree and the sailing skills but in this new rarified world of split second timing, boats closing at combined speeds getting toward 100 knots… is he actually the helmsman to take his boat intact to the end of the Prada Cup and face off against ETNZ?
This isn’t the first time he’s had a big collision (In Bermuda vs Softbank Japan there was a very close call that could have injured a number of sailors on both boats) and we all know how a split second can turn a campaign from what was the fastest boat to an also ran (ask Dean Barker if he’d take his moment at the top mark again). His explanation about concentrating on the USA boat is plausible but making an unforced error and slamming into the leading boat with clear right of way before the start is something a young dinghy sailor would skulk behind the sheds to avoid the steely stare of the coach and race officer.
So the decision that Ben has to consider is – does he put the ego aside, look deep inside himself and consider whether he should carry the load of skipper, helm and syndicate principal with the weight of expectation of the RYS, a nation, and a billionaire who doesn’t like to lose bankrolling the campaign – if so he has to be honest with himself and talk to people he trusts and trusts to give him the truth.
Otherwise if he truly wants to build the next AC Dynasty then he has to consider not only this Cup but the next two to build his legacy – does that need to be at the helm or running the biggest, best (not necessarily baddest) syndicate as he has to be ready for the mind games of Brad Butterworth and Ernesto, the passion of the Italians, an American Magic campaign looking for redemption and in the black corner, the current holders and champions who aren’t going to lie down and die – and in particular have shown that they aren’t afraid to deal with sacred cows and look for raw talent as well as hedge their bets.
Powerful words – I can’t do better – but with respect I wholeheartedly disagree. Whilst the ding in Sydney was dramatic, what enthuses me about the way Ben sails is that it’s all or nothing. If there’s a gap he goes for it. He pushes like crazy and as Ayrton Senna famously said: “If you no longer go for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver because we are competing, we are competing to win.”
In sailing however, this kind of competitiveness is rare in practice. Anyone who saw Ben in Athens, and believe me I was there at the Press Conference sitting six feet from him after that disqualification, can attest that what he has is the racing driver mentality – it’s all on and the drive to win is something quite unfathomable to the rest of us mere mortals.
Sure, the gap is closing, the elite sailors know the game they have to bring when Ben is on the start line and the young turks are getting there, but ask any of them who they fear and respect the most and you can be pretty certain that the name Ben Ainslie will trip off their sunblocked lips. He raises everyone’s game. Ben is absolutely the talisman to both lead and steer the Ineos Britannia challenge for AC37. Without him the stardust falls and why bench such a mercurial talent who I believe has served the necessary hard yards and whose time is now.
The America’s Cup is a whole other game that brings in vicious politics, media pressure, team issues, design conundrums and vast national expectation that is hard to fathom or comprehend. Nobody else in British sailing is even half-equipped to deal with that nor has the skill and experience of racing at that level to come close to Ben. The only challenger for the wheel would be someone of the skill of Giles Scott and yes that’s a heck of a talent but I’m not sure it’s the right time. His time will come for sure but not now.
A wounded Ainslie is a dangerous Ainslie. Write him off at your peril. The rest of the SailGP teams will have it all on in San Francisco against Ben with a point to prove in March and the 2022 season just got even more exciting.
Nathan Outteridge, Tom Slingsby, Jimmy Spithill and, we can only presume, Arnaud Psarofaghis, will be gunning for the legend, aiming to take the tarnish off the shine and that’s just the way Ben likes it. And as the America’s Cup gets into gear later in the year, that competition will only intensify. The runway to AC37 is getting hotter and hotter by the month.
Call it for what it is. Put it in perspective. Choose whatever stance you like to take but you’re a fool if you don’t think and believe that the very best of Ben Ainslie is yet to come. The most incredible story in world yachting doesn’t end here.
Glory days await. Mark my words.