Cheese & Wine

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.


©Bob Martin for SailGP

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.


©Photo: Brett Costello for SailGP

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? 


©Bob Martin for SailGP

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. 


©David Gray for SailGP

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.”


©Beau Outteridge for SailGP

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.


©Chris Elfes for SailGP

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.


©Eloi Stichelbaut for SailGP

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.


16 thoughts on “Cheese & Wine

  1. It’s not been mentioned, but worth remembering that Nathan Outteridge himself crashed into Jimmy Spithall in Bermuda … quote “ We are obviously in the wrong being on port tack, but with these boats it’s very difficult to see the boats when they are coming together, and he said he couldn’t see us at all – hence the massive impact”.

    I wonder if there was a blown assignment on Ainslie’s boat – the blind spots from the helm are a known problem and someone should be looking out – particularly in the starting box.

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  2. Being benched or replaced because your superiors think you underperformed is being “cancelled” now? This will change water cooler talk immensely!

    “Yah, after he botched that touchdown I think the coach should cancel Smith.”

    “After being struck out in five consecutive games, the Red Sox cancelled Jones.”

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  3. Magnus,
    Mark my words: If INEOS Britannia somehow manages to do what Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli did during AC36, to become the Challenger to the Kiwis as Challenger of Record Ben will fumble it. He is too old, too weak, has bad judgement these Days.

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  4. In sailing it’s always handy to know where is the real wind coming from. In AC75s I wouldn’t have a clue where the real wind is coming from. It’s hard enough to know if the yachts are going upwind or downwind.

    Did Ben think Nathan was on port tack given they hit at right angles? Probably not, but his Laser mind may override the unreality of Sail GP wind angles.

    But yes, we need to Ben to jazz up what would otherwise be very boring sailing. The starts are a complete lottery being (I think) on a broad reach and usually, the first 3 yachts at the start stay that way to the end.

    And the worst thing of all is some weird dystopian umpire system based on the Communist Manifesto that acts randomly like the finger-of-tin-god.

    The more I see of Ben the more I like the cut-of-his-jib. It was narcissistic ruthlessness that won at Agincourt after all.

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  5. I truly hope someone will give Sir Ben a pair of those 3D Virtual Reality goggles for Christmas…..that problem solved.

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  6. Though the „start line“ accident should never have happened, I think. You just do not bear away against a field of starboard tackers under your lee. And not having a person on the look out…probably Hannah´s job. But as we know, split second decisions cannot be discussed… I am glad that good old sportsmanship came in after the dust had settled.

    Nathan is right about what he said but it is on a different occasion during the race. On the course: >>We are obviously in the wrong being on port tack, but with these boats it’s very difficult to see the boats when they are coming together, and he said he couldn’t see us at all – hence the massive impact<<

    We have the same thing during DN races. Up and downwind on different courses or legs, often sailing 40kn or more. After a very heavy accident we discussed this a lot and the solution is, that we mark the hulls from the bow up to the mast with bright green on the starboard side or red on ports side. It did not become an international rule but a recommendation which many of us Europeans are following. It helps making the split second decision if the other boat is on port or starboard to either hold course or give enough room.

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    1. Thank you – interesting debate to think what detection system the SailGP organisers could install on these boats. Cameras, warning signals, early detection radars or the insistence that both hulls must have a minimum of at least one crew member at all times? I’m sure there’s very workable solutions that could be found to prevent this blind spot being an issue again.

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      1. I think the reaching starts lead to a lot of conflict between boats sailing in wildly different modes depending on whether they are early or late. Manageable in a match race situation but in this last race we had 7 boats in full on trigger pull mode and one sailing high and slow across their bows. The result looked very similar to the carnage you’d expect of a random port tacker in the midst of a conventional line start, except the odd boat out happened to have right of way!

        Does SailGP simply need to revert to upwind starts, where everyone will rack up on starboard and each boat only has to consider their immediate neighbours. Maybe there’s a good reason why we normally go to such lengths to avoid reaching or running starts…

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  7. To go with the motorsport analogies, I’d say Ben reminds me of the late Colin McRae in that whenever he’s on the scene there’s an air that something dramatic is about to happen, good or bad. And he reminds me of Nigel Mansell with his belligerent fighting attitude, it feels like if all else fails he’ll take his boots off and throw them at his opponent!

    I still think he’s the right man to helm the next A/C campaign, simply because both of the above traits are how match racing starts get won, all he needs is just the scent of a level playing field which hopefully INEOS can now provide.

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    1. Completely agree. I think Ben will be absolutely magnificent when he has a proper AC75 under him and it’s merely fools and sensationalists who are calling for his demotion and doubting his ability and speed.

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  8. I agree that an injured Ben is a tougher Ben, but Spithill, Outeridge and Slingsby are in a class by themselves, Burling needs more experience snd yet , Ben is no longer at the top of his game. Being a top notch leader and with his experience, nobody should count him out!

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  9. Ben also gave ETNZ a “love tap” during practice racing in Bermuda. It was a lot more than just a tap judging by the damage. If that wasn’t enough he rammed the dock in another AC36 faux pas. The man is getting sloppy.

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