SailGP knocked it out of the park last night, once again, with a high-production but crucially a welcome, no sacred cow, no off-limits insight into the league’s unquestionably biggest star – Ben Ainslie. It would have been easy to duck the difficult questions such is Ben’s stardust, standing and career highlights but let’s be honest, it’s the flaws that we like to dwell on and analyse almost as much as the relentless drive that has defined his stellar, mesmeric career so far.
Peak Ainslie was undoubtedly the Olympic Games, pick any one you like, and was later capitalised on by Larry Ellison in that magnificent Americas Cup win in San Francisco when the Americans found the ‘on’ button with Ben calling killer shots. Now he’s slugging with the pup talent on SailGP like a baseball player sold to Japan but on his day is more than capable of the extraordinary. He’s box office for his spills as much as his thrills and he’s very much the target. Everyone else is looking when Ben’s around. Games are raised. They all want his scalp. He’s the gold standard. They judge and measure themselves against him. And that’s just the way this on-the-water ball of competitiveness, likes it.
What struck me though, and it’s no surprise to anyone on the pro-circuit, is that sailing the boats that they do now is just one giant numbers game. It’s data, data, data. It always was, I guess, but now it’s amplified. The nerds are in full control. The video, that you can watch below, opens with Bermuda and an opening day to absolutely forget. It sets the scene for the master underdog to come back from the dead to ace Tom Slingsby and steal the regatta and is oh so very Ben Ainslie.
But the Ainslie of 2022 is less the seat of the pants genius from the Elvstrom mould, sailing boats that have been tweaked by the Olympic programme and the brilliance of Sid Howlett. Today it’s numbers, analysis, data, more analysis. Everything can be solved in the data. Quite dull in an Elon Musk kind of way, but absolutely necessary to win on the modern circuit.
The narrative that sells the Ben Ainslie career though is that of the man against the world, down on the scorecard in the 12th, the comeback-from-oblivion. He thrives being on the back-foot. And right now, with a horror-show Cup behind him that clearly stings and embarrasses and an iffy performance to round off the year in the Sail GP Sydney Regatta (ditto), he’s in a place that’s familiar and perhaps more comfortable, uncomfortable as that sounds.
Being the overwhelming favourite simply doesn’t suit Ben’s character. The default is the underdog where the real steel, the real deal, is found. Inside his head it might be different but to the world what’s conveyed is a hyper competitiveness housed in a natural reticence that sells tickets, puts bums on seats, deeply endears and keeps viewers riveted. The model professional, I’ll admit I buy the abundant humility, although the emotion of wanting to shake him and wake him is wildly present at times, but will it be enough to win the America’s Cup? Or is it the flaw that his rivals will brutally exploit?
Many of us watchers of Ben’s career concluded long ago that he’s a solo polo. Give him the platform, the boat, a few words of encouragement, fire him up and he lets you down less often than a vintage Land Rover. Wave a gold medal or a world championship under his nose, protest him out of a race, stick his back against a wall, stand back and watch genius emerge amidst a blaze of fireworks. That’s Ben Ainslie in a nutshell.
But the America’s Cup is a different place. History bears down on any British entrant and gaping cracks appear in unlikely places. The media that matters turns. Politics thunders down the track like a freight train and as the main figure, a team player, a leader of men, that’s where Ben has to fight perhaps beyond his capabilities. It’s hard. Ben’s risen to the pinnacle and found it a lonely place, so rightly he surrounded himself with people that call him the ‘Guv’nor’ and on a psychology level that’s where it’s awry.
Football managers get called ‘the Gaffer’ by 20-something underlings and lose their job on a whim with alarming regularity when results don’t go their way. Brutal business. Results matter. The millionaire teenagers get off scot-free until the next person comes in with fire in his belly and they face the inevitable harsh ratchet up of training regimes, diet analysis and in-depth game replays to thoroughly examine just why they performed liked monkeys under the old guy and went rogue with aplomb.
In sailing, it’s so specialist that there’s an in built fail safe. There aren’t a hundred wing-trimmers free and open to sail with – you’d be lucky to find a handful. Flight Controllers are akin to star strikers. Precluding nationality clauses narrow the apex. And now the boats are being sailed with just eight. You have to do the best with what you’ve got and hope that you hit the high notes as a generation of sailors all at the same time. Think of the fabulous Team New Zealand teams of the recent past. Think Alinghi in 2003. Bottle San Francisco. Everyone at their very peak, sailing on auto-drive, pulling rabbits out of the hat at the crucial times. That’s what Ben needs around him if he’s to scoop this Cup. And the fastest boat.
But the glimpse into the psyche is quite riveting and as encouragement for the next generation it’s gold-dust. What Ben achieved in the Olympic sphere is a once in a lifetime bolt of extraordinary lightning. He’s a colossus in sailing with a weight of expectation on his shoulders in the Cup that bears heavy. He wears an aggression in his demeanour of a wronged, wounded beast masked in British politeness but so heavily into the numbers and data of the Great Game that it’s hard to see above the parapet.
The Ineos Sports Group need to be his eyes and ears to get the last embers of this very brightest of flames over the winning line and bring the Cup to these shores. Mercedes must, and I’m sure will, share the design, process and analysis load but I can’t help but feel that a Russell Coutts-type character is needed to seal the deal on Ineos. Ainslie isn’t Russell and the days of doing one’s best have long since passed. This is now a one-shot Cup for Ben.
However, the sum of Ben Ainslie adds up to more, far more, than just this tumultuous quest for the Holy Grail of yachting. When Ben shows up at the local Sea Scouts (as he did recently) or sails a Scow at the Beaulieu River 50th Anniversary , it’s almost akin to a Royal visit such is the esteem that he holds in British yachting circles. As an inspiration to the young, he’s peerless. In Britain he’s everything. Untouchable. And he wears that role so well. The Auld Mug in the Royal Yacht Squadron would send his legend stratospheric and you know what? He might just do it this time.
But have a watch for yourself. It’s a riveting twenty-six minutes of the very highest production in our sport with one of the greatest of all time. Well done to SailGP for brightening our winter gloom and good on Ben for his honesty.
Like all great British sporting heroes, you hold your breath when you watch them, you invest, you will, you pray, you dream. If it’s the hope that kills, we all died a long time ago in British yachting…but there’s something in the air this time.