Ben Ainslie interview

Interview: Ben Ainslie The Trophy Hunter | Sailing 2017

Ben Ainslie interview


Sir Ben Ainslie is the most successful sailor in Olympic history – so why is he risking his winning reputation for the elusive America’s Cup, asks Jeremy Taylor. This feature was originally featured in July 2016.

Sir Ben Ainslie doesn’t enjoy coming second. The last time he did so at a major competition was at his first Olympics in 1996. From then on, gold has been the only colour in his trophy cabinet.

Four consecutive Olympic titles, multiple world championships and knighted in 2013, he was even given the honour of carrying the flag for the British team at the 2012 Olympic closing ceremony. Ainslie put British sailing on the map and it would be understandable if he never stepped in a boat again.

However, the 39-year-old isn’t finished quite yet and has embroiled himself in his toughest challenge to date – bringing the America’s Cup home to Britain for the very first time. ‘I had two ambitions as a child, to have an Olympic gold medal and win the America’s Cup.

Many Brits have tried for the latter but it hasn’t happened since the event started, back in 1851,’ says Ainslie. ‘Immediately after I won my last gold medal at Weymouth in 2012, I said I probably wouldn’t compete at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. It was quite an emotional moment but my campaign to win the next America’s Cup in 2017 has already proved a massive effort.’

Ainslie actually won the America’s Cup in 2013 with Oracle Team USA. At the time, the victory was described as the ‘greatest comeback ever’, with the Americans trailing Team New Zealand 8-1 in San Francisco Bay. Then Ainslie was asked to take charge of the yacht as tactician.

In a remarkable turnaround, he used all his sailing know-how to bring Oracle back from the brink, winning the 17-race series 8-9. ‘It was amazing to win in 2013 but now I want to bring the cup home. This is probably the only major trophy we haven’t won. The Tour de France eluded us for a long time too, then Bradley Wiggins cycled into the history books in 2012.

’ The America’s Cup is the oldest trophy in international sport. Originally awarded by the Royal Yacht Squadron for a race around the Isle of Wight, the first event in 1851 featured 15 British boats and just one team from the USA. However, the schooner America proved more than a match for British yachtsmen and finished 18 minutes ahead of its closest rival.

Later, the trophy was renamed the America’s Cup after it was donated to the New York Yacht Club. ‘Despite numerous attempts to win it back, every one has ended in glorious failure. It’s part of our British maritime history – the last great sporting hurdle we have to cross. My team is aiming to right that wrong. Had I been involved in that first race in 1851, I would have been furious.

The British were absolutely trounced. It would have been very embarrassing for everyone who took part. It’s that 166 years of hurt that needs to end in 2017.’

Before he takes on holders Oracle USA in Bermuda next May, Ainslie is guaranteed another special moment this summer. He and his wife, Georgie Thompson, a former Sky News presenter, are expecting their first child. ‘It’s due this month [July], so that’s a very exciting prospect.

I have named all my racing boats Rita but I can guarantee that if the baby’s a girl, she will have a different name!’ Ainslie’s single-minded determination to win the America’s Cup for Britain saw him set up Ben Ainslie Racing (BAR) in 2014, based in Portsmouth. He then had to raise £85m to get his boat in the water.

‘The challenge of raising the money was a completely new experience – way beyond anything I had ever done before. Thankfully, we had the support of many individuals and companies Land Rover, BT, JCB and Siemens.’ Ainslie says he was driven about his sailing career from a young age. ‘When I was eight, I woke up on Christmas Day to find a dinghy in my bedroom.

It was a fantastic present and I remember dashing to pull on my coat and wellies to head straight out onto the water. My father, Rod, sailed in the first Whitbread Round the World Race in 1973 and has had a big influence on my career. I caught the sailing bug because of him and have never looked back.’ He calls his latest, 45-foot catamaran a ‘fighter jet on water’.

Capable of reaching 50mph, the AC45 T2 flies on foils the size of a wakeboard, rising the water in strong winds to skim across the surface and reduce drag. ‘It’s the most amazing ride. And because you aren’t protected from the elements, the and noise and sensation of movement is amplified to the point where it feels you are taking off.

’The rigid sails are the same size as the wings of a 747 jet, helping the boat trap as much wind as possible. Much of the hydraulic technology on board has been borrowed from Formula One too, with ex-McLaren guru Martin Whitmarsh now part of the team. His talents will make Ainslie’s boat go faster still.

At least Ainslie doesn’t have to worry about his diet so much this summer. In the larger boats used for the America’s Cup campaign, crew weight isn’t such an issue. ‘Before every Olympics I had to bulk up from 85kg to 93kg, eating whatever I d and drinking those awful protein drinks.

It sounds unhealthy but I used to burn up to 5,000 calories a day dinghy racing. Now I’ve retired from that, I don’t have to worry about maintaining my weight so much. Finally I can throw those shakes away for good.

’ Ainslie says it will feel strange not being at Rio this summer to support his friends in the Olympic sailing team – and for the first time in 20 years he will watch the event on television. ‘I’ve had offers to commentate but, to be honest, we are so flat out with testing that I haven’t got time.

I’ve also moved on from my Olympic career – winning the America’s Cup for Britain is the next great adventure.’

The America’s Cup

The America’s Cup is the oldest international sporting trophy. It was made by Garrard of London, the world’s oldest jeweller.

It was named after the New York Yacht Club’s yacht America, which won the Royal Yacht Squadron’s Annual Isle of Wight regatta in 1851, with an 18-minute lead.

The New York Yacht Club defended the Cup for an unbroken 132 years, ending in 1983, when it was won by the Royal Perth Yacht Club in Australia.

Big Ben Moments

1985: Eight-year-old Ainslie takes to the water with his family for the first time at Restronguet, Cornwall 1992: Wins the Optimist dingy national championships 1995: Wins gold at the youth world championships in Bermuda 1996: Wins silver in the Laser Class at the Atlanta Olympics 2000: Wins gold at Sydney Olympics 2004: Wins Finn dinghy world championships and gold at Athens Olympics 2008: Wins gold at Beijing Olympics 2012: Wins sixth Finn world championship and gold at London Olympics 2013: Knighted and wins America’s Cup with US team 2014: Launched Ben Ainslie Racing campaign to win America’s Cup for Britain for the first time

This interview was originally featured in July 2016. The 35th America’s Cup takes place on 26 May 2017.

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Sir Ben Ainslie on his scariest experience on water and why his favourite place is on land

Ben Ainslie interview

Sir Ben Ainslie, the gold medal-winning Olympic sailor, recalls his surreal first trip to Japan, his love for the mountains and why he wasn't a fan of Moscow.

The longest race of my life..

was the Transpac yacht race in 2009. It started in Los Angeles and covered more than 2,225 miles (3,580km) of open ocean before ending in Hawaii, which was my first visit there.

We did it in just over five days, which broke the record. It was incredibly intense but really fun sailing with the trade winds for most of the passage.

It felt special to see Diamond Head, an imposing volcanic cone on Oahu, for the first time too.

I’m not a fan of lazing about…

when I’m on holiday. I need to keep active even while I’m away, so sitting on a beach sunbathing is not for me.

View of the Diamond Head volcano in OahuCredit:AP

Plenty of distractions and snacks are key..

for my travels at the moment since my wife Georgie [Thompson, the television presenter] and I became parents to 19-month-old Bellatrix, who’s been a great traveller so far. Our priorities are family-friendly hotels and as she gets older, it will be ones with kids’ clubs so we can enjoy some downtime.

I love being in the mountains..

taking in the fresh air and seeing the beauty of it all. Georgie and I are keen skiers and we had a short break to Megève in France at the new year. I hadn’t been skiing for four years to avoid risking injury, so it was great to get back on the slopes. The snow conditions were fantastic.

The alpine landscape of Megève, France

Despite spending so much of my life on water..

London is actually one of my favourite places in Britain. It has such an amazing combination of culture, history and restaurants. We should be very proud of everything it has to offer.

Cornwall is one of the world’s most beautiful places..

to me even after having travelled all over the globe. I grew up there and have great memories of learning to sail in Falmouth with my dad. If you’re a novice sailor, it’s a great place to learn because the estuary is enclosed and safe, and there are some great sailing schools.

Porthminster Beach in St Ives, CornwallCredit:©Ian Woolcock –

My first time in Tokyo was so surreal…

at such a young age. I was there for my first international race at age 11. I remember being blown away by all the bright lights, big buildings and hustle and bustle.

My lifelong love…

of Japanese food began on that trip. But now San Francisco is home to one of my favourite Japanese restaurants – the understated Ozumo in the Embarcadero district. I love the sushi but also recommend the Dohyo dish – a spicy tuna tartare with avocado, cucumber and wasabi oil.

I absolutely adore Japan…

I’ve been many times and always come away thinking it was an amazing experience. It has such an intriguing culture, the people are welcoming and friendly. It’s very peaceful just outside the cities and the beauty of the countryside is astonishing.

Tokyo's Shibuya district by nightCredit:TommL/TommL

I want to explore more of Britain…

especially Scotland, as I don’t know it very well. It’s important not to overlook places closer to home, especially for someone who’s abroad two weeks every month.

The Solent is one of my favourite places to sail..

in Britain. I’m lucky to live on the sailing hub of the Isle of Wight, where the historic America’s Cup race started back in 1851, with my team based across in Portsmouth. It hosts one of the world’s biggest races – the Round The Island race with more than 1,800 boats and 16,000 sailors.  

A panoramic view of the boats in the Round the Island Race on the Isle of Wight in 2016Credit:getty

Yarmouth has so much potential…

and it’s such a beautiful place to live. My wife and I love going to the George Hotel and walking along Ryde Beach, near our home.

Moscow felt a bit grim..

and utilitarian and I wasn’t a big fan when I was there for the Finn Class World Championships. Even though it was summer, it was cold, so it didn’t leave me with a great impression.

My most hair-raising experience…

on water was while sailing the Sydney to Hobart race, which takes place every Boxing Day covering 600 miles and crossing the Bass Strait to Tasmania, one of the roughest stretches of water anywhere.

The whole journey was very tough and on the second night the wind reached 35 knots with huge waves and despite being in a high-performance 100ft yacht, it took a beating with lots of ripped sails.

In the bag | Sir Ben Ainslie's favourite travel accessories

Queuing is a British pastime..

I know, but it’s just not for me while travelling. I hate all the queues at check-in, going through security, boarding and disembarking.

Croatia is next on my list..

I’ve never been but will be there in May and June with Land Rover BAR Gladiator for the 52 Super Series events in Sibenik on the Adriatic, at the entrance to the Kornati Islands, and Zadar on the Dalmatian coast.

Sir Ben Ainslie is the team principal and skipper of Land Rover BAR, the British America’s Cup Challenger. For more information see

Interview by Sarah Ewing


Sir Ben Ainslie Interview

Ben Ainslie interview
The British Challenger for the America’s Cup, INEOS TEAM UK has launched its first test boat in the Solent – the first of its kind for the 36th America’s CupT5 is a 28-foot foiling monohull, and has been significantly modified to match the fundamental parameters of the AC75, the class of boat that will contest the 36th America’s Cup.Credit – HARRY KH / INEOS TEAM UK

When I interviewed INEOS Team UK skipper and team principal Sir Ben Ainslie for the latest episode of The Yacht Racing Podcast it was late on a Friday afternoon after what I could only imagine was the end of another long week of preparations for the British America’s Cup syndicate.

Ainslie was speaking to me from his team’s plush headquarters in Portsmouth, England, where he told me, the weather was being characteristically wintery and unpleasant.

“It’s blowing about 40 knots and five degrees here in Portsmouth,” Ainslie said with a wry laugh.

These are not by any stretch of the imagination pleasant sailing conditions and certainly not conducive for testing sessions aboard the squad’s scaled down foiling monohull test boat.

During his Olympic campaigning days in the Laser and the Finn Ainslie was no stranger to grinding out his training in the depths of the UK winter out on the water in south coast locations Weymouth and on the Solent.

In the run up to the last Cup his Land Rover BAR challenge were regularly on the water over the winter but this time around he revealed they have taken a different approach by decamping to a top-secret warmer weather location.

“It’s a great venue [here] from March through to November – we have generally pretty good conditions. Reasonably flat water, though the tide can be a little bit of an issue in terms of performance monitoring.

“We are obviously limited with the weather in the UK over the winter months,” Ainslie admitted. “In the last campaign, we grunted up and fought through a couple of winters. I think a few sessions we were out sailing our foiling multihull around in the snow.

“This winter we’re off to a different venue for our winter training and to hopefully make that much more productive. Then, getting into launching our first race boat later on in the summer.”

Already knowing the answer I would get I nevertheless asked the question as to where the alternative training venue might be. Other than the fact that the team had moved “overseas” the Ineos skipper remained otherwise tight-lipped about the matter.

“It is [a secret] at the moment,” he said. “Probably, the other teams will find out where we are soon enough – I don’t know. We’re not going to give them any handouts here. We’ll keep it going as long as we can.”

Ainslie’s team were by a large margin the first of the America’s Cup contenders to get a foiling monohull on the water. Their 28-foot modified Quant design has room for two crew and has enabled the team to get a jump start on the constant development process all the teams are engaged in as they try to master this radical new America’s Cup class.

Despite his vast experience Ainslie described the experience of sailing the Quant as “an eye-opener”.

“As you can probably see by some of the footage, we’ve had some pretty big wipe outs, some fun moments, and some pretty exhilarating moments as well,” he said. “Really, just learning how that concept of boat sails and operates from a sailing perspective. Primarily, the focus, as you can imagine, being on the design and the development.

“What the learnings were from that went into our design for race boat one and then through to the rest of the development program.”

Ainslie admitted it had been somewhat of a leap of faith for the team when they launched the Quant for the first time to find out whether Emirates Team New Zealand’s at that stage unproven concept of a foiling monohull would actually work.

“Well, Grant Dalton told me that this boat was going to work. [He said] it was going to be a fantastic boat, so we just believed that would be the case,” Ainslie told me with an ironic tone to his voice.

“In all seriousness, we didn’t know. It only looked a very, very exciting concept. We did have a meeting with Grant and Dan Bernasconi and a few of the other guys from the other teams and talked through it. A few eyebrows were raised, and I think probably if you ask Grant and Dan honestly, they weren’t entirely sure if the concept would work either.

“But they’ve done a great job. I think it’s a really neat compromise. Clearly there was a push for monohulls and something a little bit what we’ve traditionally seen in the Cup, but also keeping these fast foiling boats alive and that development going as well.

“To a certain extent, it’s still yet to be proven at the larger scale. From what we’ve seen with our boat and American Magic with their slightly larger version, you’d to think that this concept will work at that scale and will be a very impressive yacht.”

When I asked him if he could envisage what it is going to be to sail the full-sized 75-foot AC75 for real, Ainslie paused before telling me:

“I’ve got some feel for it in my mind – just the performance predictions, and so on. It’s going to be an exceptional boat. To look at it’s going to be an extremely impressive boat. To sail it, it’s going to be a huge challenge.

“You look at the roles on the boat – the energy consumption, having the Code Zero, the sail handling, the manoeuvres – it’s going to be really hands-on for the sailing team to be able to sail the boat to its maximum performance and to handle it that way.

“Then, the proposed race courses, size of the courses, boundaries, and so on. I think we’re going to really have our work cut out from a sailor’s perspective, which is good. It’s what you want. You want to be pushed to the limit. I think we certainly will see that.”

Ainslie’s decision to sever ties with his existing sponsor base in favour of a single deal with Britain’s richest businessman Sir Jim Ratcliffe – the fiercely patriotic owner of the Britishmultinational chemicals company Ineos – made waves in the sailing industry when it was announced.

Was it really true that the 110-million-pound deal had been done over a pint in a London pub, I asked?

“There’s a little bit of conjecture whether it was a pint or gin and tonic,” Ainslie replied. “I think there was a quote where he said it was the most expensive gin and tonic [ever], in his experience.

“We met through a mutual friend and got on very, very well. We had this common goal or interest in sport, British sport and Jim really was attracted to the technical element of the America’s Cup, and the history and prestige as well. We managed to move forward, and it’s been fantastic.”

According to Ainslie Ratcliffe he and Ineos Team UK CEO Grant Simmer meet with Ratcliffe once or twice a month to update him on the campaign’s progress.

“He’s very, very interested and engaged in what we’re up to – both from the sporting side and the technical side,” he said. “I’m sure as we get closer to getting into competition and closer to the Cup itself, will become more and more engaged. Obviously, the INEOS business is growing and is incredibly successful and that is Jim’s main focus.

“But he really wants this campaign to be a success. That’s what we want to deliver for him, for the rest of the team, and for British sailing.”

Did only having to deal with one backer simplify things for Ainslie, I asked, and free him up to focus more on the sailing side of the challenge?

“Yes, it does definitely,” Ainslie replied. “Last time around we were obviously a new organisation and we had some extremely generous investors and sponsors. But it was very difficult in that by the time we got that funding in place we were behind the existing teams from 2013.

“Really [we were] playing catch up from day one and obviously weren’t able to bridge that gap – although I thought the team did an incredible job, particularly in the last four or five months of the campaign to really make some big gains in performance.

“Then, we had this understandably difficult process coming back, identifying where in the organisation we didn’t perform well enough [and asking] what changes do we need to make?

“Going through the proposals from Grant Dalton and Max [Sirena] and the guys at Luna Rossa about the next cycle there was a realisation that: this is a really impressive boat – but it isn’t going to be cheap. Looking at the commercial world, especially in the UK with Brexit and the financial markets and so on we realised it was going to be a real, real struggle to raise the required budget.

“Now, we’re very fortunate to have the backing, the budget committed, and to be able to make some really nice changes. To be able to attract people Grant Simmer and Nick Holroyd and some other key signings to help bolster us in a few key areas has made a great difference.

“I’m really delighted with the way the team has developed and where we’ve got ourselves to. [Also though] we are acutely aware of the challenge ahead and the quality of the teams that we’re up against.”

When I asked for his view on the arbitration case reputedly going on at the moment regarding the status of three late entry teams, Ainslie was understandably reluctant to make any comment given the sensitivity of the situation.

However he did tell me that the British team put its full confidence in the arbitration process and the ability of the three-man panel to sort things out equitably.

“Ultimately the arbitration panel have got to decide this, and we just want this to be decided as quickly as possible,” he said.

“We just want to get on with this and any indecision or uncertainty about what teams are entering or not only has a knock-on effect to delay the process of getting foil-arms [part of the one-design supplied elements of the AC75s supplied to all the teams] delivered and event schedules out and building towards a good competition.

“We put our faith in the arbitration panel, and we are sure they will come to a sound judgement and then we will all crack on with it. That’s how it really works and we look forward to them resolving this issue as soon as possible.

“That’s in the interests of the competition so we can get into racing next year.”

You can listen to Justin’s full interview with Sir Ben on Episode 8 of the Yacht Racing Podcast. It’s available on iTunes/Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify and most other major podcast hubs.

By Justin Chisholm – International Sailing Writer