ISLE OF WIGHT England (Reuters) - Ben Ainslie isn’t angry, but sailing’s most successful Olympian is clearly irritated.
After a text book start to the annual “Round the Island Race” off Cowes, Ainslie and his crew aboard the sleek green racing yacht “Rebel” are locked in a tacking duel with another 45-footer called “Toe in the Water”.
It is 6.45 a.m. and under clear blue skies what promises to be a slow 50 nautical mile race has only just begun.
But with precious little wind, areas of “pressure” evident as darker patches on the calm waters, every turn of the boat – known as a “tack” – slows it down against a fast-running tide.
“We’re coming after you,” Ainslie says, half jokingly, half menacingly, after one of several close encounters with the maroon yacht. Its skipper has clearly decided to engage Britain’s America’s Cup hopeful by matching him tack for tack.
The 37-year-old Briton, who warned fellow competitors “you don’t want to make me angry” at the 2012 Olympics before going on to clinch gold in the single-handed Finn dinghy, gradually draws away as his boat makes its way up the Solent.
With an Olympic medal tally of four golds and one silver in consecutive games, Ainslie’s success continued last year when he helped bring Oracle Team USA back from the brink of defeat in the America’s Cup in San Francisco.
That remarkable victory helped him to launch his own campaign this month, signing up private sponsors, a design team and a crew including three-times America’s Cup winner Jono Macbeth, another New Zealand veteran Andy McLean and Britons David Carr, Matt Cornwell and Nick Hutton.
With this team, Ainslie is aiming to bring the “Auld Mug” to Britain for the first time since the trophy was won in an historic race around the Isle of Wight by the U.S. schooner “America” in August 1851.
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The 2014 circumnavigation was meant to be an easy outing for Ainslie and his newly formed America’s Cup challenge team. But a last minute rigging glitch foiled hopes of a record attempt on board the 100-foot state-of-the art yacht “Leopard”.
So with only 45 minutes of practice on board “Rebel”, this is the first time Ainslie, Macbeth, McLean, Cornwell and Carr have raced together as a team.
By Ainslie’s standards, it is a recreational sail. A year ago, the stakes were much higher as he went for a record.
On a gusty day, Ainslie and his Ben Ainslie Racing (BAR) team broke the multi hull record for the race, rounding the island in just three hours and 44 minutes on a smaller version of the AC72 catamaran on which he later won the America’s Cup.
The mood was very different then. The day before he and friends including fellow Olympian Iain Percy had carried the coffin of their friend Andrew “Bart” Simpson, who died in San Francisco Bay when the catamaran he was training on capsized.
Ainslie recalls how he left Simpson’s wake at midnight and was picked up by a launch from Southampton on the mainland at 2 a.m to take him to Cowes to be ready for the start of the race.
He says that Simpson’s death will mean more rigorous structural tests for the new generation of catamarans in the next America’s Cup, where he expects seven or eight teams to compete for the right to challenge Oracle Team USA.
Getting his own team ready is a huge project, involving the construction of a base in Portsmouth and the building of practice boats, which the team will hone its skills on in the waters through which he is now sailing.
Ainslie’s crew say he is working night and day to get the money and backing he needs to make the bid a success.
Their skipper says they have raised around 40 percent of the 80 million pounds ($136.06 million) he reckons is needed to successfully become the challenger to Oracle Team USA in 2017, including the cost of building a new high-tech 62-foot catamaran.
“I would love to bring the America’s Cup back here. The America’s Cup is about designing and building the fastest boat and then going out and sailing it really well,” Ainslie told Reuters on board “Rebel” during Saturday’s race.
“We’ve been having some really good early discussions with a number of different brands and businesses. So I‘m pretty confident we will be there and we will have the funding that we need,” he added.
Once past the jagged chalk rocks known as the Needles which protrude from the western end of the Isle of Wight, “Rebel” is clearly ahead of “Toe in the Water” and builds a healthy lead around the southern side of the island.
Ainslie is more relaxed, but still watching for every wind shift and giving instructions on tactics or trimming the boat. He never raises his voice, his directions more like wishes such as “I‘m thinking about...” or “You might want to...”.
There is genuine affection for Ainslie among the newly-formed team, with Carr referring to him as “Guv” throughout the race as he seeks advice or reassurance on tactics.
And they rib their skipper when he ventures to the front of the boat, saying he’s about to produce a couple of distress flares and hold them aloft, in a recreation of the posture he adopted when he celebrated his last Olympic gold medal.
Ainslie responds with words of encouragement when the crew pull off a tricky “gybe” maneuver really well.
But any talk of line honours in the Round the Island Race is dashed when “Rebel” and the other leading boats pile up in a wind hole with just four miles still to go. “Toe in the Water” is able to spot the trouble ahead and manages to keep sailing.
Then the wind drops completely and Ainslie has no option but to “kedge”, dropping the anchor to stop the boat being swept backwards by the tide. Of the 1584 boats which entered the race, more than half retired, with only 715 finishing.
“Who says sailing isn’t fun?” Ainslie says, with a wry smile, breaking the despondent silence among the crew.
When the breeze does finally pick up again, Ainslie tries to find more wind on the opposite side of the channel.
But his gamble doesn’t pay off and by the time “Rebel” crosses the finish line after 10 hours and 18 minutes, “Toe in the Water” has comfortably beaten the America’s Cup winner.
“We had a great race... we got around in one piece, that’s the main thing,” says Ainslie with a smile as he looks forward to helming a fast catamaran in the Extreme Sailing Series in St. Petersburg later this week.
($1 = 0.5880 British Pounds)
Editing by Ossian Shine