Seeking the America’s Cup, Solo Champ Learns to Share

For Ben Ainslie, who made his name sailing Finns and Lasers, the transition from soloist to team-player hasn't been easy. "First Beat" from our February 6, 2007 /SW eNewsletter/


For three-time Olympian and seven-time world champion Ben Ainslie, who made his name sailing Finns and Lasers, the transition from soloist to team-player hasn’t been easy. In 2002, after training with New Zealand’s OneWorld America’s Cup syndicate for 14 months, Ainslie quit the team to focus on his 2004 Olympic campaign. With his current employer, Emirates Team New Zealand, Ainslie turned down a spot as A-team strategist in order to serve as B-team skipper. Some might characterize those decisions as self-centered, but few would question Ainslie’s capacity for teamwork given his performance last fall, when he and four of his Emirates teammates won the Allianz Cup in San Francisco. For the January/February 2007 issue of Sailing World, Stuart Streuli interviewed Ainslie following his Allianz Cup victory. Here is that interview in its entirety:You’re down in New Zealand at the moment, is that correct?Yeah, that’s right. We’re in Auckland and we’re in the process of our summer sailing period here. We’re sailing our new boat, NZL-92, and everything’s going really well.It’s got to be fun for you, a new boat and you get to take the helm.It’s good. It’s nice to finally have two new boats. We had our first new boat last year; we started sailing it during the summer period a year ago. So now to have two new generation boats is nice and they’re very closely matched and we actually get time on the water.Are you focusing mostly on speed as opposed to match racing?We’re basically concentrating on speed, getting as much as we can out of the new boat and tuning it up. Like you would any other boat really. It takes a lot of time and obviously there are a lot more variables in an America’s Cup boat. Moving on to the Allianz Cup. You were a last-minute fill-in. How did you come to race in the event?Dean [Barker] was originally scheduled to go to that event and we had a last-minute change the week before. We decided it was better that he stay back in Auckland so then I got to go. It was a great opportunity and it’s good to go to San Francisco and do another match-racing event.Did you have enough time to prepare yourself for the regatta?Hmm. Yeah. I wasn’t really that sure going into it to be honest. It was only literally five days before I left that I knew was going. When Dean was going we did some practice down in Auckland, we did a couple of days in the MRXs down here. Neither Dean nor I had done any match racing since the Brazil Cup in March, so we were a little bit rusty. Those two days were probably what saved us going into the Allianz Cup. We slowly improved throughout the regatta, so it was a nice feeling when you’re doing that, when you can feel as a team you’re getting better though an event. It gives you a lot of confidence.You and Terry [Hutchinson] haven’t sailed together a lot. What steps did you take to make that partnership as effective as possible?We’ve raced against each other a lot in practice. I was really impressed by Terry and the way we worked together. It was much better than I could’ve imagined. It was just a case of getting on with it. You’re professionals, you get to the position, and you do as good as job as you possibly can. It worked really well. The rest of the team was James Dagg, Tony Rae on the mainsheet, and Jeremy Lomas on the bow. None of us has been together as a match-racing team before, but it was really great how the whole thing gelled.You sailed this event with five, which allowed Terry to sit back with you as he didn’t have any other responsibilities. Was that a big help?We actually started out with the plan of him being on the bow. But after the first hour of practice he swiftly got moved off the bow by our America’s Cup bowman, which freed [Terry] up a lot more to concentrate on the tactics. That was pretty crucial in San Francisco because we had quite difficult conditions. It was very tricky, very shifty and lots of current, so having someone like Terry making the calls that he made really made a big difference.It seemed like you were quite aggressive in the finals in the pre-start with Ed Baird. Was that by design?I think it was just how it worked out. We had an extremely aggressive semifinals with Ian Williams, who, without a doubt, is the most aggressive guy out there on the circuit. He really gets stuck in. That works for him a lot of the time but it can also be his undoing as well, and that’s sort of how it worked for us in the semifinal against him. So having been through a real bust-up like that, we were maybe slightly more revved up than Ed, who cruised through 3-nil against Jesper Bank. So it was pretty much as expected. Ed’s one of those guys who can be aggressive when we wants to, or he can sail his own race when he wants to. The first race was very close at the windward mark, especially, and I made a terminal error or misjudgement and picked up two penalties and that was pretty much that race. But after that we really got three good starts and sailed some good races in the shifts and sailed away, so it was great.Do you think this win moves you up a notch in terms of the world match racing scene?Certainly. I’ve been focusing a lot more on match racing the last few years I’ve been with Team New Zealand than when I was focused on Olympic sailing. It’s been the focus for the whole team with the America’s Cup in mind. Most importantly for me, it’s nice to win an event after trying for a couple of years. I’m sure it will help a lot in the future to know that…being able to go out and win a big event like that.So you’re seeing the America’s Cup and match racing as being a large part of your future?Yeah. That and Olympic sailing. Having the Olympics in London in 2012 is a big draw for any English sailor. That’s going to be important. Also a big goal of mine is to win the America’s Cup and be an America’s Cup skipper. I want to work hard on that as well.You cut off your first Cup campaign with OneWorld to focus on the Olympic sailing. This one seems to be going more smoothly. Have you changed, or is the ETNZ effort different from what you experienced at OneWorld?It’s a bit of both. I have a much better understanding of big boat sailing and big teams than I did when I was a 22-year-old just out of the Sydney Olympics. Also with Team New Zealand my role is much more rewarding, much more what I want to be doing in terms of helming an America’s Cup boat and learning how to match race. Whereas at OneWorld I didn’t feel like I was going in the direction I wanted to go in. Those are the two biggest differences really.You made the call to drive rather than have a spot on the A boat. How has that decision worked out?It’s proven to be the right decision. As I said earlier, my goal is to be an America’s Cup helmsman. I’m not really going to achieve that by working as a strategist. At some stage you’ve got to do the hours and learn the trade, whatever you’re doing. There aren’t many people who step from a dinghy into being an America’s Cup helmsman. You’ve got to learn how to sail the boat, how to do all the maneuvers, how to match race, how to work with 16 other guys. It doesn’t just happen. This is a great opportunity for me to learn this, especially with guys like Rod Davis on the coaching team.Is your role set as the B-boat helmsman?In every position in our team we’re very strong in that we have a really good backup, someone who can step in and be good enough to win, if they need to. That’s no different in the helming position. Having said that, Dean and the rest of the afterguard have done an amazing job, especially last year in the final act. That’s been our team for a long time now and that’s not going to change. What about your Finn plans. Is 2008 in Qingdao still on your radar?Absolutely. I went down to China in August and was really impressed by the Olympic venue down there. The conditions were difficult as everyone expected, but they managed to get all the races in and I was very impressed by all the efforts of the Chinese. Certainly I’m very keen to be there in 2008. It’s slightly difficult qualifying in England. We have a huge squad and a lot of guys and girls getting really good results at the Olympic level. So that’s going to be the biggest challenge for me. But I would love to be there.What about 2012? Still in the Finn?I would love to sail the Star if that’s still on the Olympic roster. Who knows what ISAF’s going to come up with. But it’s always been an ambition of mine to sail Star so perhaps if that was still in the Games in 2012 that would be a good goal to go for.In winning medals in the Laser and Finn you proved your athleticism. Is match racing showing people you can be a cerebral sailor as well?Match racing is much more a quick-thinking game. Laser sailing and Finn sailing is about a lot of different aspects- fitness, endurance. Downwind speed comes into Olympic sailing much more than it does in yacht racing because the gains you can make are that much bigger. You definitely realize that you can’t afford to make as many mistakes in match racing as in Olympic sailing, so that’s been a big learning curve for me. I would like to be successful in both aspects of the sport.


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