In 2014 Olympic and America’s Cup sailing champion Sir Ben Ainslie launched Britain’s latest America’s Cup Bid, headed by himself. I went down to Greenwich for Boat International magazine to see some sailors, some rich people, a royal person, a boat and some photographers. The photographer for this spread was Mark Lloyd/Lloyd Images.
These things always start well, in the sunshine, with big smiles, and the hope that gets you up in the morning, and the hope that kills you slowly, by inches. And they always, always end in failure. Football fans on this island sing about 50 years of hurt since winning the World Cup; try 163 years of nothing, ever, in the whole history of a competition. British teams have tried 17 times to win the America’s Cup and missed so comprehensively that no one even bothered to sing about it. Now it’s the turn of Sir Ben Ainslie, and he’s serious. He’s serious about everything.
The official launch of Ben Ainslie Racing (BAR)’s America’s Cup bid, with photo call and press conference, is Britain with its best clothes and makeup on. The only surprise is David Beckham is not here to give the team his backing; but Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, is, slim and pretty as she walks towards the press photographers across the broad lawn of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. ‘Move a bit to the left, love,’ they shout from behind their rope, as she cosies up to the actual America’s Cup, sat on a plinth. In the shadow of buildings where King Charles I once strolled, outside broadcast trucks stand, sprouting jacked-up aerials and big satellite dishes.
Stood just behind the Duchess is Ainslie and his team, a fit-looking group, wearing deep tans and new blazers. The centrepiece is an agreeably used and battered AC45, used by BAR during the last World Series, propped to 45 degrees, foil pointing at the sky. To one side, their friends and family broil lightly in the morning sun. This isn’t just a sailing press conference, it’s something bigger, grander and slightly weirder.
Greenwich is a most appropriate location for such an event. One street over, past three good pubs and about 12 coffee shops, is the tea clipper Cutty Sark. She is from the 1860s, the same era as the early America’s Cups, and was a technological marvel herself, master of the trade winds before steam came along and spoilt all the fun. And these very lawns were transformed into an arena for the equestrian events during the London 2012 Olympics. There is more than a whiff of those Olympics about this endeavour, the Games that proved Britain could pull together a dream team of all the talents and create something for the global stage that worked. BAR is an explicitly British bid (‘We’re bringing the Cup back home,’ says Ainslie) and one of its most important members is Sir Keith Mills, the businessman and administrator so involved with the London Games, and the Paralympics.
A little later, inside the Great Hall of the Queen’s House next door to the Museum, a bust of Horatio Nelson stares bleakly from the front wall at the press conference. With Lord Grade making the presentation, in the front row sit the team principals Charles Dunstone, Keith Mills and Ainslie, all knights of the realm. The atmosphere is positively thick with titles and power. Another dream team of all the talents.
It is curious to see Ainslie in this position, as he walks on stage, dark and wiry, and makes those sound bites about bringing it home. Dunstone describes his competitive edge as ‘chilling’ and Ainslie has always seemed way too intense and introspective for his growing media profile. Life as an Olympics footnote suited him – all those bitter single-handed battles a mile offshore (‘and gold too for Ben Ainslie in the Laser…’). When an excited interviewer told him that he was Britain’s most successful Olympic sailor ever and the fourth-winningest Briton full stop, after his epic Finn victory in 2012, Ainslie’s response was an impassive ‘yeah’ from behind very dark sunglasses.
But now he has been forced out of himself. That stainless-steel sheen of success in battle has created its own gravitational well, pulling everything towards it. His team has private backing of immense wealth, and he is cheerleader and senior sales executive for an outfit that requires tens of millions of commercial sponsorship. ‘Yeah’ won’t cut it when you’re driving a juggernaut full of cash and national expectations. He stands on stage looking like a singer who’s still not quite sure of the song, while national journalists ask him tough questions.
Even without the spectres of Peter de Savary, Anthony Boyden and Thomas Lipton frowning at BAR from history, Ainslie knows he is up against it. The America’s Cup is a theatre of the mega rich, where people and careers are pounded to pieces in a game where only skill, money and ego count, and second is nothing. This is not, as the boxer Ricky Hatton once told his own pre-fight press conference, a tickling contest.
And yet. And yet, this feels different. De Savary’s 1983 effort, Britain’s last, was a grand adventure by brave eccentrics (he himself says, ‘The British team of 1983 was a mixed bag of those with talent, with humour, hard workers, dedicated fanatics, boys and girls and a few with genuine handicaps’); Australia’s win in the same Cup was greeted with eye-bulging disbelief, a strange dent in the smooth shape of the sailing universe. But Ainslie already has his hands on the Cup (the only Brit to be part of a winning boat) and the six British sailors are bolstered by sailing team manager Jono Macbeth, a three-time Cup winner from New Zealand, and another experienced Kiwi, Andy McLean. It may say ‘Britain’ on the tin, and have royal approval, but BAR seems more like a franchise – strongly patriotic, yes, but cleverly stocked with professionals who already know the feel of winning.
But that’s the hope again, isn’t it? And after 163 years, it still has the power to kill you.
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