ON THE glass panel of his office in the gleaming new £15million building that bears his name in Portsmouth Dockyard, Sir Ben Ainslie has chosen the words of John McEnroe to inspire him each morning: “I’ll let the racket do the talking.”
Sir Ben is not one for talking much – although he has found himself doing rather a lot of it having set himself the small task of bringing the America’s Cup to Britain for the first time in 164 years.
The most decorated Olympic sailor of all time with four gold medals, the winner of 11 world titles, has always preferred to let his achievements do the talking.
He has won the cup before in 2013 when Oracle Team USA turned to him as they were taking a thrashing from Emirates Team New Zealand, and he inspired one of the greatest sporting comebacks of all time from 8-1 down to win 9-8.
But bringing the trophy back to its spiritual home would top even that.
“It’s the only major sporting event that we have never won,” he says.
“It is about being the best of British, to right that wrong and bring the cup home. If I didn’t think it was possible, trust me, I would not be doing it.”
Sir Ben’s patriotic streak is as wide as the English Channel, underlined by the flags he drapes around his shoulders at every win to the Union Jack painted on the vast doors of his new Land Rover BAR headquarters.
It is the driving force behind his latest, greatest endeavour.
The America’s Cup is the oldest international sporting trophy still running, named after the schooner from the New York Yacht Club that won it in 1851 off the Isle of Wight.
It remained in American hands for more than a century as British contenders tried and failed to wrest it back but in 1983 Australia finally claimed the “Auld Mug”, as it is affectionately called.
Since then it has become an arms race between billionaires pouring their fortunes into ever more advanced – and expensive – boats and crews.
But Sir Ben has played a big part in the rule changes for the 35th edition, which begins this month with the World Series racing off Portsmouth from July 23 to 26, culminating in the America’s Cup match in Bermuda in 2017, driving down costs and introducing rules that ensure more sailors race under their “home” flag.
“You get some teams where guys are being quite mercenary, they are being paid to go out there and win something for an individual,” he says.
“Our team, it’s about trying to do it for your country.”
Sir Ben is not the only Briton involved.
Many of the sailors from all seven entrants are from these shores and another challenger, the Swedish-backed Artemis Racing, is skippered by Sir Ben’s old Olympic teammate Iain Percy.
It will be a bittersweet reunion for the pair.
The last time they raced America’s Cup boats on the same water their friend Andrew “Bart” Simpson, who won Olympic gold in the Star class with Percy in 2008, was killed when Artemis capsized while training in San Francisco Bay.
“I think of him often,” admits Sir Ben, who witnessed the accident and has since set up the Andrew Simpson Foundation to encourage more children to sail.
“Just the other day he was in my mind because now we’re here [in Portsmouth] we’re training in Hayling Bay where we did a lot of our training as youngsters.
Bart’s family had a two-bedroom flat there and about 10 of us would pile into it and live there for weeks on end. Seeing it all brought back some strong memories of the good old days.”
Since those days as an up-andcoming junior Sir Ben has rarely found himself in a team environment having won his gold medals in single-handed dinghies.
For the majority of his career it was just him and his coach. Now he runs a business that employs more than 80 people.
“It’s totally different,” he says.
“In any team environment you’re going to have frustrations from time to time at how things are.
“With this team, I started it, I’ve been involved in every decision, every hiring and firing to make sure I’ve got the right people. It has been a fascinating process.
“I’m not a natural showman but I’m deeply passionate about this project, about bringing the Cup home. And this to my mind is the best chance we have and we’re going the best way about it. So I’m more than prepared to put myself forward, take that on and the pressures that come with it.”
Easing those pressures is the new Mrs Ainslie, the former Sky Sports presenter Georgie Thompson.
They met when he was racing in San Francisco in 2013 and married at Hampton Court in December 2014.
“Marriage has helped because it’s now clear what my path is. I’m not worrying about my private life or my future,” he said.
“I really do enjoy that feeling of being settled – especially with all of this going on around me. It’s really important to me to have someone I trust and respect at home to come back to after a really tough day. I try not to take work home too much but it’s brilliant to talk things through with her.”
Georgie, who now presents Fighting Talk on Five Live, helped with the interior design of the Land Rover Ben Ainslie Racing HQ along with Francesca Grade, the wife of Lord Grade, who is a director.
But Sir Ben is quietly relieved that her involvement ended there.
“That’s probably a good thing. There’s a limit to how much you want to be living together and working together,” he says.
“I’m sure she’s going to be one of our patrons and she’s very supportive. She does media work, she writes a lot and she has started an interior design business with Francesca. She doesn’t sit still, Georgie, she’s always got something going on. It’s never dull.”
Rather like the boats he now sails. The latest generation America’s Cup craft are 45ft wing-sailed, foiling catamarans that rise out of the water and can reach speeds of 45mph – frighteningly quick and hair-raising to sail.
Comparing them with the dinghies and monohulls of Sir Ben’s earlier career is like comparing video recorders with Netflix.
And yet one thing remains the same – it is named Rita.
“All my boats are called Rita,” Sir Ben says.
“When I was a boy I was racing in Tenerife and my mum went off to a church and she came across Saint Rita. I ended up winning and my mum decided this would be my lucky charm. I was about 10 years old. Since then every boat has been called Rita. It’s a nice thing.
“It has been a huge shift with the foiling boats. A lot of the younger guys coming through, that’s all they have known. Others like myself and Iain, we’ve come through Olympic cycles and the old lead mines as we call them, the old America’s Cup boats. But we’ve got the skills.
“And we are really fortunate because we did it in those classic boats, which were awesome, really powerful. There was that whole pre-start match-racing game, really skilful. To have been involved with that was a privilege. And now, these boats are so cool, so much fun to sail, really exhilarating and we’re a part of that too. Two different eras.
“It is a totally different sport. You’re flying really.”
Sir Ben once began to learn to fly planes too but like so many things his desire for a pilot’s licence was put on hold when his Olympic dreams took off.
“I never finished it,” he says.
“It’s on the 10-year plan but it will have to wait. I want the America’s Cup first.”
Some tickets are still available for the America’s Cup World Series in Portsmouth, July 23-26. Go to ticketmaster.co.uk/acwsportsmout
by TIM GOW