The Olympic Virtuoso: Sir Ben Ainslie

A conversation with Sir Ben Ainslie, skipper and founder of the UK's team Land Rover BAR.

America's Cup, Sir Ben Ainslie, Land Rover BAR
Sir Ben Ainslie is the most decorated sailor in Olympic history, and his unflinching goal is to bring the Cup back to the UK.Shaun Roster/Team Origin

An Olympic medal ceremony represents one of sailing’s grandest peaks, and there is no Olympic sailor more decorated than Sir Ben Ainslie, CBE, who has collected five medals in five consecutive Games, four of them gold.

Oracle Team USA drafted ­Ainslie following the London 2012 Olympics — his ­Olympic swan song — for the 34th America’s Cup, and he came aboard as tactician when the team was 0-4 against Emirates Team New Zealand. This change, coupled with yacht-design and crew-work changes, facilitated OTUSA’s stunning juggernaut win. Now, Ainslie and his Land Rover BAR (Ben Ainslie Racing) team are battling to reclaim the Cup for Queen and country.

Q:

Was it hard transitioning from single-handed Olympic-class boats to crewed Cup boats?

A:

I’ve been sailing [on] America’s Cup teams since 2000, right after the Sydney Olympics, so the two things have run side by side. Initially, as [a] single-handed sailor, it took a bit of getting used to sailing with 16 other guys, as [Cup sailing] was back then. Over the years, though, I’ve learned that it’s actually more fun to be part of a successful team than anything you can achieve as an individual.

Q:

What were your biggest takeaways from winning the last Cup?

A:

I learned that even in a big organization, you shouldn’t be afraid of introducing change if things aren’t working. We kept modifying the setup of the boat and improving the way we sailed it all the way through the Cup, and that was fundamental to winning.

VITAL STATS

Date of birth: February 5, 1977 Marital status: married Children: one daughter Hometown: Macclesfield, United Kingdom Started sailing: age 8 Sailing team: Land Rover BAR Cup involvement: 2003, 2007, 2013, 2017 Highest sailing achievement: five-time Olympic medalist (four gold, one silver)

Q:

What have been your biggest challenges as skipper of a startup team?

A:

Only one startup team has ever won the America’s Cup, and the reason is that you have so much work to do to get the people together and build the infrastructure. Not just the physical infrastructure either, but the processes that get everyone working together creatively and efficiently. The existing teams have a massive head start, and so there is an element of playing catch-up.

Personally, finding the right balance between being a manager and focusing on sailing has been an important trade-off.

America's Cup, Sir Ben Ainslie, Land Rover BAR
Sir Ben Ainslie and The Duchess of CambridgeRicardo Pinto/ACEA 2016

Q:

Land Rover BAR has been the most successful team in the America’s Cup World Series events. How will that experience translate to the Louis Vuitton Cup and AC35?

A:

It’s massive for us as a first-time team to get to the top of the America’s Cup fleet in that timescale. Now the other aspects of the America’s Cup will come more into play — the design and technology race. This is where the existing teams have a bigger head start. We’re confident that we can close the gap in time, but we need to remain focused and work very hard.

Q:

Few teams have a royal patron. What kind of support have you received?

A:

The Duchess of Cambridge is the royal patron of our official charity, the 1851 Marine Trust, [and] she helps us to gather further support [for] getting children more involved in sailing, the marine industry and STEM subjects.