If you are a regular reader of this website, I hardly need to introduce you Ben Ainslie, the 3-time Olympic gold medalist, 5-time Finn World Champion and World Match Racing Champion. We caught up with Britain’s top athlete and talked about his recovery from the recent surgery, the path to the Olympics as well as the recent developments in the America’s Cup. For campaign updates and to watch Ben’s latest behind-the-scenes video join his Facebook page or follow his Twitter
VSail.info: Let’s start with an update on your health. How is the recovery from your recent operation going?
Ben Ainslie: It’s going OK but it has been, obviously, a bit of a frustrating situation to be in as anyone with back issues will tell you. The rehab is going very well, we have a great team within the RYA sailing squad and together with the surgeon and the people I have been working with the process goes well and I expect to be back sailing as soon as possible.
VSail.info: How long do you expect it will take before you are back at 100% of your potential?
Ben Ainslie: Well, we are actually back sailing in March. I think that to be back on the water you need to be close to 100% in order to sail the boat properly, so I think it’s a realistic projection.
VSail.info: Do you think you could still be competitive for the Olympics even if you didn’t have that operation?
Ben Ainslie: It’s a difficult thing to say and then I’m not an expert but if you speak to people that have an issue with the nerve, which is my situation, it can very quickly get out of control. You might be able to struggle through for some time but if you’re unfortunate it can really hit you hard and you wouldn’t be able to sail. That’s why we took the decision to try and fix the problem early rather than letting it progress and potentially get worse. It could put you in a situation where you can’t compete and that would have been terrible.
VSail.info: What is your schedule now until the Olympics?
Ben Ainslie: We start training in Palma at the beginning of March and we will be there until the beginning of April. From the second week of April until the Olympic games I will be training and competing in Weynouth with the exception of the World Championship that we have in Falmouth in May.
VSail.info: Who do you think could be your toughest opponent in the Finn class in the Olympics?
Ben Ainslie: That’s really hard to say and it’s quite a broad fleet in terms of level and on any given day you have ten guys that can go out and win races. Last year we have seen, in particular, Pieter Jan Postma stood out and have some very good results, finishing second in the World Championship. The French, the Danish, the American, anyone of the top-10 guys can go out, sail very well and beat a threat.
VSail.info: Let’s talk briefly about the incident in Perth. I’m more interested in the human factor. What caused you to, literally, go overboard and attack the rib driver and the cameraman?
Ben Ainslie: Although we had a tribunal last week it’s still really hard for me to talk about it too openly because they still have to make a decision on that incident. I think that one of the big things about it was that it wasn’t an isolated incident. This sort of thing has been happening to me all through last year in some of the major regattas from Sail for Gold to the pre-Olympics. So, you start to build up a picture of frustration with these incidents happening, with the same people involved. Therefore it was extremely frustrating and that was really the worst incident in my sailing career that I have ever seen by a long way. When you add that together to what happened over the year and the fact we were racing in a world championship towards the end of the event, at a very high level, you start to see how someone can get to that state of frustration. It’s not something I obviously do every day to jump off to a TV boat, it was just the level of frustration. Obviously, it was something seriously wrong that sparked that off.
VSail.info: Does that incident reflect your competitive character?
Ben Ainslie: When you are racing in that level, you are there to win. If someone or something is affecting your performance and shouldn’t be there, any competitive person would have strong feelings about that, in any sport. It’s unfortunate it happened to me a number of times but in this particular incident it was extreme. It shows the level of my competitive instincts but I think that everybody competing in that level would feel the same.
VSail.info: Another very important development concerning you this year has been the announcement of your involvement with The America’s Cup, initially with your own team, Ben Ainslie Racing, and then as full-time member of Oracle Racing. Allow me here to quote part of a piece you wrote in your personal blog, on September 9th, 2010. You wrote that “a multihull with a wingmast clearly gives Oracle a massive design advantage”. Back to the future now, and you, the world’s best sailor, join Oracle in order to make that advantage even bigger. Wouldn’t you say this might be seen as contradictory or incoherent?
Ben Ainslie: [Laughs] If you remember, we had that discussion at the Monsoon Cup in 2010 [Note: Here’s the interview Ben is referring to]. I have to admit that initially I was skeptical about multihulls and the decision taken. From what I have seen watching the AC45 regattas, talking to my friends that are out there sailing, I’m now excited about it and the racing is great. I’m happy to raise my hand and say that, potentially, I was wrong and that the new format seems to be working. Therefore, with the current situation I think that the best thing for the America’s Cup, now that it’s gone down this new route, is that the investment continues and this will be achieved through Oracle Racing. For me it’s a good thing they invested so much money and time into this project and hopefully they will make it a success both from a racing point of view and commercial point of view.
VSail.info: Again, don’t you think you make Oracle’s advantage even bigger by joining their team?
Ben Ainslie: It’s not up to me to really say why they hired me. I guess you should ask Russell Coutts to give you the reason. I hope I can help strengthen their squad and as I just said, I’m behind Oracle Racing to try to successfully defend the America’s Cup. Through that we will see a continued investment in the America’s Cup and therefore it’s the best overall for the future.
VSail.info: Let’s talk now about Ben Ainslie Racing (BAR). What is your schedule once the Olympics are over?
Ben Ainslie: We will be competing in the 2012-13 America’s Cup World Series, starting with the first event in August. The goal is to compete in all regattas of that series and through that be able to build up the right people, the right contacts, the right commercial partners to then take it to the next level in terms of a team that will challenge for the 35th America’s Cup.
VSail.info: Will you have your own boat?
Ben Ainslie: Yes, we have a boat that is in build at the moment. So, it’s a new boat which will get on line this summer and will be ready to race in the first regatta of the new season in August.
VSail.info: Have you already made a decision regarding the crew of the AC45?
Ben Ainslie: No, not yet. It is important but right now the focus is really on the commercial side, trying to bring in partners that are interested primarily in the World Series and the proper America’s Cup in the future. We will slowly build the sailing team in the next few months.
VSail.info: Has BAR been approached by any potential sponsor?
Ben Ainslie: Yes, we have been talking to a lot of people actually. The response to the launch in London was fantastic in terms of the coverage on the internet, TV and British media. We’ve had a number of great meetings with potential partners, we are happy with the way it’s going but there is still a lot of work to get these discussions into reality and get these partners onboard.
VSail.info: If I understand well, if Oracle Racing are successful in their defense and the current format is held, you will try to mount a British challenge for the 35th America’s Cup.
Ben Ainslie: Yes, absolutely. That’s the idea. I think it’s realistic to build those potential partnerships up through the World Series and give those partners a chance to test the event format, to see what the America’s Cup will be like with the intention to take that to the next level, the 35th America’s Cup.
VSail.info: After the end of the 2012-13 World Series you will become a full-time member of Oracle Racing. Is that correct?
Ben Ainslie: Yes, that’s right.
VSail.info: What will your exact role in the team be?
Ben Ainslie: That’s a good question. We haven’t really defined that. Obviously, I will be coming late after my Olympic commitment, so I will be a member of the afterguard in some form. Russell, Jimmy, John Kostecki and the other guys will have figured out the best way to use my skills in whatever role they want me to work in. My goal is go there and do the best that I could possibly do to help the team be successful.
VSail.info: Oracle Racing will build two AC72 yachts. Is you helming one of the two boats an option?
Ben Ainslie: Yes, potentially it is an option. They obviously, have some great helmsmen already with Russell and Darren Bundock so it depends on what they decide and for me, for the future, it will be great to do some helming on the AC72’s, for the next Cup. We will have to see how those roles develop.
VSail.info: If you prove yourself in training could you even envision helming the AC72 during the actual defense of the Cup, in the America’s Cup match in September 2013?
Ben Ainslie: I don’t know. I’m certainly not going there with the goal to try to take anyone’s jobs or positions. It’s about me doing the best I can possibly do to help the team. It’s up to the team, up to Russell, Jimmy and the rest of the guys to see how I fit in the best. Those teams develop over a long period of time and I’m not going in with any expectation. I will try to do the best job I can possibly do.
VSail.info: Have you already trained with Oracle Racing on their AC45’s?
Ben Ainslie: No, I haven’t. I have just done a short sailing session with Russell in San Francisco last December and it was really good, really nice sail. I’m currently focusing 100% on the Olympics and I will get into that afterwards but it’s always very exciting to have that project.
VSail.info: What was your feeling, your impression of the AC45 as a yacht when you helmed in San Francisco?
Ben Ainslie: I thought it was great. It was much more responsive than an Extreme 40 and the only strange thing was getting used to looking at the wing. It’s so different from a conventional mainsail so there is a process just getting used to the wing setup. Visually it’s different and as a result it takes some time to get used to that.
VSail.info: Since you helmed those yachts allow me again to quote you from the same article back in September 2010. You were saying that there was “a question mark over how good multihulls are for match racing”. What do you think now? Are they good?
Ben Ainslie: I think that even for people doing it now there is a question mark over what is the best course and the best rules for match racing on multihulls. The interesting thing about the AC World Series is that it is giving event organizers the opportunity to try different formats and different rules. We are slowly seeing that racing is getting closer and more effective because of that. It is going to take time because it still is very different from the conventional monohull match racing that we are all used to. Whether it’s better or worse, I guess depends on the individual point of view. Hopefully, by the time they get to the America’s Cup they will have found the right formats for these types of boats to make the racing interesting, exciting and a good challenge for the sailors.
VSail.info: Thanks for your answers and your time. I would like to close on a lighter note. Why is your boat called “Rita”?
Ben Ainslie: I have called all my boats “Rita” since I was a kid. I don’t know why but it seemed as a good name for a boat so I stuck with it and this must be Rita 15 or 20 by now. They seem to be good and fast boats.
VSail.info: So, if Rita 20 is successful in the Olympics in Weymouth will you have Rita 21 for the 2016 Olympics?
Ben Ainslie: Well, I’m still using the same boat I used in the 2004 Olympics. We obviously developed other boats in the meantime but this one was the best we’ve had. Sometimes an old boat can be a fast boat as well.
VSail.info: Are the 2016 Olympics an option for you? Will Rita 21 be a Finn or something different? Do you think you will be too old for a Finn?
Ben Ainslie: I don’t know, probably for the Finn I might be too old by then but I have an option now with the multihull class coming back in. However we will have to wait and see how things develop, how things go this summer, which class and boat are chosen for 2016, what happens with the America’s Cup. There’s quite a few factors to consider.