America's Cup: Awesome Ainslie swashbuckling English knight of water who is also king of comebacks

By Paul Lewis

The comeback kings, from left, Ben Ainslie, Tom Slingsby and Jimmy Spithill are on the charge off San Francisco. Photo / Oracle
The comeback kings, from left, Ben Ainslie, Tom Slingsby and Jimmy Spithill are on the charge off San Francisco. Photo / Oracle

Ben Ainslie knows a thing or two about comebacks. He made a huge one to become the most prolific sailor in Olympic history last year and he is helping Oracle Team USA make one now.

Only this time he won't have any Kiwi help.

Ainslie is regarded by many as one of the foremost sailors on the planet. Even his Aussie skipper, Jimmy Spithill, has called him "the best sailor in the world".

His gold medal in the Finn class in London last year made him the first person to win medals in five different Olympics, with gold in the last four.

However, he wouldn't have grabbed gold in London had it not been for New Zealand's Finn sailor Dan Slater who, although out of the medals himself, kept the Dutch challenger behind him in a placing which meant Ainslie won gold.

"At certain times, it helps to have mates around," said Ainslie yesterday. "I was very fortunate to rely on New Zealand yachting then.

"The first time I sailed in New Zealand was 1993 and have always had a huge admiration for New Zealand and New Zealanders in sport but, right at the moment, we want to try and beat them."

He has never won the America's Cup and, when he came on board Oracle's boat to replace local sailor John Kostecki, his chances seemed slimmer than slim.

But now, with Oracle bringing the score up to 8-5 (8-7 in races won, uncorrected for the jury penalty), Ainslie is being heralded as the man behind the change in fortunes.

That is especially so in the UK where interest in the Cup has increased exponentially since Ainslie became involved.

The BBC, for example, now takes TV coverage whereas it didn't previously.

The Daily Telegraph recently said of Ainslie, adored by British media: "Sir Ben Ainslie sprinkled his golden dust in San Francisco last night when Oracle Team USA posted their fourth win of the series to soften Emirates Team New Zealand's grip on the 34th America's Cup and force the two teams into another contest."

While there is no doubt Ainslie is playing a strong role, many think Australian wing trimmer Tom Slingsby is having at least an equal influence. But that should not lessen the impact of Ainslie in a three-way afterguard at the back of Oracle's boat, which is combining superbly.

Even though, at press conferences, Ainslie seems almost as measured as Team NZ skipper Dean Barker, don't be fooled. The man has a competitive streak a mile wide, as evidenced when he went bit feral at the Finn world championships in Perth in 2011 after he felt a television boat got in his way. He was disqualified, the five-times world champion leaving without a medal after he swam to the offending boat and hauled himself on board to remonstrate with the crew.

In London last year, he also had a crack at the Dutch sailor he beat for the gold and a Danish rival who he thought had conspired to get him penalised for hitting a mark.

Clearly fired up after being beaten six races in a row by the Dane, he stormed back into contention with a win and a third from the day's two races, though an incident during the second race threatened to cast a shadow over the Olympic regatta.

Words were exchanged with the Dutch and Danish sailors which resulted in Ainslie taking a penalty turn on the water and losing ground to his rivals.

He fought back brilliantly, catching up 70 metres on the final downwind leg to cross the finishing line and exploding in anger, gesticulating and shouting at the Dane.

He was still livid by the time he made it back to shore and spoke to reporters.

"He and the Dutch guy basically teamed up to claim I hit the mark when I didn't, which seriously p****d me off," said Ainslie, who explained that he decided not to wait and risk a protest since he would have been outnumbered two to one in the protest room. Had he lost he might have been disqualified from the race.

So he knows a thing or two about comebacks, does Ainslie, and don't let his gentlemanly, nay knightly manner at the press conferences fool you either. He also knows a thing or two about competitive instincts.

"I can remember being on the back foot in 2000 and 2012 [Olympics] and that's similar to the situation we find ourselves in here, so I can relate to that. But it's not about one person; it's a team thing and everyone has come together as a team and we have been working out how to make the boat go faster and get ahead of the opposition."

He also spoke warmly about the combination between them and Slingsby, saying: "Tom is making the majority of the calls for us and it's good to have a chat about it. The combination is working very well and we are going fast in the light winds - that is absolutely critical."

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- NZ Herald

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