It was the phone call that Sir Ben Ainslie hoped he would never have to make.
Britain's most decorated sailor had put together a massive campaign for the 2021 America's Cup in Auckland, recruiting an all-star cast, off and on the water.
As part of that, Ainslie had secured the biggest single sponsorship deal in sailing history, bankrolled by Sir Jim Ratcliffe, founder and chairman of Ineos Group and Britain's richest man.
But on the eve of racing in the final warm-up regatta in December, Ainslie had to call Ratcliffe and admit his mega-funded team was way off the pace.
"It was really tough for Ben," said long-time teammate and Ineos Team UK racing rules adviser Matthew Cornwell. "Ben and Grant [Simmer] had to call Jim and say 'hey, this is honestly where we are. There is a good chance that, let alone winning a single race this weekend, we might not feature in any of them. We are really struggling with our reliability and performance'."
This campaign was meant to be gold.
Lessons had been learnt from Bermuda in 2017 and Ainslie had enlisted plenty of experience, like chief executive Simmer, who had won the cup with Alinghi and Oracle.
The Mercedes Formula One team contributed manpower and technical expertise and there were big names across the roster. But the boat was slow. Seriously slow.
They had barely engaged in practice racing – plagued by gear failure and other issues – before the America's Cup World Series last December, sparking a horrible sense of déjà vu.
"During the last cup [Bermuda], it became apparent, as we got closer to the racing, that we weren't as competitive as we wanted to be," said Cornwell. "It's always hard doing a first-time campaign and we had changed a lot of things since then. Everyone was much happier."
"So to again have that realisation, 'My god I think we are really struggling here', was terrible. The mood was really down."
Ainslie chose his words carefully at the pre-regatta press conference on December 16.
"It is clear for everyone for see that we are struggling a bit," he said. Ainslie deflected the negative press (some had called on Ineos to pack up and go home) and remained upbeat.
"If anyone can sort out those issues it is our team," added the four-time Olympic champion.
But it was hard to remain positive after a terrible first day. They almost missed the start of their opening race – due to a mechanical issue – and the contest was over on the second leg, as they crashed off their foils attempting a gybe.
They looked edgy rounding each mark – like an elephant on roller skates – and finished five minutes behind American Magic.
The second race was worse; there was a breakdown after the first mark and they sat listlessly in the middle of the course, while Luna Rossa finished the race by themselves.
As Ainslie headed back to base after the post-race press conference, he knew something had to be done.
The Americans next door were in high spirits, after two wins, including a victory over Team New Zealand, while it was hard to avoid the despondency encircling the British base.
Ainslie called a team-wide meeting, also making sure a few boxes of beer were carried out from the kitchen.
"We got everyone down on the shop floor, where the boat is and where all the maintenance takes place and we had a beer," Ainslie told the New Zealand Herald. "We said ... 'you know guys we are in a hole here'. [We told them] we knew we had some problems here, and that has highlighted just how bad they are. But the only way we are going to get out of this hole is if we come together and help each other out of it. That's the only route, the only option we've got, and we owe it to ourselves to give it everything."
Tactician Giles Scott was aware of the pressure on Ainslie. The two had been rivals before the London Olympics, then teammates for a long time.
"He was extremely realistic with where we were at," said Scott, recalling Ainslie's speech.
"I think everyone was on the same page there; we had to see it as a siege mentality, we had to come together, focus on where the issues were and do whatever we could to solve them."
Grinder Neil Hunter, who was the youngest competitor in Bermuda in 2017, remembers the moment vividly.
"He got the whole team together after that first day, which was super tough," said Hunter. "He said, we are where we are now, and we have to crack on. We knew from that point it was going to be a super tough Christmas regatta for us."
Fellow grinder Richard Mason is in his first America's Cup campaign but had spent time with Ainslie on the SailGP circuit.
"Ben is pretty good at stuff like that," said Mason. "When he needs to get the team together, he will. He told us, keep working on your areas, don't let your heads go down. We know the boat has potential and we need to keep every single area improving all the way."
That morning had been typical for Ainslie. He woke early and was at the team base by 7am, cycling in from his Ponsonby accommodation.
Ainslie knows Auckland well, after being part of the Team New Zealand operation during the 2007 Cup campaign, but his current stay was becoming a nightmare.
The 43-year-old hoped for the best but knew the first taste of racing could expose the team's issues.
It did – cruelly – but he was determined to put on a brave face.
"It was about getting everyone together," said Ainslie. "At times like that, everyone can be a bit shocked. You need to pull everyone together and say, 'we can work through this and this is the approach we have to take'.
"We knew we weren't in great shape, but that day brought it home just how dire the situation was. At that point you can't just say nothing; you need to do something to get everyone together and decide as a group how you are going to work through it."
To his credit, Ratcliffe was extremely supportive.
"Jim is involved in other sports and understands them, especially technical sports," said Cornwell. "He sent an email to [Ainslie and Simmer] and they read it out to us. It was a very positive email; 'I get where you are, let's not worry about it, let's look how to fix it and move forward'."
Things improved slightly the following day – they led Team New Zealand for a couple of legs – but the final day of the America's Cup World Series was again savage; Britannia II trailed Luna Rossa by 5500 metres in the first race, before a five-minute deficit against American Magic.
"It was tough," admitted Ainslie. "In sport you don't want to be in those positions. You want to be in the faster boat and be able to use that to its ability. And we weren't.
"But I could see how hard the whole team were working to try and solve that and actually I took motivation from that, because they had put their heart and soul into it for three or four years in this campaign."
"It was a huge disappointment," agreed Scott. "We don't want to go out there and get thrashed, but the key was coming together and making steps to get back in the fight."
At the conclusion of the World Series, Mason was trying to reassure family and friends in England that everything would be okay, without giving anything away.
"There was a lot of messages after the racing," said Mason. "What's going on, what do you think is up? It's hard to keep the improvement that you have got coming close to your chest. You don't want to let the world know what's going on."
Ainslie had been embarrassed by what had unfolded, telling close associates that he would have nightmares about it "for the rest of my life".
It was a precarious time for the campaign. Lessons had been learnt from Bermuda, to offload some of the responsibilities and distractions from Ainslie.
But he was still the face of the campaign.
"Heavy is the head that wears the crown," says Cornwell. "He's the skipper, the manager, the figurehead for the press. And, internally, everyone on that team listens to every word he says and they take their inspiration from him.
"So, when things aren't going well ... the pressure is on him and at the same time he still has to go out there and just be a sportsman as well."
A team insider describes Ainslie as "relentless".
He is encouraging and quick to offer praise, but there is also an expectation to keep up.
"He's very focused," says Cornwall. "You are not there for fun. When you are on the water there is that drive and he expects that from the people around him."
INEOS Team UK had just 25 days between the end of the Christmas racing and the start of Prada Cup.
"A lot had to be done," said Scott. "From an outsider's perspective it might look simple – you can identify a problem and you are saying 'they just need to fix that'. But the complexity of these boats is next level and issues take time to solve."
Most of the team had only two days off (Christmas Day and Boxing Day), with some even less than that.
"The base was never empty, round the clock," recalls Cornwall. "People were going home to sleep and probably not very long. They were having three meals a day - we've got showers, washing machines at the base. They would be living [there], going home to get some sleep and then back again."
Some solutions were unearthed quickly, with others taking more time.
"Some things were obvious, and they were automatic jumps in performances," revealed Ainslie. "About half of it was that. The rest was much more subtle; it wasn't that easy; we were trying different set ups, we were trying different components on the boats, be they foils or sails or whatever and it wasn't that obvious what was working. We are still figuring it out. That development is not going to stop until the last day."
But it's been an incredible turnaround. From being rank outsiders Ineos Team UK are unbeaten through the first half of the round robin series, and now favourites for the Prada Cup.
"There is no denying it was a tough period," reflected Hunter. "It was a reality check for us though; if it hadn't happened, we might have been able to kid ourselves that we had the performance that we needed, had we scraped through in the Christmas races and thought we weren't as bad as we actually were."
"I'm really proud of everyone for sticking with it," added Ainslie. "It would have been easy to throw the towel in and a lot of organisations frankly probably would have done ... it was that dire. But they have stuck to it and got some reward for it which is great."
Heading into the Cup racing?
• Give yourself plenty of time and think about catching a ferry, train or bus to watch the Cup.
• Make sure your AT HOP card is in your pocket. It's the best way to ride.
• Don't forget to scan QR codes with the NZ COVID Tracer app when on public transport and entering the America's Cup Village.
• For more ways to enjoy race day, visit at.govt.nz/americascup.