In competitive sport there are wins and losses. For sailing superstar Sir Ben Ainslie, a helmsman for Oracle Team USA, winning is something that he’s very good at, but last month the 36-year-old Brit experienced an unexpected loss: that of close friend Andrew “Bart” Simpson, his lifelong sailing buddy, in a [well publicized] sailing accident on San Francisco Bay in which Simpson’s team Artemis Racing capsized during a regular training session, trapping Simpson under Artemis’s AC72.
The experience has been both devastatingly sad and sobering for Ainslie. The four-time Olympic medal winner is back on the water with Oracle Team USA after attending Simpson’s funeral in Great Britain and breaking the previous record in the Round the Island race held off the Isle of Wight last weekend. Here he shares his thoughts on AC34 and the absolute need for a safe competition.
The infamous San Francisco summer breeze is now upon us: How has it been on the water? Do you have any apprehensions about the boat you’ll be racing in these conditions now the Louis Vuitton Cup is just a month away?
BA: We’ve been sailing for the past couple of days, and I’ve been doing more helming, steering the boat downwind--foiling--and it does take a little bit of getting used to. They’re certainly very fast boats, and you have to be absolutely on your game to sail them. I think that in the right conditions the boats are manageable, and if the safety recommendations being put in place for the event are at the right level to sail and race in a safe manner, that’s what we all want.
There have been statements made publicly that you had considered stepping down from the Cup following the Artemis tragedy. How real was that consideration?
BA: I think like many of these comments that it may have got blown out of proportion a little bit, which made it sound little bit more over the top, but it certainly wasn’t my intention. It was, however, something that I’m sure a lot of people felt at the time because we were all so devastated that something like that could happen. If you were very close to Bart, like a lot of us were, actually seeing that something like that could happen does make you evaluate a lot of things. I’m not saying it's something I had to struggle with for very long, but I do think there are moments like this where you do think about your life, what you’re doing with your life, and what it’s all about.
How has the accident impacted you and the sailing team at Oracle? How are you now looking at the way you do things, whether on the water or on the boat?
BA: Like all the other teams, we’ve looked long and hard at how our boat is prepared, how we sail the boat, the safety equipment, and if something were to go wrong, how to recover the boat. I’m absolutely certain the other teams have done exactly the same thing. It’s the sensible response to a disaster like that. None of the teams ever want anything like this to happen again. You look very long and hard at your processes and your equipment and the conditions that you’re prepared to sail in.
How is morale at Oracle Team USA following the accident?
BA: Of course everyone was devastated both by the accident and what happened. But since I got back here on Monday [June 3], the guys are getting on with it and working really hard. I was really impressed to see the changes being made to the boat with safety in mind. We’re moving forward and preparing for the America’s Cup.
From your observation, what are some of the ideas for improving the safety aspect of racing on the 72?
BA: A lot of them are just very common sense, such as having more high-visibility clothing, maybe more durable helmets depending on the specific case in the individual teams. Even before this most of the teams were carrying spare air and knives, and now people are taking that much more seriously. The technical side is the more gray area because the boats are obviously designed to sail in a range based on a certain rule, so there’s a very fine line between making some big changes and retaining the integrity of the event. It’s not that easy, but there’s a lot of goodwill going into these changes that are being implemented, and I’m confident they’ll come through.
Do you think the wind limit needs to come down?
BA: I think that’s the biggest step they can take to try to avoid a capsize further down the line in the competition. I think the wind limit will come down--that’s the recommendation from the safety committee, and I understand that the teams have agreed to that.
It’s been said, especially in light of the tragedy, that sailors at the top of their game, like yourself, are highly competitive, and chasing the next big challenge is simply part of what you seek--would you agree with that?
BA: It’s all very competitive, and everyone wants to win. In an event like this with a new class of boat and a lot of unknowns, we have to careful and realistic about how hard we can push these boats and what they’re capable of. I think we just have to use a lot of common sense to get us through this difficult period, that’s all.
Do you consider yourself highly competitive? Is this the kind of challenge you were after?
BA: Sure, I’d say I was highly competitive given the nature of what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years. As a sailor, you’re there to compete, part of the challenge with this America’s Cup has been the boats. There’s an element of the unknown with these boats, and what we’re all concerned with foremost is the safety of the equipment, safety of the racing, and safety of the competitors. We have to do everything we possibly can to ensure that.
With two completely different AC experiences (ETNZ in 2007) and both very different to the Olympic path you’ve been on all these years, what’s attractive to you about the Cup?
BA: Its history as the oldest sporting trophy in the world. For us Brits, there’s an element of wanting to bring it back to where it all started in 1851. It’s a huge challenge because of the technical aspect, and with a lot of the top sailors from Olympic classes and smaller boats now competing in the event. For sure, in terms of big boat sailing, it's the pinnacle of our sport.
How are you finding the current edition of the event compared to 2007?
BA: It’s definitely a bit different, isn’t it [laughs], with the wing sail and the multihulls. It’s a totally different challenge. The version 5 boats were really getting at the top of that class--that rule--and were really close in performance. Now the boats are at different ends of the spectrum. It’s much more about the design of the boats and which team can develop their boats as quickly as possible and get close to maximum performance. That will be the team that ultimately wins. It won't necessarily be about the best starting helmsman or specific adjustments to the headsail, for example, like it was in 2007. It’ll all just be about speed I think.
How do you find sailing in the big team environment with its many personalities and politics, transitioning from your Olympic sailing to the AC?
BA: It’s a different challenge, but it’s a lot of fun, especially as you get a little older and perhaps something that you need to do career-wise. This team is a nice team; I was attracted here by the other sailors, pretty much--older, more experienced guys like John Kostecki, Murray Jones, Simon Daubney, Grant Simmer, and of course Russell Coutts, as well as some of the younger guys coming through like Tommy Slingsby. And then of course the boat is a different challenge ...
What tranfers from your Olympic experience to the Cup arena?
BA: It’s a completely different style of sailing, but what I’ve learned in small boats: It's just about hours on the water and trying to become good at making decisions about what’s working and what’s not. It’s the same as what we’re trying to do here with the 72s as we develop these boats as quickly as possible. It’s really about having good people and making the right decisions. Even in Olympic sailing, it’s not really about one person [laughs]--there tends to be a big team in the background helping out. The Cup is just a much bigger scale.