The acronym GOAT often gets bandied around in sport, usually unwarranted, but when it comes to British sailors, British Olympians and British sportspeople, Sir Ben Ainslie truly is up there with the Greatest Of All Time.
The most successful sailor in Olympic history, an America’s Cup winner and multiple competitor, and now the man in charge of teams in both the America’s Cup and SailGP, Sir Ben has seemingly done it all.
But now, at the age of 45 and with the desire to sail still burning within, Ainslie has begun his transition from skipper and sailor to manager, team principal, chief executive and owner.
“I still very much love the sport, love the competition,” the five-time Olympic medalist told City A.M.
“Me going from sport into the management side came about by a sort of necessity as much as anything because, particularly with the America’s Cup, it is a very special event.
“It’s incredibly difficult to win in so you need continuity; two, three, four campaigns to build up the intellectual property, the design expertise and so on.
“It needs large budgets to finance that and traditionally, you end up with a wealthy backer that comes in and says, ‘Oh, you know, let’s do the cup’.
“My approach to it was if I can put the credibility of a sailor, four gold Olympic campaigns and the Cup with the US in 2013, it’s a different approach. I’m not just someone who’s throwing their hat into the room to do the carpet, I’ve got the experience.
“But then if I’m able to attract the right partners to come on board and help finance the team, the idea is that would create a more sustainable team that can be around for a period of time long enough to ultimately win it.”
Tumultuous time for Ainslie
Although he won sport’s oldest competition in 2013, when his Team Oracle USA came from 8-1 down to beat New Zealand 9-8 in San Francisco, Ainslie is desperate to win the America’s Cup with a British boat.
Billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe is bankrolling the pursuit of that dream through their Ineos Britannia team, which narrowly missed out on the final last year.
“We had a fairly tumultuous time, I think it’s fair to say. We started off terribly,” he said.
“The design of our new boat really wasn’t where we wanted or needed it to be so we were playing catch-up to a pretty extreme extent.
“We managed to turn things around considerably to end up topping the Challenger Series from the first round and then we went into the final of the series against the Italian team [Luna Rossa].
“It was a disappointing end to the campaign, but we certainly resolved ourselves and with Sir Jim Ratcliffe we continue to learn from some of the issues that we’ve picked up from the previous two campaigns.
“Our process is to build and lodge our actual America’s Cup race boat, we are really only allowed to build one boat. We’ll build and launch that towards the end of next year.”
Time to move on
Since leaving the Olympic arena 10 years ago, it has been a choppy ride but Ainslie’s love of sailing remains and his passion to compete is audible when he talks of being on the water.
“It’s still a happy place, even when you’re racing,” Ainslie said. “Tthe intensity of racing is full like in any sport and I guess that’s why people love to race. I love being on the water, whether I’m racing or not.
“I was fortunate enough to get away for a holiday last week. We have a five-year-old daughter and it was the first time I really got to sail with her in a boat.
“The enjoyment for me just getting out in the water, even if it’s just pottering about, but more so from seeing her enjoying being on a boat was one of those great moments of parenthood.
“At the moment, I’m still planning to be on the boat, both America’s Cup and SailGP. But the moment that I feel that, frankly… if somebody comes who is better or younger, and it’s time to move on, then then I certainly won’t have any qualms in doing that, and the management side of these teams is equally important now.”
Having partnered with Ineos in 2018 with the intention to mount an America’s Cup challenge, Ainslie’s SailGP team – in which he now holds a majority stake with investor Chris Bake – is also now part of a wider Ineos family that spans Formula 1, Grand Tour cycling and football.
Tail of two sirs
The chemical company, founded by Ratcliffe – who was introduced to Ainslie over a drink organised through a mutual friend – hopes to foster a cross-pollination of skills and ideas to develop and improve its sports teams.
“Jim is an incredibly successful businessman,” adds Ainslie, whose Great Britain SailGP team will go into next month’s season finale in San Francisco in sixth place.
“The America’s Cup fitted the bill nicely for that love of sport and competition. As a backer you cannot really ask for any more because he understands sport, he understands how difficult it is.
“The harder it is the more he enjoys the challenge. We use cycle power and leg power over arm power on our boats now. It’s more efficient and that’s come from working with Sir Dave Brailsford and the Grenadiers.
“[Ineos] is a pretty formidable stable of sporting products. For us, being a part of that is a real boost. There’s an awful lot of sharing, as you can imagine, between different sports, which is helpful from both a commercial and practical sporting perspective.”
Growth and development
Sailing can be a difficult spectator sport. The distance away from the action for fans watching from the shore is a barrier, while the infrequent races in most competitions make them less engaging.
For SailGP, Ainslie believes it’s imperative that the league develops a storyline which makes it easier to follow for those beyond its die-hard fans.
“All of the franchises are working with the league, we have regular catch-ups and discussions on how to build the league,” Ainslie said.
“Look at Formula 1 – they have 20 events and we are currently on 10 or 12. We need to grow that out and that’s our intention. If you wanted to get to 20 events, does that mean you need to consider splitting the league?
“There’s a lot of different options that the league could take in terms of growth, but it has to grow so you have racing every couple of weeks.”
For the greatest sailor in Olympic history, it seems there’s a lot left in the tank of Sir Ben Ainslie. Now well along the journey towards management, it’s clear he is draining every last drop out of his sailing days while he can compete at the highest level. And with a career as momentous as his, who can blame him for wanting to stay just a little bit longer?