America's Cup: what is it and can Ben Ainslie's team win?

The America's Cup World Series sailing comes to Portsmouth this weekend, with a British team marked out as favourites

Ben Ainslie America's Cup
(Image credit: Ian Walton/Getty Images)

Ben Ainslie's Land Rover BAR sailing team will makes its America's Cup debut this weekend as opening round of the America's Cup World Series takes place in Portsmouth.

Ainslie tasted glory in 2013 when he helped the American Oracle team to one of the greatest sporting comebacks in history, taking over as tactician with the team trailing 8-1 to New Zealand, and guiding them to an incredible 9-8 triumph.

The experience prompted the four-time Olympic gold medallist to set his sights on victory with a British crew and he believes his new Ben Ainslie Racing team, founded 18 months ago, has what it takes to lift the ultimate prize in Bermuda in 2017.

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There is a long way to go before then, but Ainslie has also been pivotal in bringing the Americas Cup World Series to Portsmouth, where up to 500,000 people are expected to watch the fleet of futuristic 45-foot catamarans in action on the Solent over the next four days.

But what can spectators expect to see and how does the America's Cup actually work?

What is the America's Cup?

The BBC asks the very same question and describes it as "the most famous sailing event in the world and the oldest competition in international sport".

It was first awarded in 1851 when the schooner America won a race around the Isle of Wight. The trophy, known as the Auld Mug, was donated to the New York Yacht Club in 1857, which held it until 1983, the longest winning streak in the history of sport. It was finally ended when the Royal Perth Yacht Club, and their yacht Australia II triumphed in Rhode Island.

The competition has often been dogged by controversy and the regulations have changed over the years, but the fundamental premise of a single challenger taking on the holder for custody of the Auld Mug has not changed.

But the America's Cup is now as much about cutting-edge boat design, fundraising and sponsorship as it is about basic seamanship.

What will be happening this weekend?

"This is the opening event in the America's Cup World Series, the first competitive toe in the water on the way to the 2017 America's Cup in Bermuda," says The Independent.

But it should be quite a spectacle with six teams all racing each other at the same time.

Points collected in the America's Cup World Series events in 2015 and 2016 will count towards the America's Cup Challenger Series to be held in 2017, which will determine who goes head to head with the Oracle team for the America's Cup in Bermuda later that year, say the organisers of this weekend's regatta.

The set-up is not dissimilar to a Formula 1 weekend. Thursday saw the six teams warming up, and there are practice races on Friday, and the real action takes place on Saturday and Sunday, when the teams race for America's Cup points. There are two races each day with more points at stake for the six teams on Sunday.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Ainslie says: "Although these World Series races are of limited import as far as the 35th America's Cup itself is concerned, they do count towards qualification. And there will be professional pride at stake as well."

The racing takes place between 3.30pm and 5pm on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The action will be shown on BT Sport.

What are the boats like?

The six competing teams will race in identical 45-foot foiling catamarans capable of speeds up to 50mph. Sporting sails like vertical aeroplane wings, the Daily Mail describes them as "lightweight boats that fly over the sea like rocket ships".

They are fitted with foils and daggerboards which can be lowered into the sea to lift the twin hulls clear out of the water. "They act like wings through the water, sending the 1.3 tonne boat soaring above the surface", explains the Mail. "But when the boats need to turn they come down and hit the water, decelerating from 50mph to a standstill in ten metres – just like hitting a brick wall."

Impressive though the catamarans on show this weekend are, they will be trumped by those used in the 2017 showdown, which are likely to be slightly bigger and capable of almost 60mph.

What are BAR Land Rover's chances?

"Winning the ACWS would give Ainslie's team a jump start in their challenge for sport's oldest trophy, but the ACWS is more a test of sailors than design and given that none of the crews have had more than ten days training in these boats, they are all still learning how to get the best out of them," says The Times. "The work towards developing a boat that could win the Cup in Bermuda in 2017 is already well under way behind closed doors, but the ACWS gives the first real test of how that team-building is going.

Ainslie has been "burdened with the favourite's tag for this opening event", adds the paper, which suggess that his rivals are "keen to add to the pressure" on the much-hyped new team. "But even if they can win the ACWS, victory in Bermuda in 2017 is still a long shot," it warns.

However, Ainslie is upbeat. "We've worked incredibly hard preparing for this event – with our sailing team manager Jono Macbeth and our fitness coach Ben Williams – so for all of us we want to translate that effort into results," he writes in the Telegraph. "We really want to perform well in front of our home crowd."

What happens next?

After the Portsmouth regatta the action moves to Gothenburg in Sweden where the next round of the ACWS takes place in late August. Then, in October, the teams will get the chance to test the waters in Bermuda, where the final showdown between the official challengers and Oracle will take place in 2017.

A further round of World Series events in 2016 will be followed by the challenger series to determine who will return to Bermuda.

And in the meantime Ainslie and his BAR Land Rover will continue their work on a boat capable of challenging Oracle.

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