Ben Ainslie on his mission to bring home the ‘Auld Mug’

The Rolex testimonee will skipper Ineos Team UK in sailing’s America’s Cup


Few images offer a greater contrast to coronavirus confinement than that of a 75ft racing yacht flying above the waves. But if the thought of setting sail sounds calming, think again.

Just ask British sailing hero and Rolex testimonee Ben Ainslie to describe the sensation of being aboard Britannia II, the new foiling monohull that he and his Ineos Team UK will be racing in the imminent competitive cycles that precede the 36th America’s Cup in New Zealand next March.

“It’s a very unique design of boat. [The race marks] the first time we’ve seen foiling monohulls of this scale, so it’s a bit like being on a fairground rollercoaster,” Ainslie says of this incredible speed machine, dubbed “the Flying Beast”.

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“The biggest sensation is that of the wind on your face,” he adds. “We are doing speeds of up to 70km an hour and then we have about 20km of wind, so that’s about 90km of wind across the deck of the boat. It’s hard to see and to hear people.”

For spectators, the third regatta of the America’s Cup World Series in Auckland, scheduled for December, promises to be an incredible display of agility and grit as the Ineos crew and four other teams - Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli Team (Italy); Emirates Team New Zealand; American Magic (USA); and Stars & Stripes Team USA — battle it out on the waters of Waitemata Harbour and the Hauraki Gulf in their AC75 class vessels.

“The rule of the [AC75 class] is set around the defined geometry of the boat, but then beyond that you are quite open with what you can do, which is the big draw of the America’s Cup, because it’s a technological race as much as a sailing race,” says Ainslie. “Between the teams, the boats will look very different. We must therefore keep an eye on the opposition - work out who is performing well, or who isn’t and why - while focusing on our own campaign to ensure we are doing absolutely everything possible to generate the maximum performance from our boat.”

Ainslie is the most decorated sailor in Olympic history, as well as a four-time Rolex World Sailor of the Year. His shatterproof ambition has propelled him through various sailing genres while overcoming seemingly insuperable challenges. And following his superlative solo career, Ainslie tasted glory at the America’s Cup in 2013, when he proved instrumental in leading the Oracle Team USA to victory. Soon after came more big news, when he formed the Ineos Team UK, with a mission to bring the “Auld Mug” home.

“The America’s Cup started at the Royal Yacht Squadron but has never been won by a British team and the goal for all of us is to change that,” explains the sailor, who when we speak is about to depart for New Zealand, where he, his wife and their four-year-old daughter will stay until March.

Ainslie’s role as a Rolex testimonee makes perfect sense, given the Swiss marque’s discerning taste when it comes to its sporting heroes: others honoured with this prestigious family title include motorsport legend Jackie Stewart, tennis ace Roger Federer, golfing great Jack Nicklaus and from the world of sailing, Robin Knox-Johnston, the late Francis Chichester and Bernard Moitessier.

The watchmaker’s connection to the sea runs deep. As well as bringing the world a series of iconic nautical and diving watches, the brand has an affiliation with competitive yacht racing that dates back more than 60 years. Rolex became the first official watch of the New York Yacht Club in 1958, and last year announced a partnership with SailGP, the annual race series often described as the “Formula 1 of sailing”, contested in 50ft foiling catamarans. Ainslie and his team won their first ever SailGP event title in February in what was season two of the global championship.

Ainslie has to quarantine with his family for 14 days when he arrives in Auckland, but says he can’t wait to get then back on the water, after having a very productive summer with his crew. “The Solent, where we did the majority of our training, is very similar to Auckland Harbour - the geography of the surrounding coastline is similar and both places are known for their strong tides, so it’s been a great testing ground for us,” he says.

In practical terms, one of the hardest challenges faced by the team is conforming to the strict weight limits set by the competition. Equipment accounts for the lion’s share of this allowance, leaving the eleven- race crew an average body weight “allowance” of 90kg each. And that has required the team to follow a demanding fitness regime to stay in shape. Rolex has also assisted on this front, with a unique sports model for the champion yachtsman.

“The team at Rolex has been incredibly thoughtful by giving me a titanium Yacht-Master 42,” he says. “I’m extremely honoured to have it, plus, from a performance perspective, every little bit of weight that we can save, helps us to go faster with the boat.”

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