It’s 26 degrees, glassy, turquoise water glitters in every direction and it’s faintly breezy. I am about to enter the world of the America’s Cup, the super-glamorous international yacht race where teams from six countries will compete this month for one of the oldest, most prestigious prizes in world sport.
Sir Ben Ainslie is the captain and helmsman of Land Rover Ben Ainslie Racing, the first British team to challenge for the Cup in 16 years, and, if his dream comes true, the first British team to win it. At the team’s HQ in Bermuda’s Royal Naval Dockyard, he is as composed and dignified as I’d expect a knight to be – him being the first I’ve met – but his steed is a 50-foot foiling catamaran, which hurtles across the ocean at 60mph and lends Ainslie an air of adventure.
Only now I’m here, ready to take to the sea with the most successful sailor in Olympic history, do I find the seemingly idyllic conditions are apparently too perilous for a sport that Ainslie describes as “Formula One on water”.
Ben Ainslie and the Land Rover BAR compete in Japan in 2016
If until now the America’s Cup has eluded you, you’d be forgiven. Yacht racing is notoriously hard to follow, and this particular competition famously impenetrable – dominated by billionaire investors and an exclusive sailing set.
Money talks in this game, and with an £87 million budget from commercial sponsors and private investors, Ainslie and his 120-strong team – launched in 2014 – are hell-bent on bringing the Cup home. Which would be quite a feat, as it’s one of the few sporting peaks Britain has yet to conquer, which particularly stings, since the Cup began on our own shores in 1851.
“If we can win,” Ainslie says, “it’ll be a huge moment for British sport. As a maritime nation, we’re proud of our history. We want to make Britain proud again.”
Still only 40, Ainslie has achieved much. At 18 in 1996, he was the youngest British sailor to be selected for an Olympic squad and won a silver medal in Atlanta, before going on to win golds at the next four Games in Sydney, Athens, Beijing, and London. Giving up Olympic sport after London 2012, he says, was easy. “I knew it was never going to be better than performing in front of a home crowd, and in sailing, you’re lucky that the America’s Cup provides another pinnacle to move on to.” He actually won the last Cup in 2013 in San Francisco, as the tactician for the American team, leading them to unexpected victory, a coup that helped the competition capture broader attention for the first time.
It’s a wildly different circus from his Olympic career – a mostly solitary, itinerant life, in one-man dinghies not much bigger than a bathtub. “If you compete in an individual sport, you live or die by your own actions. It’s no more complicated than that.”
Ainslie has been in Bermuda since November with his wife, TV presenter Georgie Thompson and their baby daughter Bellatrix, along with 60 members of his team and lots of their families, who live in a beachside hotel in Hamilton. It sounds like paradise, but the hours are long with little time off.
“Perhaps sailing used to have a ‘gin and tonic on the deck’ feel about it,” Ainslie says, “but there’s nothing relaxing about these boats. They’re flying around at obscene speeds, and the g-forces are immense. If a sailor gets caught out and tries to cross the boat at the wrong moment, they’ll be wiped off the side of the boat.” I begin to feel less disappointed that we didn’t make it onto the water.
That boat – christened Rita, who I admire on terra firma – is a fearsome beast up close, the sails, at nearly 80ft high, menacingly taller than a Boeing 707 wing.
“The perception about sailing is that it’s a really expensive sport that’s out of touch to most people,” says Ainslie, whose backers include the Queen’s bankers Coutts, and Mayfair nightclub Annabel’s. And after 48 hours in Bermuda and an overdraft extension, I can attest to this – 15 minutes in a taxi cost me £30.
“But if you go to your local sailing club, there’s usually a sail for a fiver programme. We need to do a better job of getting the message across that it’s an open, fun sport that doesn’t need to be expensive.”
With the royals at the America’s Cup 2016
With just days to go until racing starts, the intensity inside the team’s Bermuda micro-universe feels at odds with the island’s swaying palms and the swarms of beach bums on a weekender from the USA. Every Cup, the rules change: races were once two-and-a-half hours long; now potential challengers compete in a selection series of races that last just 20 minutes. The winning team will face the defending US team in the final race series at the end of June.
Ainslie keeps any apprehension about the challenge ahead to himself, though, and is jarringly calm and stoic. But that’s come with age – mid-race altercations earned him a reputation as a bit of a hothead earlier in his career. “When I was younger I was more emotional when I was on the water, and quieter on land, but they’ve aligned as I’ve matured. I’m very competitive. Sometimes it means you have to be aggressive, but you have to pick your moments to turn the heat up a little bit.
“Since London 2012, I think we’ve overcome the idea that Brits are wedded to amateurism. The British self-deprecating attitude is very charming; being humble and self-effacing can be endearing traits. But when you’re competing, you have to switch to a different mentality.”
As we finish speaking, the sky billows thick and black around the island; I’m struggling to hear over the thunder. “The America’s Cup is sailing like you’ve never seen before,” he says, as we say goodbye. “Its speed, ferocity and visual beauty will blow you away.” If the wind doesn’t first.
America’s Cup is on Saturday 27 May to Friday 2 June at 6pm on BT Sport 1