Gutsy sailing, thorough preparation and bold tactics seal victory for Ainslie and Land Rover BAR in Portsmouth's first America's Cup event.
There is no denying the fact that Ben Ainslie’s got guts. Whatever your views on the sport of sail racing, you have to admire a man who sets up a team named after himself, then invites the world’s best racing sailors to ‘his’ adopted home town to ‘have a go’ in front of the press, TV cameras and the paying public. But unlike the England football team, the rugby players or cricketers that regularly promise so much and fall short, four-time Olympic Gold-medallist and America’s Cup-winning tactician, Ainslie nails it again and again in dramatic style. As one rain-soaked fan huddled beneath her umbrella told me: ‘He’s something special, isn’t he.’
Of course, this two-race regatta win is only stage one of a very long and complicated run in to the grand finale in Bermuda in 2017 and a biblical downpour on the Friday and a fierce storm on Sunday put paid to many spectators’ enjoyment of the opening act of the 35th America’s Cup. But the racing on ‘sunny Saturday’ in which Land Rover BAR finished in first, then second place, could hardly have been more varied and interesting, leaving many in the crowd wanting more.
Out on the water on Saturday, more than 2,000 boats lined the course with a further 45,000 spectators in the ticketed areas ashore. At £75 a ticket, even the 5,000-seat grandstand was full and, VIP area apart, offered the best view of the course and the racing.
Race one started with little fanfare and no lack of muttering in the large festival-area crowd. Obstructed views and a lack of commentary from the dozens of loud speakers caused hundreds to drift away from the sea wall to watch on the big screens set up on the common instead. But 25 minutes later as Land Rover BAR rounded the last turning mark in first place, the loud speakers had sprung to life and there was no doubt as to what was required: ‘They can hear you out there, Portsmouth!’ yelled the commentator Andy Green and we all responded with a mighty roar to push Ben over the line. That felt like the real beginning of AC35.
Billed as one of the biggest and most prestigious sporting events in Britain this year, the single day of racing was the first America’s Cup event to be held in the Solent since the inaugural regatta in 1851. Six international teams competed in round 1 of the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series (ACWS), in high-speed AC45F one-design catamarans which ‘fly’ several feet above the water on hydrofoils. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge attended in the deluge on Sunday and handed out the medals and trophies at the makeshift prizegiving at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard – without having watched any of the sailing!
The concept of The Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series events was introduced during the 34th America’s Cup and nine events were held between 2011 and 2013 in a number of global locations. The idea is to allow fans, sponsors and media from all the participating nations to get involved in the event in a staged build-up to the final boat-on-boat contest that decides the ultimate winner. This edition will finish in Bermuda in 2017, but the combined results of the ACWS regattas this summer and next, will determine who starts the final challenger series in 2017 with a bonus point to their name.
Big future for Big Sailing
So it will be fascinating to watch and see if Ainslie really can succeed on the world stage in the manner of British Formula One drivers, such as Lewis Hamilton and Jensen Button. He’s brought in Martin Whitmarsh and Adrian Newey from motor-racing to help with management and aerodynamics. And on current form, you would be a fool to bet against him. Whitmarsh in particular takes the view that the enlarged, elongated ACWS format is definitely the way forward.
‘The Cup has been producing great contests for over 160 years, and has often relied on very wealthy benefactors. That’s great if you can find them, and great if you’ve got them, and we should be very grateful for the legacy that those people have funded and created. But if we’re going to have something with a little bit more continuity then we probably need to find a more consistent commercialisation of the sport, with initiatives like the America’s Cup World Series.
‘The problem with any form of entertainment – and that’s the business we’re in – is that people have an almost infinite number of choices in how they can spend their leisure time. What I saw in San Francisco – watching as an average punter – was a truly exciting and televisual America’s Cup. And there are those who would say; great we can do it again in four years time. But I think it’s quite difficult to commercialise the sport and grow public interest in it when it only hits awareness once every four years.
‘If we want to have the pinnacle of our sport with advanced technology then that costs money, and if it costs money then you have got to find either a rich oligarch who’s going to indulge you, or you develop a business that is actually sustainable because the commercial value of the business exceeds the cost of participation. And as I’ve already said, we owe it to the people here at BAR – who bring their time, energy, passion, knowledge and capability into this team – to see if we can not only win, but develop a business that means that they have a career path and development in front of them. That’s our duty of care to our people.’
So the city of Portsmouth can get back to normal until the jamboree rolls back into town in 2016. Two further ACWS rounds take place this summer: Gothenburg, Sweden (the home port of Artemis Racing) will host at the end of August, followed by Hamilton, Bermuda 17–18 October. And if Ben wins the big cup in 2017, the whole circus starts again back in Portsmouth 2018–21.