Digging his team out of deep end

Ben Ainslie hopes to steer a British side at the next America’s Cup with his J.P.Morgan BAR team, who are vying in the Extreme Sailing Series.

SINGAPORE - After four Olympic gold medals, 11 world-championship titles and almost three decades of sailing, Ben Ainslie knows what high seas and rough waters feel like.

But getting called in mid-campaign to compete in last year's America's Cup was still unchartered waters, even for him.

Having sailed solo in his entire Olympic career, leading a team of 11 men was completely alien to the 37-year-old. It was also his first time in the role of tactician.

"It was a massive learning curve," Ainslie said on the sidelines of the Extreme Sailing Series (ESS) on Thursday.

His J.P. Morgan BAR team is one of 12 featured on the eight-stop global circuit, which kicked off on Thursday at The Promontory @ Marina Bay.

"There was a lot of pressure and a lot was at stake. I could look really stupid if I got it wrong," he added.

Ainslie eventually masterminded one of sport's greatest comebacks, leading defending champions Oracle Team USA from 1-8 down - and just one loss away from ceding the Cup - to beat Emirates Team New Zealand to retain the Auld Mug.

He drew on his own experience to help lift the mood in the Oracle camp though he has always maintained that credit for the comeback belongs to the team.

Said Ainslie who was knighted last year for his sailing achievements: "At the time I went in, the feeling (in the team) was a little bit low and there was a lot of concern about the performance. I had to use all my experience to help the team be positive.

"As we started to win more races, we got more and more confident and the mood changed dramatically. That's really what's amazing about the comeback - from one extreme to the other."It is why despite being the most successful sailor in Olympic history - he also has a silver from his debut Games in 1996 - the America's Cup victory remains something special for Ainslie.

"I've never experienced anything like that. I've been in some very difficult spots (in my sailing career) but that's different because it's individual," he said.

"When you're alone, it's easy because you don't have to look too far but when you have a team, how do you collectively solve those issues?"

The win has bolstered his hopes of fielding a British side at the next America's Cup - the one last thing he hopes to check off in his to-do list.

He said: "We have a very proud maritime heritage in Britain (and) that's the one thing we've never won. It'd be nice to set that straight."

These days, he is busy raising funds for his next America's Cup bid - an estimated US$100 million (S$126 million) is needed - and preparing for the campaign by competing in the ESS.

During Thursday's races, there were no war-like cries like those he used to spur his team on in the final race of last year's America's Cup.

Instead, he was an ocean of calm, steering the speedy Extreme 40 catamaran's direction.

But this sailor still knows a thing or two about comebacks.

Dead last after missing the start line in one of last Thursday's races, Ainslie guided his team to mount a late surge, eventually finishing third.

He said: "To win something in a team was a great experience.

"It's much more powerful than being successful on your own."

After Thursday's races, Swiss team Realstone are in the lead, with only 18 points separating the top eight teams.

maychen@sph.com.sg


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