One of the highlights of the Argo Group Gold Cup has been the participation of Sir Ben Ainslie. This is the first regatta the most successful sailing Olympian of all time has competed in since his central role to Oracle Team USA’s extraordinary comeback victory in the 34th America’s Cup recently in San Francisco.
Ainslie last competed on the Alpari World Match Racing Tour when he won it with his TeamOrigin crew back in 2010.
His competing at the Argo Group Gold Cup worked out well in terms of timing, with the event scheduled to take place soon after the conclusion of the 34th America’s Cup. But the main reason he and triple Olympic medallist Iain Percy are here is to raise money for the Andrew Simpson Sailing Foundation, set up following the death of their best friend and sailing partner, who drowned when Artemis Racing’s AC72 broke up and capsized in San Francisco Bay in May.
At the Andrew Simpson Gold Cup Benefit evening held on Thursday night in Bermuda, an auction raised US$ 86,780 for the Foundation. This will go towards encouraging children to go sailing, by providing both equipment and coaching facilities. At present the scheme is being set up in the UK and Bermuda, but the intention is for its reach to extend further afield in the future.
To kick it off, Ainslie and his long term bowman, Matt Cornwall, arrived in Bermuda well in advance of the Argo Group Gold Cup, to answer questions from children at a Royal Bermuda Yacht Clubs Sailing Academy Optimist Dinghy clinic.
As to the Argo Group Gold Cup itself, Ainslie has turned up with the same crew he sailed with on the Tour when they competed here previously, including Cornwall, Percy and jib trimmer Christian Kamp. Andrew Simpson used to attend this regatta too in the capacity of coach and sailing advisor.
“We have got a lot of good connections here with Ben Nicholls and Mark Watson, CEO of ARGO Group,” explains Ainslie of his participation in Bermuda. “At Bart’s funeral, we were talking about the good old days of coming here with Bart [Andrew Simpson] and Catflap [Matt Cornwall] and Christian, and Ben suggested we come back and do it this year in memory of Bart.”
The idea was galvanised when Mark Watson, President and CEO of the Bermuda-based ARGO Group and host of Thursday night’s soirée, got in touch and made a donation to the Foundation. “So we are sailing here under ARGO Group colours,” Ainslie continues. “It seemed like a nice idea to come and do something fun and get the guys back together. We are all good mates and enjoy sailing together. And this is the perfect event for it – we are not taking it too seriously, we are having a bit of fun and it’s an opportunity to catch up with some old mates.”
Of course when Ainslie says “not taking it too seriously” in the same breath as “sailing”, you have to take it with a pinch of salt.
So has the Tour changed since he was last on it three years ago? “There are some new faces coming in like Taylor Canfield. It is good to see teams like that doing well. And some of the rules have changed, which we didn’t really know about - that’s been quite interesting! But fundamentally not a huge amount has changed. It is still a great Tour and it is a good competition.”
Going into the regatta observations were being made that the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club’s ancient fleet of International One Designs used for the Argo Group Gold Cup are not quite the same high speed vehicles used in the 34th America’s Cup that Ainslie and Percy have become used to sailing over the last months. To put it mildly.
“Yes, it is funny - coming to the IOD, it is from one extreme to the other, but it is still good fun, really challenging in other ways,” says Ainslie. “The AC72s are mainly about raw speed, but I think that is what is great about the sport – it’s so diverse, there are so many different challenges.”
Following the 34th America’s Cup, Ainslie’s already high profile has gone supernova internationally and this is helping him greatly with the next mountain he has chosen to climb: to set up a British challenge for the 35th America’s Cup. This is no mean feat given the vast amount of money required to mount a competitive campaign.
Ainslie says that with the format anticipated for the 35th America’s Cup – ie using wing-powered foiling catamarans and a different race format - he’s unlikely to return to the Alpari World Match Racing Tour, so his participation here in Bermuda, the penultimate event of the 2013 Tour, is probably a one-off. “I think the Tour is fantastic, but I think if you are looking at it from an America’s Cup team standpoint, then probably not.”
But if the Tour ever introduced a multihull event or events, then this view would probably change. “I think then you would see teams that could use it as an opportunity to train up for the Cup,” he says.