Southsea Common looks like a cross between a village fete and a funfair but the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series kicking off down here today marks the start of what is likely to be Britain’s most momentous sporting story in more than a century.
After two years of planning and 30 of dreaming, Sir Ben Ainslie’s campaign to bring the America’s Cup to Britain for the first time ever is finally underway. Only a few members of the crowd who cheered his Landrover BAR racing boat out to the Solent race track at lunchtime had any idea of how enormous an undertaking this is and how this British sporting hero could very well rewrite history, again.
For the first time since 1851 when an American boat, called America, came over to England and won a race around the Isle of Wight to win a trophy that at the time was called the Royal Yacht Squadron 100 Guineas Cup, Britain has a good chance of winning the America’s Cup. A very good chance, as it happens.
The reason is Ainslie himself. Unique, determined, successful and because of that success, popular and well connected. Everyone who has worked with him closely knows that if Ainslie sets his heart on something, he will achieve it whatever it takes. Five Olympic medals is testament to that.
Most of us only have a vague idea of hard work and sacrifice but Ainslie has devoted most of his waking hours to winning medals.
That has meant spending hours and hours in the gym, travelling around the world proving himself on the race track, tuning his boat before racing and hosing it down after, working out ways to beat opponents, missing out on sessions with chums in the pub and waiting until his mid-30s to settle down and get married.
Look at any area of Ainslie’s life and you will see sacrifice. You won’t see or hear much about the hard work, application and dedication but you will see his four gold medals and one silver and they tell us everything.
His success at any cost approach has won him many friends, including the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall who happily bring influence to bear on projects they believe in and wealthy businessmen with pockets deep enough to fund multi-million pound projects.
Enter Sir Keith Mills, a similar sort of character to Ainslie with equally big ideas. For instance, he wanted London to host the Olympic Games so went out and made it possible. And Sir Charles Dunstone whose passion for sailing is matched by a knack for making squillions of pounds.
When Ainslie won the America’s Cup for Oracle Team USA in 2013, Mills and Dunstone picked up the phone and had a chat, deciding that the time was right for a British team led by Ainslie to make a bid for the Auld Mug, as the Cup is known.
There was no point in launching an America’s Cup campaign unless it was a seriously competitive one but that would cost a good deal of money, possibly as much as £100 million.
So Mills and Dunstone got on the phone to some of their wealthy chums and a momentum started to build and before long, some seed money was in place – backed up by an unheard of £7 million contribution from public funds – to get the show on the road.
Inside two years, Ainslie has now secured most of the £100 million he needs. He has built a state of the art HQ in Portsmouth and forged close ties with the local community to make the campaign more than just a sailing project.
It is proving to be a genuinely inspiring force driving education, technology and business programmes that are set to make a difference, even if Ainslie fails to win the America’s Cup and that is unlikely though it might not happen at his first attempt in 2017.
The Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series in Portsmouth will mark Ainslie’s America’s Cup debut in British colours. It is the first time we get to see his British America’s Cup team racing in Britain… or anywhere for that matter.
It is an historic moment. It marks the start of a journey that is set to make all of Britain immensely proud.