There were many reasons why the greatest British Olympic sailor ever was looking forward to his debut at the helm of the wingsailed catamaran for the Great Britain SailGP Team presented by INEOS, but returning to Sydney, the scene of his first Olympic gold medal, made it particularly special.
Ben Ainslie has a hard-earned reputation as a tough competitor. It drove him to four Olympic gold medals, numerous world championships, and it served him well when he switched to the America’s Cup. It makes him a feared opponent as he makes his debut in SailGP.
Joining SailGP meant that several old friendships and rivalries have been renewed. Tom Slingsby and Rome Kirby, helmsmen for Australia and the United States respectively, were teammates at ORACLE TEAM USA, the team that won the America’s Cup in San Francisco in 2013, while he raced against Nathan Outteridge, Japan’s helm, at the last America’s Cup, in Bermuda, in 2017.
Then there is Jonas Høgh-Christensen, team manager of the new Denmark SailGP Team presented by ROCKWOOL, who battled Ainslie for gold in the Finn class at the London 2012 Olympics and came off second best.
“All the teams are a really high standard of sailor,” Ainslie said. “Tom, Nathan, Rome and Phil Robertson (Spain’s helm) I have raced against a lot. It is great to see the Danish team coming into it and Billy Besson, with the French team.
“There is a real strength in depth and the talent on show across the teams. It is going to be great racing, which is what we are all in it for.”
But of all the rivalries Ainslie has had in his illustrious career, perhaps none has been as fierce as the one he had with Brazilian Robert Scheidt in the Laser class that saw its final battle in Sydney with a race that changed many people’s perceptions of the sport.
It is now 20 years since the Sydney Olympics, where much of the racing took place on the same water in Sydney Harbour that SailGP action is taking place.
Four years before, Ainslie, then a teenager, took Olympic silver behind the Brazilian. In Sydney, the fight went right to a memorable final race, where Ainslie employed aggressive match-racing tactics in a fleet race to grab the gold.
“I remember that race vividly,” Ainslie said. “It was a big, big moment in my career. In some ways, it was a gamechanger.
“It is fair to say it sparked a lot of conversation about the aggressiveness of the racing, but people looked at it and saw that it created a huge amount of interest and so since then, they have implemented medal races and tried to get the showdowns.”
The event was held over 11 races and going into the final one, Scheidt held a big lead. If Ainslie won the last race, he would have to hope the Brazilian was not above ninth. The other option was to ignore the other 38 boats and ensure that Scheidt finished 22nd or worse.
So, while the rest of the fleet raced off, Ainslie blocked and harried Scheidt, using his right of way advantage to drive the defending champion away from the turning marks, matching him maneuver for maneuver.
“I had heard stories of famous sailors I was following who had used such aggressive tactics, but it had never been done at such a high profile event before,” Ainslie said.
“I talked about it with my coach John Derbyshire. He is a lovely guy but quite conservative, not the person you would expect to promote such an aggressive tactic. He was the one who said if you are going to do this, do a proper job, because if you do a half-hearted attempt, the likelihood is that Robert will pass a few others and score enough points.”
The tactics worked. Ainslie finished 36th, but Scheidt was down the fleet too. When Ainslie returned to the jetty, his Great Britain teammates lifted him and his boat clean out of the water and carried him back in triumph. It wasn’t quite the end of the anguish, as much of the evening was spent in the jury room, arguing about a series of protests that could have seen Scheidt lifted up the fleet. In the end, Scheidt was disqualified for barging into Ainslie. The Brit sealed gold.
“For a long time we didn’t really speak after that. We get on very well now. It was just an amazing sporting rivalry. The more you are in those high pressure, high stakes scenarios, you learn from it, good or bad. It helps you in the future. I’ve had plenty of them over the years and looking forward to a few more. I am always trying to learn and improve.”
The race also inspired a younger generation. Among those watching from headlands around the harbour and listening to commentary on the radio were two teenagers – Slingsby and Outteridge.
“It was amazing,” Slingsby said. “I remember watching back then and I have watched that replay 100 times. They were my heroes, still are.”
Hero and rivals face off again on February 29 as the British hold a commanding lead heading into the second day of Sydney SailGP Season 2 after winning all three fleet races in Ainslie’s debut. Outteridge and Slingsby are tied for second with two races to go, with the top-two point leaders going head-to-head in the final match race.