The other day, Sir Ben Ainslie made an impromptu visit to our sailing club during an Open Day. He was absolutely charming and after having stopped to chat to a few local sailors and posing for photographs with some Sea Cadets, he decided to go for a sail in one of the club boats. He duly set off down a pontoon and came face to face with a club member who was allocating visitors to boats. The club member took one look at Sir Ben and, failing to recognise him said, ‘Do you sail at all? Apparently a wry smile crossed Sir Ben’s face as he replied, ‘Yes, I do, a bit’. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the club boat had been high performance craft but sadly even the ability to plane evades them. Still, I’m sure the afternoon made a pleasant departure from the mundane task of having to steer an AC45 catamaran around the Solent.
Sir Ben kindly posing with the Sea Cadets
Clearly it has been something of ‘Ben Ainslie Week’ for me, because only days after the Open Day I was invited to attend the AGM of the Yachting Journalists’ Association at Ben Ainslie’s Racing HQ in Portsmouth, the home of our America’s Cup challenge. The new building is a truly impressive, futuristic structure just around the corner from the entrance to the harbour and only a stone’s throw from the Spinnaker Tower. Security is tight and before I was permitted beyond the entrance foyer the receptionist stuck a BAR sticker over the camera lens on my mobile while she gave me strict advice instructions about no photographs to be taken.
Before the AGM got underway we were given a tour of the workshop by the Commercial Manager, Phil Kennard, himself a UK 49er National Champion and an ex Formula 1 employee. As we lined up on a balcony overlooking the workshop, the scale of operations dawned upon the band of assembled journos and it quickly became apparent that many of the lessons learnt in Formula 1 were transferrable to the AC45, itself the Formula 1 of yachting. The workshop housed not only several training AC45s but also a block of four air-conditioned ship’s containers with windows built into them. Phil explained that the team needed to be completely mobile and in order to achieve this the containers, which housed rigging, office and repair facilities could be moved out in a moment’s notice on rails built into the floor of workshop. Once on site they are arranged into a square and covered with a roof to create a support village, very similar to Formula 1 teams.
Sir Ben, up close
Much of what Phil said was shrouded in mystery including the finer details of exactly what tricks are contained within those hulls. Although no great secret, did you know that the jib controls were operated by foot using buttons on the hull floor? Apparently, whilst sailing an AC45 the whole team are working all the time, grinding to provide the maximum five seconds’ worth of permissible hydraulic pressure to operate the controls. Each of them expend as much energy as a Tour de France cyclist. Fortunately all teams are starting out from identical beginnings, so no-one has a head start. That said, there were dark hints at industrial espionage and men with long camera lenses taking photographs of the facility and the boats when the doors were opened. Everything used on the AC45 is designed to cope with strains way beyond those expected and as this testing was about to take place we were ushered swiftly away from the area. We moved upstairs to a conference room and headed out onto another balcony just in time to catch the arrival of an AC45 coming back to base. An on-site crane lifted it onto dry land and within minutes the sail, itself the size of a 747 wing was separated from the boat and placed on to its own trolley, dropped into the horizontal and wheeled into the building. The ‘sail’ being some form of plastic, flexes and crackles in an alarming manner, nothing like a cloth sail. The hull remained outside while a team of people hosed down and polished the AC45 before taking it inside. We had a perfect birds eye view of the boat and were probably staring at any number of dark secrets within those hulls, but I’m delighted to say that not one person was tempted to take a photograph.
Once we’d finished our business in BAR we then headed over the road to the Still and West pub for a meal and a get together to discuss what had been a truly memorable day. Just as BAR has its security measures, so does the YJA and perhaps its best if I don’t reveal exactly what went on behind closed doors. The evidence on the table says it all.
Our happy band of journalists and photographers in the pub at the end of a hard day. Note Sir Robin Knox-Johnston on the left.
All in all it was a fascinating and rare visit to the Land Rover Ben Ainslie Racing establishment.