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Sir Ben Ainslie thrilled by success of SailGP spectacle in Bermuda

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Game changer: Sir Ben Ainslie, pictured in action with his Great Britain team during the Bermuda Sail Grand Prix, believes SailGP is redefining the sport (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

After the highly successful staging of the SailGP Season 3 opener in Bermuda over the weekend, Sir Ben Ainslie is adamant that global sailing league is a game-changer for the sport.

In his column in the Daily Telegraph yesterday, Ainslie – the most successful sailor in Olympic history with medals at five successive Games from 1996, including four consecutive gold between 2000 and 2012 — heaped praise on the Bermuda Sail Grand Prix, in which his Great Britain team finished second overall after two exhilarating days of racing in the Great Sound.

“After the start in Bermuda last weekend, I am convinced that it is the most exciting thing to happen to professional sailing in my lifetime,” Ainslie said.

“SailGP is a brilliant concept. I would never have taken ownership of the British team last year, and committed to it like we have, if I did not believe that to be the case.

“It is a game-changer, on and off the water. You only had to look around you in Bermuda’s Great Sound last week; the best sailors on the planet, in the most exciting machines ­— the F50 cats truly are rocketships — facing off against each other in a rapidly expanding global series.

“The action was great [even if we were beaten by Australia in the final sail-off], and everyone is now looking forward to the second round in Chicago next month.”

Ainslie admits they are still some improvements that need to be made but says the potential for the growth of the event is huge. “SailGP is not yet the finished article,” he said. “There are still tweaks which could be made to the format, to make it more exciting, more fan-friendly. “We still need more races so that we have fewer ‘dead spots’ in the season. But it is getting there.

“From five races in Season 1 back in 2019, we had eight last season, and now ten in Season 3, including new races in Chicago, Singapore and Dubai.

“There is an eleventh due to be announced shortly. You can feel it growing, and we are now up to ten teams.”

Ainslie said that interest being shown by potential sponsors is also a huge plus for the sport of sailing.

“There are now serious brands wanting to get involved, like Rolex, and there is serious money up for grabs,” he added.

“Bermuda’s total prize pot was $300,000 with $150,000 going to the winners, $90,000 to second-place finishers and $60,000 to third. Add in the $1 million prize pot for the overall series win and it starts to become serious.

“This is game-changing stuff, creating a real pathway not just for professional sailors — guys like Neil Hunter who came through our academy programme and ended up racing in both the America’s Cup and SailGP — but for all the auxiliary staff, the shore crew, the RIB drivers, the safety personnel and so on.

“We had, for instance, a woman with us last weekend, Sophie Heritage, who has joined us on an internship with backing from the Royal Yacht Squadron in Cowes. She was a great addition to the shore team in Bermuda and hopefully we can help her grow because the reality is there are still very few women in the boat building industry.”

Ainslie believes that SailGP will be the standout series in sailing behind the America’s Cup, especially when that event is not being held.

“The America’s Cup remains the Everest of sailing, of course,” Ainslie said.

“It has special event status given its heritage and the scale of the challenge it presents. But that happens once every four years.

“While we will be launching our first 40ft test boat this summer, and we are soon to be opening a new training base in Palma, the reality is we will not be racing anything for another 15 months at least, until the first of the America's Cup warm-up events.

“The America’s Cup is a design race, with teams pushing the boundaries of marine technology and innovation. SailGP is a one-design series, albeit with ever-evolving technology, meaning you really are seeing the best in the world up against each other every few weeks in the same equipment. There are no excuses. You cannot blame the fact that your boat is not as quick.”

He continued: “We were relatively happy with our opening weekend from a sailing perspective. We won a couple of races on the opening day, and were consistent enough on day two to make the final three-boat sail-off.

“Unfortunately we tried a slightly different approach in the pre-start in the final and mucked up our final gybe, which meant we were late to the line. It was frustrating and we need to get to the bottom of exactly what happened. But I’m proud of the way the team bounced back from that start to overhaul Canada and finish second to Australia who were worthy winners.

“I will say it again. SailGP is an incredible opportunity for sailing. And one which, in my view, is incumbent upon us in the sport to embrace.”

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Published May 18, 2022 at 7:43 am (Updated May 19, 2022 at 7:54 am)

Sir Ben Ainslie thrilled by success of SailGP spectacle in Bermuda

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