Sir Ben Ainslie Had a Good Excuse for Skipping the Coronation
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While King Charles was being crowned at Westminster Abbey, Sir Ben Ainslie, who is sailing royalty in the United Kingdom, prepared to lead his country’s catamaran into a high-stakes, high-wind race against rival nations.
“It’s a great national occasion,” Ainslie says of the Coronation, which his loved ones celebrated back home. “And I think we’re rightfully proud of our royal family, and certainly wish King Charles all the best for his future reign.”
The self-described “very firm fan” of the British monarchy was sad to miss the festivities in London, but he honored Charles the best way he knew how: On the water. Ainslie, a four-time Olympic gold medalist, famously helped Oracle Team USA clinch the America’s Cup victory in San Francisco a decade ago. Last weekend, he returned to the Bay Area, this time guiding the Emirates Great Britain team as it took on Australia, France, and the United States, among other competitors, in the third season of the SailGP championship, an international contest spread out over 11 cities around the world.
San Francisco hosted the Grand Final, a real nail-biter that concluded with Australia’s unstoppable Tom Slingsby besting Ainslie to secure the title and $1 million prize. The 46-year-old Englishman, renown for working well under pressure, takes the sport’s upsets in stride—it's all part of the game he has played since age 10, when he entered his first sailing competition, following in the footsteps of his father, Roddy, who skippered in the first Whitbread Round the World Race circa 1973.
“My parents were keen sailors,” he says, adding, “sailing was part our family life. If there were holidays, they were always on a boat somewhere.” In Cornwall, where he grew up, he found his true calling. “I had no inclination that it would end up being a career or anything like that, but one thing led to another. I found myself competing nationally, then internationally, then seeing an avenue through to potentially having a crack at selection for the Olympic games, which I managed to achieve.” After winning silver in 1996 and gold in 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012, he crossed the finish line for the U.S. in the America’s Cup, one of his proudest achievements.
In 2021, he joined the SailGP circuit started by American business mogul Larry Ellison two years earlier. Ainslie, the CEO of his team, has a financial stake in it. He and other athletes navigate F50 foiling catamarans that glide across the waves like seaplanes and benefit from Ellison’s data-sharing technology designed to help close the gap between the frontrunners (the relaxed Aussies, the serious Brits) and their less seasoned opponents. Ellison and company aim to make professional sailing more popular and accessible—with SailGP a platform comparable to Formula 1.
In San Francisco on Saturday, hundreds of fans, sporting several different accents, streamed into the official Adrenaline Lounge tent to watch the fleet races Bay-side while sipping Champagne and noshing on fresh crab and oysters. Next door, crowds gathered outside the St. Francis and Golden Gate yacht clubs. (Ellison, who founded the Oracle Corporation, is a member of the latter.)
From the shore, it was easy to track the action as Ainslie’s Emirates Great Britain catamaran caught strong winds, always on Slingsby’s tail, its Rolex-sponsored sail visible in the distance. (Not so visible: Its Coronation-themed sticker.) Ainslie, an ambassador for the Swiss watchmaker, tested its new Yacht-Master 42 model made with lightweight titanium and wears it while competing. When he was in Auckland, New Zealand for the 2021 America’s Cup, timepiece enthusiasts ogled the prototype on his wrist, catching him off guard. “It was unbelievable the amount of times I was stopped on the street, people asking about this watch, what was it?” he says. “’Cause, you know, if you’re a keen watch follower, you could see it’s slightly different to a normal Rolex. [The] feedback was incredible. I’d never seen anything like it.”
Despite Ainslie’s high-ranking prestige—he was officially knighted in 2013—and J.Crew-catalogue looks, he projects a sailor’s lack of pretension. He keeps his Olympic medals stashed away somewhere in the home he shares in southern England with his wife, former broadcast journalist Georgie Thompson, the co-host of his Performance People podcast, and their two children. He wants to focus on the future, not dwell in the past; sure, trophies are nice, but winning isn’t everything. Ainslie’s oldest daughter, six-year-old Bellatrix, helps keep him humble.
“She's so much fun, but she's a real hardass,” he says. “So, she gives me a tough time. If we don't get a decent result, I get home getting a barrel load of questions about, you know, why didn't we win?” She’ll ask: What’s going on? Isn’t it time you started winning some of these competitions?
“She’s a bit of an adrenaline junkie,” he says of the times he’s taken her sailing. While he’s not trying to push her into the family business, “I’d love her to get into sport. ‘Cause I just think for young people, it’s such a great way to burn off energy, to get outdoors, to learn about team-building and all those critical elements of getting on in life.”
On the rare moment of downtime, Ainslie dabbles in other sports.
“I love playing golf,” he says. “I mean, I'm terrible. I'm a terrible golfer, but I love it. I enjoy the challenge. For a while, I was trying to learn to fly, but I never quite got there. So, that's definitely on the bucket list—to try and get my private license.” He adds: “That’s one of those wonderful challenges that just takes you away from whatever it is in your life that’s sort of worrying you, or a frustration. … You're just worrying about flying the plane and keeping it right. Keeping the wings somewhat horizontal. And keeping the plane going, which is a great distraction.”
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