Friday, October 6, 2017

Ben Ainslie, Close to the Wind, 2012

This is a sailing autobiography by Ben Ainslie, Britain's most decorated Olympic sailor. Among many other sailing achievements and titles he was awarded a total of five Olympic medals in five successive Olympic games from 1996 to 2012. A silver one in the Laser class in Atlanta in 1996 at the age of 19, a gold one in the Laser class in Sydney in 2000, and three more gold medals in the Finn class in Athens 2004, Beijing 2008 and London 2012. Although not covered by this book, Ben Ainslie is perhaps more widely known for his participation in one of the greatest comebacks in sports  in the America's cup in 2013.  According to The Times the book "is a unique insight into the man who cannot let himself be second best".

He started sailing a second-hand wooden optimist he was given by his father as a Christmas present at the age of eight. Thereafter he kept sailing to win, remaining a "big student of the sport and its history". "A lot of sailing is about mental rehearsal, making a mistake and working out how you could have done it better. And next time, you do it better...I simply concentrated on my own development, not other's opinion of taught me very early on, that the important thing was not about trying to be somebody, it was about getting results and trying to be the best I could in my sport".

In the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta he lost the Gold medal to the legendary Brazilian Robert Scheidt literally on the final race. Scheidt managed to con him into disqualification during a black flag start: "I needed to beat Robert by five places to win gold...Robert was near the committee boat, and drifted over the line. He must have heard them call his country name. At that point he knew he was out of the race, regardless...What he did was very smart. With five seconds to go, he just sheeted in and went for it. He was yards over the starting line when the gun went. But that triggered a whole group of us, about ten to fifteen boats to go as well...I was disqualified as well".

In the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, he won the Gold medal on the final race, by successfully sailing down Robert Scheidt! "After a week's racing the situation boiled down to this: in the finale of the series I had to either go out and beat Robert by at least ten places to win the gold, or, because of the intricacies of the discard system (at the time you could discount your two worst results), if I could sail him down the fleet and ensure that he finished no better than twenty-first, he'd have to count that as one of his discarded races, and that would give me the gold...Because the conditions were so shifty, I couldn't take a chance with the former". And so he did in one of the most talked about sailboat races. "With about five seconds to go before the start, I got into a leeward position which is a right-of-way position, got underneath and luffed him. He bore away and we just had contact. I protested and he did two penalty turns which put him behind the fleet. I stopped and waited for him...I was directly on his wind already, trying to slow him down. He just put in tack after tack after tack. There must have been fifty tacks up that first upwind leg...Two on-water jury boats were watching us like hawks to make sure no one broke the rules...It turned into the furious battle it had always promised to become. We were both on top of our game...I set up a trap whereby I kept him to the outside of me, and just wouldn't let him go around the first turning mark. He was really frustrated as you would be...Robert turned and gybed his boat straight in front of me and we collided. In the process he eluded me, and was gone...I would protest. He should be disqualified. But I couldn't be absolutely certain he'd receive a guilty verdict once the evidence was reviewed back on shore...Suddenly we were on the second to the last leg.  I could see this large patch of dark water coming towards us from the other side of the harbour, which was basically signifying a massive wind-shift.  Robert had picked that up and gone the opposite way to the whole of the rest of the fleet. He had got this wind and was coming to the next mark at twice the speed of any other boat moving in a straight line. I was powerless to intervene...He went round the final mark in twenty-second place. He just needed to overtake one more boat...I couldn't celebrate yet. There was also a protest hearing looming...they heard his argument regarding the second part, under Rule 2, which relates to 'recognized principles of sportsmanship and fair play' and found that I'd sailed within the rules and they didn't have a problem. Then they heard my protest, and watched a lot of video evidence, and clearly found in my favour". The way Ben Ainslie raced then to win the Gold medal received a lot of criticism, especially by people who did not know the rules of racing. Now the rules have changed and the final race is not discardable and counts for double points. Sailors are encouraged to be more aggressive.

Ben Ainslie describes quite a few occasions he had to face people attempting to put him down or intermediate him, on or off the water. But he managed to ignore most of it. He also had some embarrassing moments with accidents and boat damages. He describes his first experiences with America's cup and the team building processes they had to go through..."We wrote down all those words we thought they were important . They included "Respect. Determination. Courage. Honesty" or other issues like "about the guys being disaffected because they were on the B boat and not the race boat". He also describes the mental attitude he chose to adopt: "Disappointment, if you allow it, can be terribly negative, destructive influence. From my early days, I have used disappointment as a fuel to work harder, improve on what went wrong and not let it happen again. It will no doubt have become apparent by now that I'm a terrible loser. I hate it. I'm better than I used to be, but it still hurts like hell. It's the biggest motivator there is. It's why I try to minimise that by leaving nothing to chance in the build-up to a major regatta like an Olympics or world championships...At a big event like an Olympics, I'm highly focused. I just concentrate on getting my head down and immersing myself in my own performance - so much so that, to some people, I possibly come across as self -centered, although that's not the case...Being skipper also means harnessing the team's potential by saying the right things in the meetings beforehand, using the right tone, setting the right goals...You have to perform when it counts, take your chance, accept the outcome and move on...I believe strongly that by taking time out and doing other sailing, you learn a lot of useful skills. It also keeps you fresh". Occasionally he mentions the physical challenges his body had to deal with: "I hope my body will slowly recover and that I never have to push it like that again in my life".

This is an excellent book to read in order to appreciate what it takes a sailor to consistently win in major regattas.

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