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Close To The Wind by Ben Ainslie

Release date: 03rd September, 2009
Publisher: Yellow Jersey

List Price: £15.99
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Captain Arthur Phillip, commander of the First Fleet of eleven ships that first sighted Sydney in 1788 is reported as saying that, "We got into Port Jackson early in the afternoon and had the satisfaction of finding the finest harbour in the world."

Ben Ainslie has a similar regard for Sydney's azure blue waters, a feeling no doubt influenced by his Olympic success in 2000 when he finally overcame Robert Scheidt, his long-standing nemesis, and the man who had consigned him to the silver medal position in Atlanta four years earlier.

The opening pages of Close To The Wind contain a gripping account of how Ainslie captured Sydney gold. Thankfully, you do not need to be a sailing aficionado to appreciate the incredible tension as the Brit either had to beat Scheidt by ten places in the final race or keep him out of contention by blocking his route to the front. Having chosen the latter (and won the gold medal), his tactics drew criticism from Sir Roger Bannister, but Ainslie's strategy was not illegal, merely another convoluted element of a sport renowned for its labyrinthine rules.

Sailing is in Ainslie's blood (his father captained a yacht in the inaugural Whitbread Round the World Race in 1973) and he started sailing in a creek at the back of the family's Cornwall home when he was eight. He entered his first competition two years later.

Ainslie has suffered from a skin photosensitivity which causes his skin to blister and come out in a rash since he was a child, a condition which led to him being bullied at school for a number of years. Like so many successful sportsmen, however, he channelled the anger the bullying created to good effect and by the time he was 16, he was the Laser Radial World Champion. Incidentally, towards the book's rear is a glossary which proves invaluable for non-sailors. Unfortunately, no-one has edited the annoying second 's' from the word 'focused', but this is a minor gripe.

In 1996, Ainslie became the youngest sailor to be selected for a British Olympic squad when he travelled to the Atlanta Games and captured a Laser class silver medal. Prior to the '96 Olympics, Robert Scheidt was still passing on advice to the new boy, though "when I started becoming a threat to him, that all stopped. You couldn't blame him," says Ainslie.

Not surprisingly, following his success in Sydney, Ben Ainslie sought a different challenge and became involved with an America's Cup team for more than a year, later returning to the Finn class to take a second gold at the Athens Olympics; he retained gold in Beijing four years later.

Given his Olympic success, Ainslie is well qualified to comment on how his sport is perceived: "I think that sometimes, sailing's forgotten [and] doesn't have the credibility it should do," he says. It's a fair point, especially as we're an island race. Ainslie is a director of the National Sailing Academy, an ambassador for the Prince's Trust but, he reflects, "I don't expect to be a guy in a blazer." That would be a waste: in fact, given his access to well-heeled sponsors, what about a few Ben Ainslie sailing schools dotted around our ample coastline?


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