Close to the Wind, cover

Ben Ainslie explains who he is and how he became Britain's most successful Olympic yachtsman - an Olympian and athlete who stands comparison with Pinsent and Redgrave.

Close to the Wind is almost a story of two different people in the one body. Off the water there is a quiet, even shy, person who would shrink into the background whenever possible. On the water Ben Ainslie is completely different. He is a determined, even aggressive, competitor who is supremely fit and understands his sport to such an extent that he has total self-belief.

Review of the Autobiography of Britain’s Greatest Olympic Sailor

Close to the Wind is his story of three Olympic gold and one silver medals. It is also about much more, especially the mind and drive of a total competitor. It shows how such people are driven to achieve their success. Fortunately in the case of Ben Ainslie it is not at the expense of the basic humanity of Ainslie, the quiet man.

Lifetime of Practice and Training With the Best

For most sports fans Ainslie came to their notice when he took the silver medal in the Laser single-handed class at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996. Although only 19 he had a successful track record as a junior and had been sailing almost daily since he was 8.

Britain has one of the best sailing development programmes in the world and as a result there is a depth of talent that gives junior sailors, girls and boys, the opportunity to practice daily with some of the best in the world. Ainslie gives full credit to that experience and points out that as there is only one crew from each country in each class so Britain has to leave potential medal winners at home. He acknowledges his debt to those people like Ed Wright and Paul Goodison who despite being beaten for a place on the Olympic team acted as his training partner. Subsequently Goodison went on to win Olympic gold medal himself.

Ruthless Competitor Stung by Ill-founded Criticism

After he was beaten into silver place in 1996 by a supreme competitor in Robert Scheidt, from Brazil, Ainslie was determined to prevail in the 2000 Games. Sydney produced one of the great sailing battles and Ben Ainslie’s improved strength and tactical skill allowed him to legitimately slow Scheidt down and sail him to the back of the fleet . The intention was that Scheidt could then not get the points he needed in the last race to beat Ainslie to the gold medal. It was one of the great tactical head to heads in Olympic yachting and a tremendous piece of aggressive, but entirely fair, sailing by the still young Ainslie.

Showing his dual personality, the quiet Ainslie was disappointed, and still is,by the criticism by Sir Roger Bannister, and others, who described his on water tactics as “unsporting”. Ainslie, the competitor, fully understands and defends the tactics as entirely legitimate and important part of competitive sailing. He makes the entirely valid point that Bannister and the like were showing their lack of understanding of competitive sailing.

Such tactical sailing has always been part of championship yachting and has to be completely within the rules as there are jurors(judges) on the water and a protest framework off it to rule on disputes. Indeed there are forms of yachting, match and team racing, which bring those tactical skills to full prominence and have therefore been added to the Olympic programme. Ainslie showed considerable skill and concentration to maintain such close cover for the duration of a whole race against someone as experience as Scheidt. The slightest slip and Scheidt would broken out of Ainslie’s control and the result could have been very different.

It is clear from the book that sailors are as fit as any other Olympic competitors as the boats are very physical and races can last an hour and half and require total concentration as mistakes can punished severely with a capsize or missed change in the wind allowing huge place changes.

A Good Read and Not Just for Sailors

The style is conversational and not at all self-aggrandising. The language is straightforward which makes it an easy read. The yachting jargon is kept to a minimum and is well explained so the book will be accessible to all who want to know what makes a great athlete and sportsman.

All in all there is strong message in this book at what it takes to succeed and shows Ainslie as a total competitor in the mould of great athletes and Olympians in other sports. There are many who think he should have got a knighthood after Beijing.

Close to the Wind (2009, ISBN: 978-0-224-08292-1; The autobiography of Britiain’s greatest Olympic sailor by Ben Ainslie is published in hardback by Yellow Jersey Press (Random House) at £18.99 (Can$48.50)

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