Sir Ben Ainslie: What I’ve Learned

The world's most successful sailor on life, leadership and chasing the America's Cup

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On 2 October, the Extreme Sailing Series will enter its penultimate leg, with 15 teams from around the world battling it out on the waves of Nice.

Like Twenty20 cricket, the ESS is an attempt to make what feels like a very complicated sport more accessible to the wider public.

When it comes to sailing, that means tighter circuits, faster races and – most importantly – moving the whole competition inland so spectators feel closer to the action.

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Skipping the J.P Morgan team – currently in 5th place – is British sporting legend Sir Ben Ainslie.

During his home leg in Cardiff, we caught up with the most successful Olympic sailor of all time to talk about the series and what life on the seas has taught him so far.

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If I wasn’t a sailor I like to think I’d be a Formula 1 driver. I guess it’s a bit late for that now.

Sailing has come a long way. Twenty years ago, when most of the races were ten miles out to sea, the boats were just little white specs in the distance. Now we race right up close to the shore. It's good for the sport.

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There was resistance from traditionalists. From time to time, I'd include myself in that group. But we needed to change, and we’ve made great progress.

The best book I’ve read? Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. it's a fascinating insight into what makes people tick.

The biggest misconception about sailing is that it's a very difficult sport to get into – and that you need to be very wealthy to take part. Whether you live in land or on the coast, there will be a sailing club somewhere within half an hour. It's fun and inclusive.

Leadership is about allowing people to take responsibility and have ownership of their role, but leading by example too. And identifying the right people for the right job – that's going to make your life a hell of a lot easier.

My favourite city is Sydney. I’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot of time there. Racing in Sydney Harbour, with the Opera House in the background is a real highlight every time – it is also where I won my second Olympic medal back in 2000.

The best advice I was given was when I was a kid. It’s very basic: never give up. You see youngsters out there on the playing field taking a bad shot, or in sailing terms, going the wrong way, and the toys come out of the pram. In any sport it's important to keep going until the finish. That's the only way you can really learn. That lesson came from my Dad.

Tiger Woods is my sporting hero. In his heyday he was phenomenal. Sailing is a bit like golf. It’s a very mental sport. You can never play a perfect round, just like you’re never going to sail a perfect race. It’s about dealing with the set backs and adjusting.

Winning the America's cup for Great Britain: it wouldn't get any better than that. It started in Britain and we've never won it. It's the only international sporting trophy we've never won. It would be a special moment.

The first time I sailed on my own I was 8 years old. It was Christmas Day, and I had been handed down this little old wooden dinghy from someone in my family. My Dad took me to the beach and pushed me off, about half a mile from a pub we always used to go to. He said: "we're walking up to the pub, see you there." I had no idea what I was doing. I had no life jacket on, just a duffel coat and some wellington boots. And off I went. That sensation of feeling the water rushing under the boat, and being in control of it, at such a young age... I've never forgotten that sense of freedom.

The dinghy? Yeah, it’s still my most treasured possession.

Sir Ben Ainslie is the Team Principal of Ben Ainslie Racing – the British Challenger for the 35th America’s Cup. The team are currently competing on the Extreme Sailing Series extremesailngseries.com