Despite five well-financed challenges from 1899 to 1930, Lipton never won the Cup, which in his era was one of the premier sporting events. Lipton won plenty of admirers on both sides of the Atlantic as a gallant loser, but he has come to embody Britain’s 166-year history of frustration in the Cup.
Though it began in British waters in 1851 off the Isle of Wight, the British still have yet to win it.
“It’s crazy,” Ainslie said on Thursday. “It’s our motivation really as a team, to right that wrong in our maritime history.”
It does indeed make for a good pitch, and Ainslie, after some initial struggles to find the financing he required, has proved an able pitchman. Land Rover BAR’s budget for this campaign is about 90 million pounds ($116 million), among the highest of the five challengers who will over the next two weeks attempt to earn the right to face the defending champion, Oracle Team USA, in the America’s Cup match beginning June 17.
The problem is that Ainslie and his high-profile team appear to have a speed problem. Their new foiling catamaran has been bringing up the rear in the practice racing on Bermuda’s Great Sound.
“We’ve been working on a number of significant upgrades to get our speed competitive,” Ainslie said. “I believe we can do that, and if we can, we can race as well anyone. We’ve proven that.”
Nonetheless, the opposition is emboldened. Asked to name the fastest challengers on Thursday, Jimmy Spithill, Oracle’s outspoken skipper, cited Artemis Racing, Emirates Team New Zealand and SoftBank Team Japan.
“It’s great to have them,” Spithill said of Land Rover BAR. “They’ve probably got one of the biggest budgets and one of the largest teams.
“In the practice racing, they haven’t been at the level of Japan, Artemis and Team New Zealand. But I’ve witnessed some changes in the past, and we, for one, will not be counting them out.”
Spithill speaks from experience, a very pleasant experience that he shared with Ainslie in San Francisco in the last America’s Cup, in 2013.
Ainslie, a reserve helmsman for Oracle at the start of the race, was brought on board as a tactician with Team New Zealand out to a dominant start. Despite tensions on board and behind the scenes, Oracle eventually rallied from a 1-8 deficit to win the Cup, 9-8.
Four years after putting together one of the most rousing comebacks in any sport, Ainslie and Spithill were sitting side by side on Thursday in the America’s Cup village in Bermuda for a news conference as the leaders of rival teams.
So goes the Cup, where bands of brothers often break up in search of a better offer. But Ainslie, the most prominent sailor in Britain with his four Olympic gold medals, had long planned this uniform change and this British team, even if he had to be very patient.
He was a reserve helmsman for Team New Zealand in the 2007 Cup in Valencia, Spain; then part of a would-be British challenge Team Origin that never got the chance to challenge. He looked set to remain on shore again in 2013.
“I remember just before the 2013 Cup having dinner with John Bertrand,” Ainslie said of the Australian skipper who helped put an end to American domination of the Cup in 1983 in Newport, R.I. “John and I built up a great friendship over the years. He’s somewhat of a mentor, and I remember saying: ‘This Cup is bloody hard. I’m not sure how I’m ever going to get involved. I am struggling to see the pathway.’”
Bertrand shared his own experiences, how he had held different roles with Australia and went through similar frustrations before their breakthrough in 1983.
Ainslie continued: “And he said to me, ‘You just need to keep going because it changes so quickly.’ And then two or three weeks later, there I was with Oracle and this amazing comeback.”
The comeback provided Ainslie the platform he needed to found his own team. Land Rover BAR (BAR stands for Ben Ainslie Racing) represents the Royal Yacht Squadron, the iconic club in Cowes where the Cup began when the avant-garde visiting yacht America defeated a fleet of British yachts in a race around the Isle of Wight with Queen Victoria among the spectators.
“The Squadron has only challenged three times since 1900 — 1934, 1937 and 1958 — because we have been very wary of the reputational risk that the America’s Cup seems to bring in its wake,” said Christopher Sharples, the club’s commodore, in an interview on Thursday. “Those risks are still with us, of course, but Ben came not just with his own stellar record but also with a highly respected group of financial backers, such as Sir Charles Dunstone and Sir Keith Mills, both members of the Royal Yacht Squadron.”
Oracle, despite being an American team, is an international assemblage of talent. But Land Rover BAR is predominantly British; all but one of its sailors carries a British passport. And all are well aware that a British triumph could be a major boost at home for sailing, which long ago ceased to be a mainstream spectator sport.
“It would resonate very, very strongly,” said Martin Whitmarsh, the chief executive of Land Rover BAR and former head of the Formula One team McLaren.
“It’s all good stuff. I don’t like a lot about nationalism, but if, or should I say when, we win this trophy and we take it back, it will be absolutely huge the feeling on our little island.”
Whitmarsh and Ainslie concede that #bringingithome — to use the team’s social media hashtag — could certainly take more than one attempt.
The other challengers are strong. Oracle could be even stronger. And though Oracle’s unconventional, revenue-driven decision to stage this regatta in the British overseas territory of Bermuda means that, in Ainslie’s words, the Cup is “already halfway home,” victory is still, in Ainslie’s words, “a long way away.”
“But we’re getting closer to it,” he said, with Thomas Lipton’s biography still in front of him. “I don’t think they are right to write us off.”