Sailing: British sailing great Sir Ben Ainslie savouring return to NZ waters for SailGP

  • 17/03/2023

Helmsman Sir Ben Ainslie hopes to erase some unwanted memories, when he returns to Kiwi waters this weekend to lead the Team Great Britain challenge at the inaugural SailGP event in New Zealand.

The British sailing great hasn't visited since the America's Cup challenger series in 2020, when his Team INEOS UK were comfortably beaten by Luna Rossa.

"There aren't any Italian teams in Sail GP at the moment, which hopefully is a good omen," Sir Ben joked with AM.

"But its It's great to be back in New Zealand. Beautiful country. Lots of passion for the sport of sailing and it's my first time in Christchurch, so I'm looking forward to sailing out here."

Ten boats will take to Lyttelton Harbour this weekend to contest the penultimate round of the innovative global sailing league in its first visit to New Zealand.

Unfortunately for Sir Ben, any of the knowledge acquired from his racing on the Waitemata Harbour will count for little this weekend.

"It's going to be tricky because not many of us have sailed here before and we're trying very quickly to work out the nuances of the harbour," he admitted. 

Sailing: British sailing great Sir Ben Ainslie savouring return to NZ waters for SailGP

"We're going to have our work cut out for us."

The event has become the hottest ticket in town, with a sold-out crowd of over 15,000 expected when racing begins on Saturday, estimated to inject approximately $29 million into the local economy.

Three fleet races will take place on day one, then another three on Sunday. The top three boats then advance to a finale to determine the podium places.

The format has been described as sailing's answer to rugby sevens or Twenty20 cricket, with sprint-style races in AC50 catamarans - a modified version of those used in the 2017 America's Cup - which are capable of breathtaking speeds.

"We're getting speeds of over 100km/h, which is phenomenal speed really, for a sailing boat," he said.

"The races are 10 to 12 minutes. We do three in a day. Very short, very fast and compact.

"Of course, you get all of the audio off the boat. What we love about sport is the raw emotion and you get that in spades with Sail GP, and it's a pretty cool concept."

An impressive performance this weekend is critical to Team Great Britain's title cause. They currently sit just two points shy of fourth-placed Team France, vying for a spot in the all-important top three, who'll advance to the grand final in San Francisco in May.

"We need a good result," added Sir Ben. "We're right on the cusp of the top three which is what it's all about in Sail GP - getting into that final podium race.

"Still a lot to play for but getting a good result here would certainly help."

Sir Ben is also in the interesting position of being the team's driver and chief executive, similar to the arrangement the New Zealand team have with Peter Burling and Blair Tuke.

That makes results even more important for the Olympic gold medallist.

"There's certainly a business element to the league in terms of being able to get the financing to keep these teams operational," he confessed.

"We are a privately funded team. We're seeing the commercial elements of the league really, really coming on strong and the growth of the TV audience is really starting to take off.

"That's exciting and bodes really well for the future of the league."