Sunday, June 20, 2010

Book Review: Close to the Wind

A confession: I actually read this book earlier this year but some how the time wasn't right to blog. So this review has had time to what we could call settle in my mind (rather than fade).

While an autobiography, authorship is shared between Ben Ainslie and a Nick Townsend and I did wonder what that meant. It does sound like Ben's voice, so I'm guessing he was interviewed by Nick who then transcribed what was said, tidied it up, and generally structured it as a book.

The book certainly works overall, telling Ben's story from lad sailing in an Optimist, through the Olympic years with the Laser and Finn classes, to Sydney to Holberts and the America's Cup.

It is of course an incredibly impressive list of sailing achievements, and there is enough of Ben's character on display to get an understanding of the relentless drive that pushes him to train endlessly and to dig deep even when exhausted and ill to get that vital point. Remarkably at the Beijing Olympics he had a bad case of glandular fever - for which as a past sufferer he has my sympathy.

The first chapter starts with that famous duel when he won the gold at Sydney by pinning Robert Scheidt to ensure he didn't come in the top 21 boats. It was a ruthless display that led to a lot of bad words both on and off the water. It was the sort of professional take no prisoners that is the opposite of the gentlemanly do the right thing of more traditional sailors. But it works, and at that level there is no doubt the opposition won't be pulling their punches.

And you can tell Ben remembers that, whether a protest, insult across the water or sneaky tactic. He certainly remembered how the BBC played a bad trick on him by broadcasting an unflattering clip of him during Sports Personality of the Year (as blogged here).

Reassuringly there are also some grade A cock-ups, including being in the wrong helming the 100 supermaxi Leopard during a start of the America's Cup Jubilee Regatta in 2001 which led to the pranging of the 80 foot Morning Glory owned by SAP billionaire. Even our "greatest Olympic sailor" does sometimes get it wrong, spectacularly wrong.

At the end he repeats that truism that he "will never stop learning" which reminds me of another: that he "has probably forgotten more about sailing that I've ever learnt."

A truly remarkable sailor and a good book to get an insight into sailing at that level.

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