“Would you like to attend the LandRover BAR (Ben Ainslie Racing) luncheon with Sir Ben Ainslie and cover it for The Local Tourist?”
As someone who spends every summer weekend racing on a sailboat in Chicago, my answer was an emphatic, enthusiastic “YES!” The Chicago boating community has been hoping for years that the America’s Cup, that prestigious 164 year old yachting competition, would break tradition and sail in freshwater for the first time on Lake Michigan. Thrilled when they announced that the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series would be held off of Navy Pier, we bought boat spectator passes in the dead of winter, shuffled long standing regatta dates to open up the second weekend in June and debated the design of the AC45 catamarans. The opportunity to meet and greet one of the teams and get a peek at the boat was like Christmas morning and birthday rolled into one. It would be a challenge for me not to turn into a complete fangirl. (I’m not sure I was completely successful.)
Sir Ben Ainslie is the team principal and skipper of LandRover BAR. Widely regarded as the most successful Olympic sailor of all time, he is the first person to win medals in five different Olympic Games in sailing (4 gold/1 silver) and he was a member of Oracle Team USA, the winner of the 2013 America’s Cup. It was his vision that launched LandRover BAR two years ago after a conversation with Larry Ellison and Russell Coutts, his teammates at Oracle Team USA and it is his aim to “bring the Cup back home” to Britain where the America’s Cup began in 1851.
Joined by his crew, David “Freddie” Carr, Paul “CJ” Campbell-James, Matt Cornwell, Nick Hutton and Ed Powys, Ainslie is in the middle of a two year long, around the world circuit of qualifying races. They compete against four other teams (Artemis Racing Sweden, Emirates Team New Zealand, SoftBank Team Japan and Groupama Team France) for the chance to take on the defending champion (and Ainslie’s previous team) Oracle Team USA in the America’s Cup finals in Bermuda in June 2017.
The teams race on AC45 yachts, each an identically-made 45 foot long catamaran, weighing approximately 3000 pounds. The boat features a 1350 sq ft gennaker sail and one of three headsails.
The LandRover BAR team was eager to get into Lake Michigan. Although smaller than Bermuda, Chicago’s race course is bigger than New York and due to the outer harbor break wall, uniquely protected on three sides. “It’s a great place for high speeds because it’s so flat,” said Campbell-James, “so we should be hitting 40 mph.”
That is incredibly fast and because these boats don’t have a keel, they are more likely to capsize. Team members wear helmets and personal floatation devices for safety. Additionally, chase boats follow each team with a medic, a diver and someone who knows how to right a 70 foot tall boat that has been knocked sideways. (Both Emirates Team New Zealand and Oracle Team USA capsized…and were righted…this weekend in Chicago.)
photo credit Ali O'Reilly
Ainslie is the public face of the team, but his crew is equally experienced on the water. Carr, Campbell-James and Hutton all raced on Luna Rossa Challenger 2013, the Italian entry in the 2013 America’s Cup, as well as in the Extreme Sailing Series; Powys was a member of the British Olympic 49er squad and Jono MacBeth, the sailing team manager, has won three previous America’s Cups. Most of them grew up sailing as well.
“I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know how to sail,” said Hutton. “My mum and dad had a small wooden boat and I was in a hammock on the boat from the youngest age.”
As professional athletes, they are extremely fit. They work out daily with Ben Williams, head of strength and conditioning, and must adhere to strict nutritional guidelines. Each team has a combined weight limit they must meet to compete, another challenge that they conquer as a team: “Sir Ben has lost weight…he is at his lowest weight since high school…so that Freddie Carr, the bowman, can gain muscle,” said a LandRover BAR support staff.
As part of the event, LandRover BAR arranged a “Sports Swap” with Bobby Portis of the Chicago Bulls. The LandRover BAR team was thrilled to play basketball with the 6’11" rookie. They then challenged him to join them in a typical workout, followed by a friendly competition on the grinder. Portis was supposed to do a ride-along during practice on Thursday, but due to less than favorable weather conditions, the boats were not launched until Friday and practice was scrapped. After seeing what the “spectator seat” looks like----basically sitting on the edge of the boat, hanging on to a thin piece of rope---Portis appeared relieved that the sailing had been cancelled. All of the athletes seemed to be having a great time and it appeared to be a fun break from the intensity of the weekend’s competition.
Meeting the team, getting a peek behind the scenes and seeing the boat up close was such a pleasure for me as an amateur racer. The good news is that I managed to remain calm and keep my fangirl-ing to a minimum: I only asked one of them if he wanted to come and sail with my team. (He said no.)
This is Part I in our series covering the Louis Vuitton America's Cup in Chicago. Part II: First Time on Fresh: America's Cup Excites Chicago's Lakefront
Featured photo credit Ali O'Reilly. All other photos Kristy Eriksen unless otherwise noted.