There’s big news from the Emirates Great Britain SailGP team this morning with the announcement that the team’s skipper and CEO, Ben Ainslie, has stepped down as helmsman in favour of double Olympic gold medallist Giles Scott.
The surprise move sees Scott take over as helmsman of the British F50 catamaran for the upcoming Mubadala Abu Dhabi Sail Grand Prix in just a week’s time.
Ainslie and Scott form the dual helming partnership for the British INEOS Britannia America’s Cup syndicate where Ainslie is also CEO and skipper.
Image © Ricardo Pinto / SailGP
Ainslie told Yacht Racing Life yesterday that the decision had been tough to make but would free him up to focus more on the British America’s Cup campaign as the team ramps up for the start of racing in August this year.
“I have had plenty going on in terms of commitments, both as a sailor and as a CEO of these two teams,” Ainslie said. “It’s been apparent to me for a while that ultimately I have been spread too thin.
“Our performance in SailGP has been OK – we have had our ups and downs but we’ve been performing pretty well – but clearly they weren’t in the America’s Cup.
“As we all know, things are hotting up in America’s Cup world this year. Ultimately, leading a team that’s trying to get an AC75 on the water, maximise its performance, and then get into the competition, I couldn’t see how I could manage to do that in parallel with the tight schedule we have got in SailGP for the rest of this year.”
Ainslie and Scott have a long history, with them competing against each other to represent Great Britain at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Scott pushed hard and it was an extremely close competition, but Ainslie was successful in selection and went on to secure his fourth Gold medal before retiring from Olympic sailing. The torch was then passed to Scott, who competed at the Rio 2016 games, winning Gold in the Finn class, before achieving the double at Tokyo 2020.
Scott said taking on the helming role for Emirates GBR from Ainslie was “a big moment”.
“SailGP is an amazing League, there’s nothing else like it and for Ben to give me the call up is amazing,” he said.
“My relationship with Ben goes back quite a long way with the Olympic selection. Throughout that process we gained an awful lot of mutual respect for each other and we’ve raced together in multiple America’s Cup campaigns.
“I’ve got some catching up to do, but the Emirates GBR Team is a great squad, everybody involved is hugely experienced and top quality sailors. I’ve got to step up to the mark and do the best job I can to fill those big old boots that Ben’s left behind.
Aside from freeing Ainslie up to focus more closely on the America’s Cup, he said an added benefit of the switch will be that Scott will get to do much more top level racing in the run up to the Cup.
“Giles is a key part of our sailing team and other than the two America’s Cup warmup events hasn’t really had any opportunity to race in the last few years since [the 36th America’s Cup] in Auckland.
“Giving him the opportunity to get out on the racetrack – albeit fleet racing, not match racing, but still really competitive sailing – will help him get his race sharpness up for later this summer.”
Ainslie has always been a strong advocate for the SailGP circuit which has grown over four seasons to a fleet of 10 international teams racing at 12 events around the world. The five time Olympic medallist was the first skipper on the circuit to take a majority stake in his team.
He would, he admitted, without doubt miss being in the thick of the action going forward, but stressed the importance of the success of SailGP to the sport of sailing.
“It has been a very tough decision because I have really, really loved the sailing and racing we’ve done with SailGP,” he said. “Bang for buck it’s just an incredible circuit. It’s critical that the league is a success for the sport to really have that global annual league. So I’m sad to have to move on at this stage, but at the same time, there’s a huge amount going on and a lot to be excited about.
Ainslie said Scott had been characteristically unfazed by the switch in roles and was looking forward to his first event in Abu Dhabi in a week’s time where he will race with the British crew which includes INEOS Britannia AC campaigners Iain Jensen (wing trimmer) and Luke Parkinson (flight controller).
“Gilles is a pretty cool customer so he took it all in his stride,” Ainslie said. “But I know he is delighted. I know he’s been – as we all have been as sailors – a big fan of Sail GP. He’s watched every race and has been to a lot of the events with us and is really, really excited to get his opportunity to get his teeth into it and get out on the race course.”
With six events left in SailGP season 4 the British team sits in fourth place overall and very much within striking range of a place in the winner-takes-all grand final race at the San Francisco grand finale event in San Francisco this July.
So what sort of handover had Ainslie given Scott as he took the reins for the rest of SailGP’s fourth season?
“We have had several conversations about expectations,” he said. “Realistically we are looking at it that he has the rest of this season to bed into the league and then really push for the season after. That’s not to say of course we’re not going to be trying to get into that podium race again this year and get that top three finish.
On his time in SailGP, Ainslie said: “I’ve loved every minute of sailing in the league. We’ve had some great moments and some challenging moments, but I’ve just loved it. It’s the best sailing I’ve ever done in my career, it’s so much fun. We’ve got a great team at Emirates GBR that has a really exciting future and I’m still going to be part of it for many years to come.”