Published July 13, 2012
The southern English coast has been witness to remarkable nautical history, from the Pilgrims leaving for the New World aboard the Mayflower to Titanic setting sail on its doomed voyage to an upstart crew of Yankees sailing away with what would become the America's Cup — right under Queen Victoria's nose, no less.
The Spanish Armada sailed up the English Channel toward eventual defeat. The majority of American soldiers who landed in France on D-Day embarked from Weymouth and Portland harbors.
All these decades and centuries later, Ben Ainslie will try to add a dash more lore down at the seashore.
The British sailing star will be the main attraction during the Olympic regatta off Weymouth and Portland, some three hours southwest of London.
If he wins his fourth straight gold medal and fifth straight medal overall, Ainslie will become the most successful Olympic sailor ever.
Since Britannia has had a thing about ruling the waves, it figures he would get his shot at history on home waters.
"Sailing has a huge heritage in the UK," Ainslie said. "We're very proud of Nelson, Sir Francis Drake and all those maritime heroes that we've had over the years. As an island nation we're very proud of our maritime history."
Ainslie has even been called "The greatest sailor Britain has seen since Nelson."
That would be Lord Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, whose victory over the French and Spanish fleets in 1805 is celebrated in London's Trafalgar Square.
Ainslie began his Olympic career by taking the silver medal in the Laser class in 1996 at age 19.
Now 35, he said he's driven simply by the chance to win another gold, not by surpassing Paul Elvstrom, the Dane who won four straight gold medals from 1948-60, as the greatest Olympic sailor ever.
"You know, I don't really look at it like that. I mean, my goal, my focus is 100 percent on trying to win another gold medal this summer," said Ainslie, who sails in the Finn class. "That's really all I can concentrate on. If that goes well, if I'm able to win a gold medal, well, then that will put me in a fantastic position in terms of the history of the sport. But I don't dwell on that. It's not something that's driving me. My focus is on the best preparation possible to go out and do well."
Ainslie won his first gold medal in 2000 on Sydney Harbor in the Laser class. He moved up to the Finn, a heavyweight dinghy, and won golds at Athens and Beijing.
Ainslie has had a rough several months. In December, he was disqualified from the world championships in Australia for an outburst at a TV cameraman that shocked the sailing world. Enraged that a TV boat kicked up a wake, he leaped from his dinghy, swam to the other boat, confronted the cameraman and then swam back to his boat.
At the recent Skandia Sail for Gold Regatta at Weymouth, Ainslie finished second after battling a virus and capsizing in the final race.
He'll no doubt use that as motivation for his big shot at history.
Ainslie won't be the only sailor in the spotlight.
Anna Tunnicliffe, who was born in England and moved with her family to the United States when she was 12, has been dominating in women's match racing after winning the gold in the Laser Radial in 2008. Now living in Plantation, Fla., she's skippers a boat that includes crew Molly Vandemoer of Stanford, Calif., and Debbie Capozzi of Bayport, N.Y.
Despite her U.K. upbringing — which included learning to sail on the North Sea — Tunnicliffe is fiercely American.
"I mean, I've spent 18-plus years in America, so America is the country I've grown up in and learned to love," said Tunnicliffe, who sailed on Lake Erie after moving to Ohio. "Yeah, I miss England but I'm an American and want to compete for America."
Tunnicliffe and her crew are the top U.S. medals hope, followed by Zach Railey of Clearwater, Fla., in the Finn; his sister, Paige, in the Laser Radial; and the women's 470 crew of Amanda Clark of Shelter Island, N.Y., and Sarah Lihan of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Zach Railey took the silver behind Ainslie in 2008. Paige Railey missed the 2008 Games after losing to Tunnicliffe in the U.S. trials when her life jacket caught on the boom, capsizing her boat.
With the mighty — and mightily funded — Brits sailing on home waters, Dean Brenner, the chairman of the U.S. Olympic Sailing Program, said the Americans need to focus on themselves.
"We have our own goals and we can meet those goals if we sail well, irrespective of what other teams do," he said. "We're not hell-bent on winning more medals than other teams, but to win as many medals as we can. That's the only way to think about it. If you focus on other teams, you take your eye off the ball."
As usual, the venerable Star class will provide a heavyweight showdown. Britain's Iain Percy and Brazil's Robert Scheidt, who finished 1-2 in Beijing, are back for another go-round. Scheidt, the last man to beat Ainslie in the Olympics, way back in 1996, is the reigning world champion and has been sailing well.
Scheidt has won two golds and two silvers in his Olympic career, the first three in the Laser class before moving up to the Star. Percy also has two golds, in the Finn in 2000 and Star four years ago.
Spain's Iker Martinez and Xabier Fernandez will have just three weeks to recover from the grueling 39,000-nautical mile Volvo Ocean Race before trying to win another gold medal in the 49er skiff, the fastest and wildest Olympic class. Martinez and Fernandez won gold at Athens in 2004 and took silver in 2008.
A handful of sailors will head from Weymouth to San Francisco for the opening regatta of the second season of the America's Cup World Series.
Ainslie will head his own team, Ben Ainslie Racing, in the ACWS before sailing with defending champion Oracle Racing in the 34th America's Cup in September 2013. He hopes to lead a British challenge in the 35th America's Cup.
Tom Slingsby of Australia, a favorite in the Laser class, sails with Oracle Racing, while countryman Nathan Outteridge, a favorite in the 49er, is skipper of Team Korea. Percy has served as tactician with Sweden's Artemis Racing.
Slingsby and Outteridge are among the new breed of young, super-fit sailors who crew the 45-foot catamarans being used in the AC World Series.
Gold: Ben Ainslie, Great Britain
Silver: Zach Railey, United States
Bronze: Pieter-Jan Postma, Netherlands
Gold: Robert Scheidt and Bruno Prada, Brazil
Silver: Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson, Great Britain
Bronze: Peter O'Leary and David Burrows, Ireland
Gold: Tom Slingsby, Australia
Silver: Paul Goodison, Great Britain
Bronze: Andrew Murdoch, New Zealand
Gold: Nathan Outteridge and Iain Jensen, Australia
Silver: Emmanuel Dyen and Stephane Christidis, France
Bronze: Iker Martinez and Xabi Fernandez, Spain
Gold: Mathew Belcher and Malcolm Page, Australia
Silver: Luke Patience and Stuart Bithell, Great Britain.
Bronze: Paul Snow-Hansen and Jason Saunders, New Zealand.
Gold: Hannah Mills and Saskia Clark, Great Britain.
Silver: Jo Aleh and Olivia Powrie, New Zealand.
Bronze: Amanda Clark and Sarah Lihan, United States
Gold: Marit Bouwmeester, Netherlands
Silver: Alison Young, Great Britain
Bronze: Paige Railey, United States
Women's Match Racing
Gold: Anna Tunnicliffe, Molly Vandemoer, Debbie Capozzi, United States
Silver: Lucy Macgregor, Annie Lush, Kate Macgregor, Great Britain
Bronze: Claire Leroy, Elodie Bertrand, Marie Riou, France
Gold: Dorian Van Rijsselberge, Netherlands
Silver: Julien Bontemps, France
Bronze: Nick Dempsey, Great Britain
Gold: Zofia Noceti-Klepacka, Poland
Silver: Alessandra Sensini, Italy
Bronze: Lee Korzits, Israel