Being careful to avoid the colorful ropes strewn across the deck, I follow a wetsuit-clad young man towards the catamaran’s bow. Overhead, Land Rover’s crest billows on a 40-foot sail.
“Please take a seat,” he says, pointing at a red square just ahead of the vessel’s cross-member. “You’ll want to hold on tight,” he adds, before hastily rejoining his crewmates.
Unbalanced on the netted surface, I more flop than settle into a seated position within my new quarters. Locating a grab handle to my right, I latch on and look up to find a contingent of other catamarans where a moment ago there was open water. Surrounded now, we bob in rhythm with our new neighbors.
Before I can distinguish the floating cluster of logos, a horn sounds from shore. Immediately, voices erupt around me and the crews burst into action. It’s chaos on the water (or so it seems).
A melee of bodies hoist and lean and yank various ropes behind me. Pivoting for a better view of the action, I feel as if I’m watching some type of coordinated dance. Men sprint across the netting that, moments ago, I had gingerly trodden to avoid falling flat on my face. Some pull desperately at cables, others leverage contraptions, and the rest crouch or hanging off the craft’s edge to balance it.
The pack of GC32 catamarans spreads wide, making it unclear who leads the race. One moment we’re floating almost motionless as the team scurries to find wind, another we’re ripping along the water’s surface. For brief intervals, the hydrofoil emerges and the sensation of flight fills my stomach with butterflies.
It soon becomes clear as to why I’m confined; men clamor around every inch of the catamaran, at some points sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with me. Much as my limbs will allow, I huddle to avoid obstructing their labor – it’s a small price to pay for the front-row seat.
Suddenly, a second horn sounds and the commotion stops. A few encouraging words are shared between teammates, but I haven’t the foggiest idea how we’ve placed. Only after being guided off the vessel and delivered to shore do I learn of “our” first-place finish. Had we arrived dead last, I would have remained impressed, but a nonchalant victory seemed appropriate for one of the top teams in the Extreme Sailing Series (ESS).
Founded in 2014, the Land Rover Ben Ainslie Racing (BAR) Academy is both a source of British national pride and a tremendous opportunity for ambitious young sailors. Led by four-time Olympic gold medalist and America’s Cup winner, Sir Ben Ainslie, Land Rover BAR Academy seeks to take home the America’s Cup trophy for the first time since the competition began in 1851.
Headquartered in Portsmouth, U.K., Land Rover BAR Academy invites the nation’s top 19 to 24 year-old sailors to train in a state-of-the-art facility and compete on a global scale. With elite-level mentoring, coaching, and advanced hydro-foiling catamarans at their disposal, Land Rover BAR Academy inductees have the best prospects for a thriving professional career.
Central to the team’s progress is Sir Ben Ainslie. His presence in San Diego during the second-to-last race of the 2017 Extreme Sailing Series season (and only U.S. stop of the year) creates palpable excitement. Each member of the Land Rover BAR Academy is at his or her best, ready to demonstrate personal and national pride.
“He’s just so inspiring,” beams a member of the BAR team following my race ride-along. “Other teams want to win to brag about beating Ben and we want to win to prove we belong.”
For his part, Ainslie sees great promise in his crew. “This event is my first chance to sail with these guys and I am really impressed with their communication and skill,” he tells us. “We fully expect some of them to move up to the senior team.”
With a Red Bull Youth America’s Cup title already under their belts (claimed earlier this year), Ainslie’s confidence doesn’t appear misplaced.
The growing popularity of ESS and America’s Cup competition may yield celebrity for sailors unlike anything we’ve seen thus far. Certainly, after my first-hand experience, I will be keeping a close eye on the sport.
Land Rover BAR Academy could prove a trend-setting investment in today’s young sailors, and with a beacon like Sir Ben Ainslie, it will be difficult for others to rival the team’s success.