by George Ainslie
Island life in Bermuda may sound idyllic, but for GEORGIE AINSLIE, wife of Ben, the most successful sailor in Olympic history, giving up her job as a sports reporter and relocating, baby in tow, to pursue her husband’s dream of winning the America’s Cup has been quite the challenge
It’s 3.30am and I should be asleep. Instead, I am wearing yesterday’s make-up and bed hair – not intentionally – and sitting at the breakfast bar in our kitchen in Bermuda making mental to-do lists for the day ahead. I have a cup of black coffee in one hand and a slice of peanut butter on toast in the other. I’m not alone in my state of alertness. My iPhone is perpetually buzzing with WhatsApp messages from girlfriends in London and elsewhere, mainly first-time mums sharing and comparing notes about motherhood. Nappy rash and cradle cap consume our conversation, and a question about the best creams for cracked nipples eventually sees me close the thread for good.
There is only so much baby chat I can take, particularly when the beautiful bundle responsible for my being awake at this hour has somehow, miraculously, found a way back to the land of nod for the third time tonight. Her father has, as ever, managed to sleep through the whole thing. How do men do that? I make a mental note to find out, then bottle it. It’s on the list I’m assembling in my head, somewhere above Napisan and below Aptamil.
It is easy to reflect in moments like this when there is nothing but the sound of Biggles and Ginger, our two dogs, snoring away on the sofa, to break the silence. I switch on the TV to stifle my boredom and make another coffee. What the hell, I figure, I’m not going back to sleep now.
The Australian Grand Prix is on, the first race of the Formula One season. Here, on a rock in the middle of the Atlantic, I could not be further from the pit lane I inhabited only five years ago in my capacity as one of the faces of Sky’s Formula One TV coverage. Looking back, I loved that gig, and the job that preceded it at Sky Sports News. Nothing can compare to a live broadcast environment: it is an electric place in which to work, inhabited by the most exciting people, all trying to make their mark, to break the big stories. I had always wanted to be a journalist and, with a lot of hard work, I’d got there.
Working at Sky Sports – as I did for a decade or so in the noughties, presenting the news – plenty of my scripts, particularly during the Sven [-Göran Eriksson] years, were littered with references to Wags. I remember using the term to describe the partners of famous sports stars and cringing. I never wanted to be labelled in such a way and made a promise to myself that whatever happened in the future, I’d keep my professional and personal life entirely separate.
I failed. Epically. In the spring of 2013 my flatmate at the time, the Sky News presenter Sarah-Jane Mee, bundled me into a taxi after we’d finished our shifts and insisted I attend a dinner with her that neither of us was particularly interested in going to. It was there that I met my now husband, sailor Ben Ainslie, eventually making my Wag status official when we married in December 2014. (I am forever grateful to SJ for that first meeting she unwittingly instigated.) It is in that capacity that I find myself watching Steve Jones and co on the TV in Bermuda, broadcasting what had been part of my old life.
I have no regrets about leaving that world behind me – I’m living a different life now that I love even more – but that’s not to say I didn’t struggle to adapt going from career girl to mum and corporate wife almost overnight. I suspect I’m not alone in having those confusing feelings of missing the workplace while simultaneously embracing the biggest job on the planet: being a parent.
Ben and I relocated here in December last year, and when I say relocated, we even packed the kitchen sink. There was a moment when, on counting 17 suitcases in the entrance hall of our home on the Isle of Wight in the days before we left, I questioned what on earth we were doing, taking ourselves, our then four-month-old and our dogs halfway across the world to win a boat race. Had we really thought this through? Of course, I never actually asked.
The truth is, I had committed to the rollercoaster ride of being a professional sportsman’s wife – a Wag, if you like – long before we boarded that plane to Bermuda. When Ben helped Oracle Team USA win the last America’s Cup in 2013, I was working in New York, presenting a panel show with the US’s version of Bruce Forsyth, a wonderful veteran entertainer called Regis Philbin. I watched with my hands over my eyes the race that determined a sudden-death final between Oracle and the challengers, Team New Zealand, while broadcasting live.
After the show I flew straight to San Francisco to see Ben and his co-sailors lift the trophy the next day to celebrate what has since been described as one of the most incredible sporting comebacks of all time. They came from 8-1 down to win the series 9-8. It was the most magical time and the offers came flooding in for Ben, who was largely considered responsible for the dramatic turnaround in fortune having been drafted on to the boat as tactician midway through the event. Together, we had to decide – and quite quickly – how and in which direction we wanted our lives to go.
We are both home-birds and the opportunity to build something from the ground up on home soil was too great an opportunity to turn down. Since Ben officially launched Land Rover BAR, a Portsmouth-based race team dedicated to the pursuit of winning the America’s Cup, in June 2014, we haven’t stopped. We’ve moved country twice, home three times, got married and had a baby, Bellatrix.
Ben has never worked harder. But I know this is by far the most challenging thing he has ever done. He has already accomplished and won more than most with four Olympic gold medals and countless world championships, but this is the big one for him. He always dreamed of winning the America’s Cup, even as a young boy, and I know how much it would mean to him to one day lift the oldest trophy in sport with his own team alongside him.
As anyone with a hardworking partner will testify, they need a lot of support. There are times when Ben needs me to be vocal and other times when I need to listen. There are times when I have to remind him of what he’s capable of, despite him having achieved it himself. There are times when he has to make sacrifices to stay at the top of his game that compromise us as a family and as a couple. There are times when he’s winning and there is no better feeling. There are times when he’s losing and you don’t want to be anywhere near.
It isn’t all trophy-lifting and congratulatory pats on the back. Sometimes the press can be mean; sometimes fellow competitors are foul. This, though, is the way of the world, and particularly of sport. You have to learn – sometimes the hard way – that the best action is to remain above the silliness.
Support is essential to achieve success at the very highest level of sport. I have interviewed a number of high-profile sportsmen over the years and they share many things in common, but most notably, perhaps, they are obsessively single-minded. Not self-obsessed necessarily, but focused on their goals to a degree I sometimes find difficult to truly understand.
Often, after a race, whether immediately or days or even months later, I will find Ben scrolling back and forth for hours, watching and analysing each and every manoeuvre in painstaking detail, unable to do anything else until he has exhausted the process. There is no point in trying to schedule anything significant when he’s in that mindset. He needs to be left alone to concentrate and obsess. I have grown used to watching a lot of box sets by myself, waiting for him to call it a day or fall asleep trying.
In Bermuda everything is amplified because all the teams contesting the 35th America’s Cup are here, preparing, training and sharing a 21-square-mile stretch of island. We have just days to go now until the first race gets underway and you can feel the pressure building. We relocated not just as a family but as a whole team. That means 70 members of staff and their families have upped sticks from the UK and committed themselves to the cause, too. Bill Koch, who won the cup in 1992, once told me, ‘You have to be committed for being committed to the commitment.’ I try not to think too long or hard on that statement, but I assume he said it for good reason.
We have put up most of the Land Rover BAR team in a hotel in Hamilton, the main hub of Bermuda, and we have our own school set up here to accommodate the 20 or so children, ranging in age from four to ten, who have been plucked out of schools in the UK for a term or two. Not that they are complaining: lessons are between 9am and 2pm, with the day usually ending in the pool or on one of the many pink sandy beaches. I’m not sure we’ll ever convince them to go home – or to any other school, for that matter – after this experience.
It has been extraordinary for all of us on many different levels. Of course, the cherry on the cake would be if we can do what we came to Bermuda to do and bring the Cup home to Britain next month. Easier said than done. The UK hasn’t won the America’s Cup once in its 166-year history, and to win it at the first attempt is a big ask. I feel for Ben when people assume that because he has won so much already in his career, this is a slam dunk. It really isn’t. There are so many variables, from the design of the boat to the wind shifts. What I do know for sure is that he will throw the kitchen sink at this effort. I know that because we packed it.
Support the Ainslies’ charity
A portion of proceeds from the sale of Me+Em’s Iconic Breton Top (£55, meandem.com) goes to The 1851 Trust, the charitable arm of Land Rover BAR, to fund getting children on to the water and into careers in the marine industry. Ben and the Duchess of Cambridge are patrons.