Can the UK shrug off a 163-year losing streak to win the America’s Cup?

The UK hasn’t won the America’s Cup, the most prestigious sporting trophy in sailing, for over a century. Sir Keith Mills, who helped bring the Olympic Games to London, tells Shaun McGuckian of his mission to end one of the longest losing streaks in history

In 1851, Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, and inventor Henry Cole commissioned the first international showcase of manufactured goods, The Great Exhibition.

The festivities included a race around the Isle of Wight to demonstrate the strength of Britain’s navy. The hosts invited the world to take part and called it the Auld Mug, offering a prize of £100 to the winner.

On race day, 15 boats bobbed at the starting line. Fourteen of them were British; one lone boat had made the journey from the US. The America won. Queen Victoria is rumoured to have asked who was second and received the now famous response – “Ah, Your Majesty, there is no second.” The America’s victory triggered one of the longest losing streaks for Britain in sporting history.

“They took home the trophy and renamed it the America’s Cup, and 163 years later we still haven’t won it,” says Sir Keith Mills. “So I’m going to win it back.” The English entrepreneur is visiting Dubai to attend the Dubai World Cup, the annual thoroughbred horse race. He adds, confidently, “And once we win the America’s Cup it would be wonderful to bring it to Dubai to host it here.”

Mills embraces challenges. A successful businessman who left school aged 15 with no qualifications, he is well known for inventing the Air Miles scheme. He is also Deputy Chairman of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, and successfully led the British capital’s bid for the 2012 Games.

In 2007, he founded Team Origin, a syndicate designed to spur Britain to compete in the 33rd and 34th America’s Cups.

Today’s race is remarkably different to when 15 schooners (a schooner is a sailing ship with two masts) first circumnavigated the Isle of Wight.

To begin with, modern catamarans no longer sail on the water; they fly. As impossible as that sounds, these 45ft rigs actually float across the top of it because the speed of the boat – up to 50mph – lifts the main body of the vessel, the hull, out of the water. The only contact with the water is a foil anchored to the bottom of the hull.

Mills also owns the single-sail Open 60 franchise (a single-handed, round-the-world race), and is, perhaps unsurprisingly, an avid sailor. His father taught him how to sail a small dinghy when he was a young boy, and the passion stuck.

“I race boats at quite a high level, but I am as happy helming in a race as I am sat relaxing at the back of a yacht,” he says. “I have my thoughtful moments there. It clears the brain and you can get things in perspective.”

But to achieve his next task, he’s going to need a bigger boat. The one in question is a 45ft catamaran, a feat of modern engineering.

The America’s Cup is a two-boat race where eligible yacht clubs challenge cup holders. Recently, teams from Australia, Italy and even landlocked Switzerland have won amid advances in technology, talent and investment. Meanwhile, audiences have grown.
Jay Leno, the American television personality, dubbed the last race “the greatest comeback in sports history”.

ben ainslie racing
Speeds of up to 50mph lift the boats almost completely out of the waterImage: Ben Ainslie Racing

“In the old days of sailing, it was all about hydrodynamics and the shape of the hull, how quickly it would carve through the water. The challenge today is to put together a team who understand aerodynamics,” says Mills.

That team requires more than the ability to hoist a mainsail and weigh anchor. The crew is often formed of 100 people comprising civil engineers, Olympians, designers and, of course, sailors. It is as much a business as it is a race. A single yacht costs around US$10m and most teams build two in case one gets damaged during the competition. The price of overall entry is even higher. In short, the pressure is colossal.

To shoulder this responsibility, Mills has partnered with Sir Ben Ainslie to skipper. As a four-time Olympic gold sailing medallist he is no stranger to such pressure, and knows what it takes to win. Ainslie, Mills and other luminaries of British industry have formed Ben Ainslie Racing (BAR) and are recruiting the very best of British talent to help them break a curse over a century old.

“We’ve just recruited Martin Whitmarsh, the former CEO of McLaren Formula One team, and we have Sir Adrian Newey of Red Bull Racing, the best Formula One designer in the world,” says Mills, in explaining how BAR will capitalise on their aerodynamics expertise.

They took home the trophy and renamed it the America’s Cup, and 163 years later we still haven’t won it. So I’m going to win it back

Add to this a new multi-million-pound headquarters for Britain’s America’s Cup team in Portsmouth harbour, and the determination to win the trophy is palpable.

Aptly, Portsmouth is where the competition begins. The America’s Cup World Series, an event that pitches hopeful entrants to the 2017 America’s Cup against each other, begins on 23 July 2015. It marks the first time in 164 years that the contest will be held in British waters, and the BAR team is racing on behalf of Britain.

“We’ve built a team capable of winning America’s Cup in 2017,” says Mills. “I think if you can pull together really good teams of people, as we did for London 2012, and share in a strong vision, then you have the ingredients to succeed.

When he was asked to run the Olympic bid, Mills’ friends and family were sceptical of the potential to win. It was, he says, a case of the jitters on their part.

“I think a fear of failure is a real weakness in companies, governments, and often in people. It’s just not healthy. Yes, sometimes things don’t work out, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try again.”