While meeting America’s Cup heroes is a dream come true for many Youth Cup hopefuls, the masters of the game have been impressed too

Never underestimate the influence of sailing heroes. “When they saw Ben Ainslie walk into the room it was like they’d been electrocuted,” said Greig City Academy director of sixth form and sailing co-ordinator Jon Holt, speaking about some of his students. “Just seeing Ben in person was a huge buzz for them. And when he and Hannah Mills then came over and gave them tips on the sailing simulator it was clear just how much this meant to them.”

The Greig City Academy needs little introduction, thanks to the impressive and sustained amount of work to inspire youngsters from way outside sailing’s normal catchment to get involved in the sport. From taking part in the Rolex Fastnet Race aboard their 45-footer Scaramouche, to dinghy racing at a variety of levels and venues, the Academy’s sailing programme continues to introduce waves of youngsters into the sport.

Crewmembers from Greig City Academy’s Project Scaramouche celebrating round the Rock in the Fastnet Race

This time though, Holt and his students were in central London, attending the official announcement of the British America’s Cup team’s sailing squad and major new sponsorship deal for the Women’s and Youth America’s Cup events later this year. They were clearly impressed and keen to master the pair of sailing simulators that had been set up.

But sometimes the admiration flows the other way. Having prised Ben off the simulator I reminded him about a comment he’d made about the Italian team Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli and one sailor in particular, 19-year-old Marco Gradoni some two months earlier, at the America’s Cup Preliminary Regatta in Jeddah.

“I stand by what I said then, it was one of the most, if not the most impressive things that I’ve seen in the sport,” he said, referring to the dominant performance that Gradoni and the three other crew aboard their foiling AC40 had delivered.

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“To be able to develop the skills so quickly from simulation to reality is super impressive. When I think back to my Olympic career and coming into America’s Cup match racing, it was a much bigger transition because you went from sailing a Laser to a massive displacement monohull with 18 crew. It took a long time to understand the nuances of match racing too.

“Now, if you sail a foiling Moth or a 49er or any high-performance dinghy there’s not a huge difference between those and getting on an AC40 or an AC75. I think that’s largely why we’re seeing a much faster transition and that’s great for the sport.”

But while the racing in Jeddah was impressive, it also made me wonder what the Youth America’s Cup might look like come the event itself this September. When other young teams get hold of their foiling 40s and drive them like they’ve stolen them, we could be in for a real treat.

The AC40 will be used for both the Women’s and Youth America’s Cups. Photo: C. Gregory / INEOS Britannia

On top of this, given the standard of female sailors being announced by various teams for the Puig Women’s America’s Cup that takes place during the America’s Cup itself, the same could be said for this inaugural event too.

As Ainslie and Mills set out the new British sailing squad and the solid financial support it has received from Cobham-Ultra, I realised I was still behind the curve when it came to understanding just how influential and far reaching the new age of high-performance sailing currently is.

“When Ben and I founded the Athena Pathway Programme one of our big goals was to put together a competitive team to challenge and win the first ever Womens America’s Cup,” said Mills. “Equally important was getting the next generation of young people, and particularly females, into the sailing and marine industry.

“Engineering is an obvious example but there are so many roles within the sport that we wanted to showcase the talent that’s out there as well as providing a pathway for them.

“In addition to this, with the modern boats the physical demands are far less of a limitation. All of the roles on an AC40 and at least half of them on an AC75 do not rely on outright physical strength so there’s never been a better time for women aboard these high-performance boats.

“But it’s the experience that’s missing, so we’ll have at least one female in the four crew for the youth event and hopefully other teams will adopt a similar approach to help create a base of women and youth sailors ready and able to step up to the America’s Cup.”

As the Academy pupils’ reaction demonstrated, having role models is key to that process.

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