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Sailing-Thrilling America's Cup a boon for the sport - Ainslie

Oracle Team USA tactician Ben Ainslie speaks to members of the media after winning Race 18 of the 34th America's Cup yacht sailing race agai
Oracle Team USA tactician Ben Ainslie speaks to members of the media after winning Race 18 of the 34th America's Cup yacht sailing race agai

By Justin Palmer

LONDON (Reuters) - The thrilling climax to the America's Cup in San Francisco has put the event and sailing "in a strong place commercially", according to Oracle Team USA tactician Ben Ainslie.

An unlikely comeback by Oracle was capped in the winner-takes-all 19th race on Wednesday when they triumphed after trailing Emirates Team New Zealand 8-1, a stirring comeback that gripped the sporting world for days.

Having had "a little bit of sleep after a good party", Britain's four-times Olympic champion Ainslie said Oracle's battle with the New Zealand team - on giant high-speed catamarans barely skimming the surface in the natural amphitheatre of San Francisco Bay - had riveted a global audience.

"It's been great for the sport, great for the America's Cup and great for the future of sailing," he told Reuters on Thursday before boarding a flight to meet up with friends in New York.

"The number of messages I've had from all round the world and especially from home. People have been blown away by the footage of these boats. People who would not have watched sailing before have now taken to it."

The San Francisco event, with faster yachts that produced the drama that eventually unfolded after what had appeared to be a one-sided series, Ainslie said, had shown it was tailor-made for television.

"It's becoming more and more commercially viable, we've now got the TV networks interested in sailing, wanting to show the America's Cup.

"It's a very strong place for us to be commercially now - going forward selling to partners and bringing the costs down to have more teams involved in the future. I know that is one of (Oracle Team USA owner) Larry Ellison's goals."

FINANCIAL COST

The huge financial cost of mounting an America's Cup campaign was evident with just three challengers to Oracle, including the New Zealanders who were supported with about $30 million in government funds.

Ainslie, 36, could find himself competing against Oracle at the next America's Cup if plans to develop his own racing team Ben Ainslie Racing take off.

Formed last year with the backing of JP Morgan, the Briton is on the lookout for more commercial partners.

"We'd love to have a British team in the future, something I've been working on for a while now. We've got the talented sailors and designers across the board. Hopefully we can put it together one day.

"JP Morgan have been a great support to the team and me personally and hopefully we can bring in some partners."

For now, Ainslie is happy to bask in Oracle's success having joined the fray when the American boat was reeling in the face of a faster rival.

Originally brought in by software mogul Ellison to helm Oracle's second yacht during training matches, Ainslie replaced American John Kostecki as team tactician.

"I had some weird feeling I may end up in the boat one way or another," he said.

"No one knew how the relationship would work with (Oracle's Australian skipper) Jimmy Spithill, and (strategist) Tom Slingsby at the back of the boat.

"We just gelled instantly and it worked incredibly well considering the time we had to prepare - which was zero."

FRESH FACE

Ainslie said he was propelled into a "tough situation" with morale down.

"We were in a tough situation, we had lost a lot of races. I think that's why I was brought in.

"I don't think John Kostecki was doing much wrong. They just needed a fresh face to come in with a different perspective and try and lift everyone's spirits - to win a few races and get people believing we could still do it."

What transpired was one of the great comebacks in sport with Oracle, who had been docked two points before the start of the event because of a cheating scandal, chipping away relentlessly at New Zealand's lead, knowing they had no more margin of error.

"Every day we had to go out there, we were 8-1 down, every day we were absolutely backs to the wall," he said.

"It's amazing what focus that kind of pressure brings. Everyday we went out there knowing we had to nail it and we did."

Ainslie put Oracle's improvement and ultimate victory down to "better development of the boat" during the event.

"The Kiwis did an amazing job and had an amazing campaign but they maybe stood still a bit through the event whereas we kept pushing to get faster and faster.

"We ultimately became the faster boat and more and more dominant as we went through the series."

Their eventual dominance was emphasized when Oracle, despite trailing early on, came home 44 seconds ahead in the clinching race to land international sport's oldest trophy.

"It's been such a long event, over three weeks of racing," Ainslie reflected.

"Working to try and get the boat faster and faster. It was an incredible team effort - not just the sailing team. The design team, the shore team all did a great job to get the boat around the track as quickly as possible."

(Editing by Alison Wildey)

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