Ainslie gets badly needed win in America's Cup qualifiers

Sir Ben Ainslie regained his sea legs after a few rough days in the America's Cup qualifiers on Bermuda's Great Sound.

Ainslie steered Britain's Land Rover BAR to a badly needed victory Tuesday after four straight losses, leading the whole way to beat Sweden's Artemis Racing by 30 seconds on the opening day of the second round robin.

''We needed that one,'' said Ainslie, who has struggled with speed and collisions aboard his foiling 50-foot catamaran this spring. ''We had a couple of really tough days and we really needed to turn that around. We had to have some pretty frank conversations last night about how we're sailing and the setup of our boat and were able to improve our performance markedly.''

Land Rover BAR had been struggling since Saturday, when it smashed into SoftBank Team Japan during the prestart, punching a hole in its port hull. It lost badly and nearly sank as it returned to the dock. The British crew lost to two-time defending champion Oracle Team USA and Emirates Team New Zealand on Sunday before an eye-opening loss to Groupama Team France on Monday.

There are huge expectations back home in England, which has failed for 166 years to win back the silver trophy it lost to the schooner America in 1851. It would be unfathomable if the first team eliminated was led by Ainslie, who was knighted several months after winning his fourth straight Olympic gold medal, in home waters in 2012. Ainslie helped Oracle Team USA rally to defend the America's Cup in 2013 before starting his own campaign, which has the backing of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Oracle Team USA leads with six points, followed by Emirates Team New Zealand with five and Land Rover BAR with four.

Ainslie has been propped up by two bonus points earned from leading the standings after preliminary regattas the last two years. If not for those points, he'd be tied at the bottom of the fleet with Artemis, SoftBank Team Japan and Groupama Team France, all with two points.

''We hoped we wouldn't need them, but certainly coming into this event it's well-documented that we're struggling for straight-line speed and thankfully our performance in the America's Cup World Series was very strong,'' Ainslie said. ''It was a target for the team for the points, but also as a new team in the America's Cup to prove that we can race and win at this level.''

In one of the many radical departures from tradition, this is the first time the defender has sailed against challengers in the preliminaries. If Oracle wins the qualifiers, it will carry a one-point bonus into the first-of-seven America's Cup match beginning June 17. If a challenger wins the qualifiers and then reaches the match, it will get the bonus point.

After the second round robin, one challenger will be eliminated and Oracle will practice on its own while the challengers sail their semifinals and finals.

Not only has Ainslie struggled with speed, but he's had three collisions. He hit the dock coming back from training in March and then slammed into the back of Emirates Team New Zealand during a practice race, causing damage that took the Kiwis three days to repair.

Also Tuesday, a rematch between Artemis and Team New Zealand fizzled when the Swedish-backed boat was flagged for a port-starboard infraction, allowing the Kiwis to sail to an easy win.

''We copped the penalty fair and square there,'' said Artemis skipper Nathan Outteridge, an Australian, who took his third straight loss.

It came a day after their thrilling showdown was marred by an umpiring error. Artemis was flagged for a penalty at the last mark, allowing the Kiwis to win. Chief umpire Richard Slater later said the penalty should not have been called.

Oracle had a minor issue with its wing sail and still cruised to an easy win against France.

A flap that covers an access panel on the wing came loose and wing trimmer Kyle Langford jumped up to fix it.

''Kyle did a good job ... put a bit of a Band-Aid on it and we were able to get through the race,'' skipper Jimmy Spithill said. ''But from that point on we were kind of in delivery mode.''

Oracle Team USA, owned by software billionaire Larry Ellison, won by 1:56.

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Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/berniewilson

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