Ben Ainslie is more than the best Olympic sailor in history. He is the UK's best hope to secure sailing's most prestigious title, the America's Cup – and perhaps the future of British sailing

Ben Ainslie sits in the headquarters of Ben Ainslie Racing (BAR) on Portsmouth harbour, inspirational quotes by Churchill and Nelson on its walls, and mulls over his journey from an eight-year-old in a dinghy on Restronguet Creek, Cornwall, to the figurehead of a £100m campaign to win the America’s Cup yacht race.

“I definitely couldn’t have imagined all this. I had big ambitions; I wanted to race in the America’s Cup as a child. But I never would have dreamed I’d have the career I’ve had so far. I’ve been very fortunate.”

This month Ben – Sir Ben after he was knighted in 2013 (“the proudest moment of my career”) – will again take the helm of his Cup boat Land Rover BAR when yachting’s F1 fleet competes off Portsmouth. He carries with him not just the best chance of British success in yachting’s most prestigious title for decades but perhaps the future of sailing in this country.

If his career is any guide, fortune is unlikely to affect the outcome.

Instead of luck, extraordinary ability, steely focus, a killer determination on the water and simple hard graft have made Ben what he is: the world’s most successful Olympic sailor, with four Gold medals to his name, and the Briton who piloted Oracle Team USA from 8-1 down to 8-9 victory in the last Cup in 2012, one of the most astonishing comebacks in sporting history.

That win made him the first Briton in a winning Cup team for 110 years. Now he faces a challenge that has defeated his compatriots for 165 years – to win the America’s Cup as principal and skipper of a British campaign.

In 1851 14 yachts of the Royal Yacht Squadron raced the US schooner America around the Isle of Wight. Unthinkably, they lost, not so much denting home pride as shattering it. They say Queen Victoria, on asking who came second, was told: “Your Majesty, there is no second.”

The “Auld Mug”, the world’s oldest sporting trophy, went across the pond and has not returned to these shores since.

“Myself and the rest of the team have a very proud sense of our maritime history; being based in Portsmouth is part of that,” Ben says. “The America’s Cup is the last sporting event that we haven’t won. This is about being the best of British, to right that wrong of our maritime and sporting history and bring the Cup home.”

Alongside Cup defender Oracle Team USA, five teams are now battling it out in the Luis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series. The top teams of those races – Kiwi, French, Japanese, Swedish and, hopefully, British – go into Qualifier events for a chance to go head to head with Oracle for the Cup proper in Bermuda in 2017.

The Worlds jamboree has already swung through Muscat, Oman, and New York this year. From 22-25 July it’s Portsmouth’s turn.

Home waters, then, for Ben and his four crew. But also a home crowd with expectations. A help or a hinderance?

“A help, definitely. There were 100,000 people at last July’s [World Series] event and to hear that support, whether in the spectator boats on the water or from the spectators on the seafront, is a real buzz; it does motivate you.”

It will certainly offer a spectacle.

America’s Cup racing is sailing but not as you know it. You may think of the teams’ identical 45ft catamarans as boats because they float. In reality, an AC45 is closer to a small aircraft, with a rigid 71ft wing instead of sails, hydraulics not ropes and carbon fibre not fibreglass construction. And yes, they can fly – a hydrofoil lifts the hulls until a ton of Kevlar and carbon fibre is zipping clear of the water at up to 35mph.

Put the best racing sailors in the world on such rocketships and you have an event which “will be really exciting, really physical”, Ben says.

That’s great for curious non-yachties. But in order not to crash out of the Cup at the  Worlds like every British campaign since 1980, Land Rover BAR needs points; not least on Super Sunday when races are worth double. Can it really compete against teams like Oracle Team USA and Emirates Team New Zealand, the finalists who fought in San Francisco in 2012? Both are seasoned campaigners with slick operations.

Ben says: “As a first-generation team we’re underdogs. You shouldn’t underestimate the challenge of putting together one of these campaigns, then developing our design tools and organisation. It really is a huge ask.”

He admits he considered “the easy option… [to] take a nice big deal from Oracle or one of the other teams”.

That he didn’t speaks volumes about a competitor who finds inspiration in a quote of Churchill: “Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”

“I learned a great deal aboard Oracle in San Francisco. If you get an opportunity in life, even if it’s high-risk, you’ve gotta go for it. I would not be challenging if I did not believe we had a real chance of winning. Now we’ve created this team and we’re halfway there. We’re doing OK.”

More than OK. When I speak to Ben, the crew had clawed back poor starts in Oman to top that leg’s leaderboard: “We made it hard for ourselves. But for the team it’s more satisfying coming through adversity like that; it’s very good for morale.”

And everyone is putting in the hours. The sailors meet at the Portsmouth HQ at 7am (Ben rises at 5.30am to be there). By the time they leave 12 hours later, they’ve completed two punishing gym sessions – don’t believe anyone who suggests these sailors are not genuine athletes – and long hours on the water.

Yet winning the America’s Cup is only half the story. For Ben it’s also a vehicle to revolutionise British sailing.

Launched alongside the Cup campaign in October 2014, his charity the 1851 Trust hopes to inspire a new generation through sailing. It seeks not just to engage the next generation of professional sailors and maritime engineers, but to break down barriers to participation for young people. The aim is to get 50,000 young people on the water by the end of 2017.

Ben is also keen to change the perception of sailing as elitist.

“All the guys in this team are normal people. It’s an expensive game trying to win the America’s Cup but so is the Tour de France. And at the grass roots sailing is nowhere near as expensive as perceived. People can go down to their local club and use the facilities. [Sailing’s] much more accessible than people think.”

Not to mention cheaper than the average Premier League season ticket.

It is by any measure bonkers that a perennially underachieving national football team overshadows one of our most successful sporting heroes ever. Maybe, just maybe, this British America’s Cup team could change that.

Ben says: “I really do believe if we are able to be successful in this goal it will be one of the biggest sporting moments in our history. It will be massive. And this is a team that looks like it has a chance of winning.”

In Ben and his team, Britain has its most credible entry in decades. The very least we can do is cheer them on in Portsmouth.

And bring the kids. If today’s sailing heroes can start in a Cornish creek, tomorrow’s can be inspired on Portsmouth’s waterfront.