IT was the moment the greatest Olympic sailor of all time made a triumphant return to his home town.

Ben Ainslie was mobbed by more than 500 well-wishers at a champagne reception held at the Royal Lymington Yacht Club to honour its most famous member.

Less than 48 hours after carrying the British flag at the Olympic closing ceremony, Ben was given a hero’s welcome by his fellow sailors.

Despite his height and powerful build the athletic six-footer was lost in the crowd after being besieged by club members and their guests.

He was soon parted from his gold medal, which was passed from person to person on an open-air terrace overlooking the Lymington River.

Everyone wanted to be photographed with the precious symbol of Ben’s sailing genius.

At one point he was asked: “Where’s your medal?” Anxiously scanning the huge crowd he replied: “It’s out there somewhere.” Seconds later it emerged from the sea of bodies and was handed back to its relieved owner.

The 35-year-old athlete is tipped to receive a knighthood from the Queen in the New Year’s honours list.

His success in the Finn class at Weymouth followed similar victories at the 2000 Games in Sydney, the 2004 Olympics in Athens and the 2008 contest in Beijing.

Ben’s four gold medals, coupled with the silver he won in Atlanta in 1996, make him the most decorated sailor in Olympic history. Lymington residents were expecting one of the post boxes in the town to be painted gold in honour of his success at the 2012 Games. However, Royal Mail bosses decided that the tribute should be staged in Cornwall, where Ben grew up and learned to sail.

As reported in the Daily Echo, Rob Smith took matters into his own hands and spray-painted a post box in the High Street.

Mr Smith, who owns the Haven Cafe, Bar and Bistro in Lymington, was subsequently arrested on suspicion of criminal damage and is still waiting to learn if he will be charged.

The gold pillar box has been dubbed the town’s biggest tourist attraction, with hundreds queuing up to have their picture taken at the spot.

Reflecting on the events that occurred in the early hours of last Saturday Ben said: “It just shows how much excitement the Olympics have created across Britain, but it’s probably not for me to comment on how the police should do their job.”

The town mayor, Councillor Jacqui England, is urging Royal Mail bosses to allow the tribute to remain.

Ben said: “I was born near Macclesfield, I grew up in Cornwall and I’ve lived almost all my adult life in Lymington. Ideally, all three places should get a gold letter box.”

Looking relaxed in jeans and an opennecked shirt, the record-breaking sailor was cheered and applauded as he arrived at the club. He was greeted by the commodore, Phil Lawrence, who invited him to unveil a large colour photograph of himself sailing at Weymouth.

A huge cheer rang out after Mr Lawrence turned to members and said: “I’d like you to join me in congratulating Ben Ainslie – Olympic champion!”