Leopard III and the JP Morgan Round the Island Race
Just get that sail in as quickly as you can!’ The order, abruptly given, is to drop the spinnaker, that big, blowy thing, beloved of photographers, that billows out of the front of racing yachts, with the emphasis on dropping it fast. I scramble, scramble to get below with the rest of the crew. We have to get a sail the size of two Wimbledon centre courts through a hatch the size of well… a hatch. I drop into the interior of the boat, ICAP Leopard, and quickly realise that this is not going to be easy at all. With ten young men grunting and groaning, we drag it in. Just as we think we’ve tamed it, the wind catches it, fills its vast voids, and it does exactly what it’s supposed to; goes from nought to sixty and shoots straight back out through the hatch. Orders are belayed down from the deck and the ten men get back in the fray and finally manage to haul it back in. I check my watch – 6.25am. Really, I should still be in bed but instead it’s like I never went to bed. I’m shattered and the day hasn’t even started: welcome to the JP Morgan Round the Island Race.
A 50-mile circumnavigation of the Isle of Wight, this remains the largest yacht race in the world. Having crossed the start line off the Royal Yacht Squadron, Cowes, I glance back at the armada of spinnakers rising from the east, hundreds of boats, just some of the 1,700 competing. Their sails, backlit by the rising sun, charge towards the Needles, the awe-inspiring stacks of chalk marking the western extent of the island.
The timing of the race is dictated by the wills of the tide; leave with the ebb and return with the flood is the general idea. So, at 5am sharp, the biggest and fastest crossed the start line with ICAP Leopard leading the way in an attempt to defend, or rather, better her own record for a mono hull rounding of the Isle of Wight – 3 hours 56 minutes and 3 seconds. The plan is simple – break the record and be back in time for breakfast. Easy.
Down below, ICAP Leopard looks like any other racing yacht, bare and black, stripped to the bare essentials in the never-ending quest for speed. There are ‘oilies’, wet weather gear, numerous coiled ropes and, strangely, a wetsuit, with the rest of the space taken up by her enormous sail wardrobe. With a mast 300 ft high, she carries an awful lot of canvas, although her sails are actually made from high-tec carbon composites, woven in a zero humidity desert and molded to an aerodynamic perfection that sailor’s of yesteryear could not even have dreamt of. So when the wind blows, Leopard uncoils and flexes, becoming the fastest thing on the water. However, she is not just any old record-breaking sailing boat; her 100ft length may displace some 42 tonnes and her width (6.8 metres) is wider than other super maxis, but I can’t help think, as I survey her ultra functional interior, that she doesn’t quite look like the charter brochure I was shown last night. The remarkable thing about the Leopard is that she somehow manages to be a record breaker, and at the same time, one of the most sought after luxury day charter yachts in the world.
The giveaway is the lovely Louise, the on-board hostess. Throughout the race she provides the guests and crew with an assortment of hot drinks and nibbles, all served unerringly while the boat keels violently. The crew and guests on the rail think she must have one leg longer than the other, for how else can she skip so easily across an inverted deck, laden with food?
Louise is with the boat pretty much all year round. In just three hours, she explains, Leopard’s stark interior, with the help of 10 full-time crew, can be transformed into a luxurious saloon. The bare hull is covered over with floorboards; white leather seats, a stylish extendable wooden table and even a widescreen TV are then installed. Where there was once hard edges and bare, black carbon fibre deck moldings, there are soft furnishings, a comfortable area for the lucky guests to unwind, enjoying their food and champagne. It’s a truly unique experience, which it should be, considering a day’s charter costs £10,000 for up to 20 guests. ‘That’s fully inclusive though,’ she points out. I nod, like it’s feasible I’m going to charter her next week. I’m obviously going to have to work harder.
The boat lurches, the winches scream, there is a breath-taking whoosh as the sails move from one side of the boat to the other and crack into place. She settles once again into her groove and powers onwards
By now the Extreme 40s catamarans (see Andy Green’s report in Lusso 17) and a vast, orange trimaran, named IDEC, have closed the gap on us. These multihull boats are amazing to watch, always seemingly on the edge of toppling over, just as in the Thomas Crown Affair, when Pierce Brosnan dumps his catamaran into the Hudson. Amazingly, we hold off their challenge; being further offshore, we have the wind.
This is very cool, unbelievably cool and very, very exciting. And cool. Everyone is working hard, straining sinews and brainpower in pursuit of the record. A flurry of orders is issued, the crew concentrating on guiding Leopard through the now faltering winds. We alter course, bear away from the wind, the trimmers respond, easing the sheets on the big, black winches the size of bass drums.
Everyone is tense, we have made great time, but we need to find the next pocket of wind to take us round the eastern end of the island, and we need to find it quick if we are going to have any chance of breaking the record.
The man behind Leopard is Mike Slade, a chimera of Bill Clinton and Billy Connolly. Concentrating on steering his boat is about as quiet as this man gets. His enthusiasm is infectious, managing to mix a joie de vivre and a generous nature, with a professionalism that makes this boat such a success. The night before the race he takes time with each member of his key team to discuss matters in hand. His team talk at the beginning of the day is laced with Boy’s Own humour, but despite this, you can see he’s determined to better his own record.
Mike is the Chief Executive of Helical Bar, the property development and investment company. His success over twenty years at the helm of this business is a remarkable achievement in itself, regularly topping the charts as the best paid Chief Executive in the country. He is also the President of Landaid, the property industry’s charity that raises money to help the young, disadvantaged and homeless across the country. Married with three grown up children and two grandchildren, this is a man with a full life, yet yachting remains firmly at the centre of it.
He spent Christmas in Sydney competing in the Sydney-Hobart race and just a few weeks ago he was in New York waiting for the weather to be just right for Leopard’s attempt at the transatlantic record. As it transpired, he had to fly home to be in London to respond to Helical Bar’s end of year results.
‘I had to come back to London, but the boat waited. It was very difficult, frustrating, we had to watch the weather and wait for the right conditions. We knew we only had a small window of opportunity, as we had to get the boat back for the summer season here in England.’ Full of enthusiasm and talking animatedly he explains how the transatlantic is really a race split into three parts and for the first two thirds, they were bang on track to break the record. Alas, the wind died off the coast of Ireland and the record slipped away. “We will try again, for sure.’
Mike will have to try for the Round the Island record again as well, for just as we enter the Solent, with two-thirds of the race completed and the finishing line in sight, Leopard slews to a halt. The sails start to flap menacingly, the crew rush up to try to control them, no-one knows what’s happened, until a shout goes up that a lobster pot has snagged around the keel. There’s only one thing for it, someone has to dive down and cut it free. As one of the crew disappears below to get the wet suit on, there is much speculation aboard that we may have struck gold, there have been several reports of lobster pots being recovered loaded with illegal drugs. Allegedly, as much as £8 million worth of cocaine has been recovered off the coast of the Isle of Wight in recent weeks, not something you’d associate with an island made famous as Queen Victoria’s favourite holiday destination. The locals are, perhaps justifiably, outraged. With a rope tied around his girth, the crew member disappears over the side into the cold, murky waters, cuts the pot free, and is hauled back aboard, thankfully without anything South American in tow. Leopard is quickly back under way but everyone knows that for this year at least, Leopard’s 2008 record is going to remain intact.
However, the small, but nonetheless important race for line honours, the race to be the fastest mono-hull in the fleet, is still on. So it’s a surprise, with the wind picking up, when Mike offers to let me take the wheel. I jump up before he can change his mind and start imagining the next day’s headline – ‘Harrison tames Leopard,’ or, more likely, ‘Harrison hits Isle of Wight in multi-million pound yacht.’ Steering something so big and expensive for the first time is scary enough, and even more so when in full focus of the world’s media. We’re being followed by eight ribs, the rigid inflatable boats favoured by photographers and TV crews. A helicopter hovers continuously overhead, filming our every move. The ribs take turns to speed up close to us, get some snaps and then fall back to let the next waiting boat have their turn. ‘Bloody paparazzi!’ says one of the crew, but in truth we’re lapping up the attention. We are on the biggest, fastest, most stylish boat in the fleet, we’re leading the race and everyone wants a part of us. Even the Red Jet, the ferry between the island and the mainland, which has been known on occasion to run down competitors in the race, stops to admire Leopard’s elegant lines. And I’m driving the thing.
Mike, sensibly, stands behind me, quietly giving me advice.
‘Don’t worry; you’re doing a good job, keep her steady. These professionals can smell the wind before we ever feel it, that’s their skill, you just keep her steady. You’ll get used to her length pretty quickly.’ The boat’s length is pretty crazy but I soon get used to that. I can’t get used to the expanse of sail – 1,600 metres square of which is powering us along at 16 knots. ‘She is light, isn’t she? You don’t have to struggle with her at all.’ Mike says proudly. He’s right. She’s a dream.
No record this year – 5 hours 10 minutes and 6 minutes after Dame Ellen McArthur, the world’s most celebrated yachtswoman, had fired the starting gun, we crossed the finishing line as the fastest mono-hull once again. It may not have been a record transit, but still quick enough that Mike has to organise a way to open the Peer View Pub in Cowes, in order that we can find some glasses to drink the winner’s bottle of champagne. Mike goes around to members of the crew and shakes their hands. He’s already discussing and preparing for the next race.
Later everyone is invited back to the luxury motor cruiser, Rum Jungle, owned by Mike’s good friend and sometime navigator, Hugh Agnew. Rum Jungle is a familiar sight to anyone working at Canary Wharf, where she is currently based, running luxury charters up and down the Thames, most notably, as the most stylish and convenient way to get to the O2 Centre and back. Rum Jungle’s crew have prepared a delicious lunch, followed by apt Dark and Stormy rum cocktails, which just about finishes most of us off after the champagne.
The normal yachting types have been replaced for this event. ‘So you live in Notting Hill and write? Who for the Horse and Hounds!?’, one of the tipsy guests enquires. ‘No, LUSSO Magazine actually.’ I reply. ‘Oh of course, I should have realised.’ At this point, Slade emerges from down below dressed in the finest tails and a top hat.
‘Well done everyone, sorry to leave you all, enjoy yourselves, but I have a runner in the last race at Ascot – hasn’t got a chance!’ And with that was gone.
Apparently when Mike first decided to build the first Leopard almost twenty years ago, he proudly showed off the plans to a close family friend.
‘Mike’, the friend recounted, ‘why don’t you start with a smaller boat? You know, get the hang of it first, then work yourself up to a bigger boat.’
‘No, no, no, he hollered… I want the biggest, the best, the fastest and most luxurious, everyone will want to be part of it, everyone will want to charter it.’ The success of Ocean Leopard, Leopard of London and now ICAP Leopard, the third yacht in the black livery of Leopards, are testament to this philosophy. Risky it may have been, but people are prepared to pay when they get the best – and having the best is obviously what Mike Slade does best.
James Harrison was onboard the Leopard III, more information on the yacht is available online from leopard3.com. Information on the race at roundtheisland.org.uk.