Racing

Leopard Powers to Victory

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Simply put, Mike Slade’s Farr-designed 30-meter super maxi ICAP Leopard is stunning. Her rig looms an imposing 155 feet above her deck, and her wide, powerful transom seems eager to get up and go. While everything aboard Leopard seems ready to charge, one thing that isn’t constantly on the verge of pouncing is the grinding team. Why? Because she doesn’t have one. Instead, the boat relies on its engine to power a hydraulic accumulator, which in turn spins winches when the appropriate button is pressed. In a way, it’s almost comical to think that a boat this big uses less human-power oomph than a J/24 to trim on the sails, but in reality the sails are simply too big, and the loads simply to great, for human-powered winches to work on a boat as out there as Leopard.

Given Leopard’s power assist on the winches, she isn’t eligible for any “real” ocean records such as the monohull Transatlantic record, which is currently held by Mari Cha IV on the crewed level, and by Francis Joyon aboard IDEC for the solo record.

As a result, Leopard has had to chase obscure ocean records, such as the west-to-east transat for boats with powered winches, which she bested by eight hours this week, stripping an honor from the luxury yacht Phocea, which she has held since 1998. Since it was there, Phocea’s record had to be broken, but one has to wonder about the relatively small margin that Leopard bested her by.

Having sailed aboard the mighty Leopard at this year's Antigua Sailing Week, I was struck by the fact that getting into the heads of the afterguard is a case of listening to the engine’s drone to know when the boat is about to tack, gybe, or even foot off, as its sound jumps several decibels before big changes happen. While Leopard is technologically amazing and as fast as a greyhound to boot, I walked away thinking that I’d spent the afternoon on a “sail-powered motorboat,” rather than a proper sailing yacht.

So, while Leopard now holds this record (7d 19h 21 minuets), there will always be the associated asterisk next to her accomplishment. Moreover, with a more modern boat, better weather forecasting, and powered winches, the question of why she didn’t break Mari Cha IV's record adds a second asterisk to the accomplishment.

To be fair to Leopard, the trip was billed more as a delivery than a full-on record attempt, as owner Mike Slade has stated that there wasn’t a full sail inventory aboard. Also, Leopard hit a sleeping sunfish while sailing, forcing the crew to drop sails, stop the boat, and remove the fish, luckily without damaging the dual rudders. But one has to wonder if Leopard isn’t capable of faster times, given her amazing power, design, and technology.

For more information, check out www.leopard3.com

Posted: June 5, 2008

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