“You gotta be kidding me!” exclaims a muscle-bound member of the crew of Leopard, a brand-new Farr-designed, British-owned 100-foot Super-Maxi, from our observation post aboard her tender. “The RC’s set the finishing line just off that reef. Leopard’s doing 15 knots, easy. There’s not much time to gybe, get that kite down, and head up.” Seated around me are other Leopard crewmembers, who are swapping out positions for the afternoon’s racing. The tension is palpable. Long combers are breaking on a reef just a quarter-mile from the line. The state-of-the-art Maxi charges, her massive A-sail driving her several knots faster than the wind.
I watch Leopard’s bowman scamper onto the foredeck and wonder how they’ll pull this off. Leopard’s bowsprit pierces the line, and the sound of the finishing cannon ricochets off the sandstone bluffs. They gybe instantly, then the bowman pops the A-sail’s tack line and a billowing wall of sailcloth blows astern to be vacuumed belowdecks by 15 crew as the driver spins the helm to port, dodging the reef by two scant boatlengths.
I blink twice, etching this maneuver into memory as excitement washes over me. In five minutes I’ll be aboard this ultra-powerful machine to race against the fastest boats at Stanford Antigua Sailing Week.
“Sailing Week started forty-one years ago to extend the tourism season by a few weeks,” says Neil Forrester, general manager of this year’s event. “But it’s become legendary. Sailors come from all over the world to compete in typically big seas and perfect trade winds.” I consider Forrester’s words as I scan the view from the still-empty rum tents at the far end of Falmouth Harbour. The docks are occupied by some of the world’s finest racing boats, including Leopard, countless high-end Swans, Wallys, TP52s, and other floating exotica.
The week’s racing is split into Division A (racers) and Division B (cruisers), with multiple classes within each division. Also in attendance are six Gunboats, ultra-fast all-carbon cruiser/racer catamarans that are creating quite a stir among Division A monohull sailors, who aren’t used to getting walked by big cats. Windward-leeward courses are standard at most regattas, but here the courses sport offset marks, loops, and chicane turns that keep the sailing spicy. Forrester and company work equally hard to keep the social aspects engaging; among the festivities is the annual sunset party atop Shirley Heights, an eighteenth-century British fortification with a commanding view of the island’s southern coast.
Stepping aboard Mike Slade’s carbon-fiber Leopard is like climbing into the space shuttle, and it’s clear why she is the current heavyweight contender of the Super-Maxi class. Banks of hydraulically powered push-button winches pepper the cockpit to handle the literally superhuman loads produced by her staggering sailplan. The beam in her stern section is a not exactly sylphlike 22 feet, and her massive rig towers some 155 feet above our heads, flying a mainsail that reminds me of an airplane’s wing section. Two gargantuan asymmetrical daggerboards are splayed athwartship of the mast, and control stations at the twin helms allow the driver to manipulate the canting keel and the daggerboards.
Climbing belowdecks, I’m shown Leopard’s massive mainframe computer, which serves as the electronic brain behind the boat’s mechanical operation, simultaneously changing the cant of the keel, the height of the twin daggerboards, and the power going to the winches. But what surprises me is the drone of the diesel engine, which runs constantly to power these systems.
The starting sequence begins, and Leopard carefully covers her only real competition for line honors, George David’s U.S.-flagged Reichel-Pugh 90, Rambler. Leopard’s braintrust strategically positions the boat on the line, and, sitting on the rail, I feel Leopard surge with each puff, her stiff, powerful hull seeming as anxious to sprint as a Kentucky Derby thoroughbred.
The starting gun sounds, and both Maxis hit the line on starboard tack at full speed, sailing faster than the wind, with Leopard comfortably to weather. Seated around me are roughly 30 sailors, and from my midship perch the braintrust feels a long way aft. After a few tacks I learn that the best way to read their minds is to listen to the drone of the machinery. Immediately before each maneuver the engine hums louder as the winches spin and the synchronized daggerboards swap positions. Then the amplification of the pitch denotes the swing of the keel as the driver spins the helm to windward. The tacking maneuver is a perfect choreography, by crew and computer, of a complex dance of keel, sails, and daggerboards.
The crew sets the light-air kite at the first mark, and the speedo punches up several knots, at times spiking into the low 16s. After executing several textbook gybes, we lay the leeward mark, the jib is hoisted, and the bowman spikes the tackline, sending a wall of sailcloth bak to the crew. Given that it takes 30-plus minutes to repack the chute, the crew will fly Leopard’s heavier-weight A-sail on the next downhill leg. The headsail is trimmed, the helm swings, and all weight is ordered onto the rail as Leopard sizzles upwind, a few minutes ahead of Rambler. We hold the lead, but we owe Rambler time. I can tell from the banter at the boat’s wide end that they’re not comfortable with a Delta this tight in these light conditions, which favor Rambler.
Sixty sneakers clamber to the new weather rail, each man quickly finding his allotted spot, as we hit the layline at speed. A few buttons are pressed, the heavier-weight kite is hoisted, and POOF! it inflates, sending a bird’s nest of kite-packing yarn blowing astern. Several gybes later the RC fires the line-honors gun. Stopwatches are consulted, and word spreads that Rambler has beaten us on corrected time. The mood is somber as the kite is dropped. The crew derigs the boat, and owner Mike Slade and a few of his friends are whisked ashore on the tender, which has shadowed us since we finished racing. A half-hour later the crew smoothly docks Leopard at Falmouth Harbour, scant inches from the mighty J-Class yacht Velsheda.
Two days later I’m aboard Rambler listening to Kiwi sailing legend and crew boss Erle Williams issuing the day’s briefing. Around me are some of the world’s finest—and probably strongest—sailors. It’s apparent that Rambler is a more athletic boat than Leopard; grinding pedestals and human-powered winches punctuate her long cockpit. While Rambler is an earlier-generation Maxi than Leopard, her recent string of wins and course records—including tagging 41-plus knots on a transatlantic run—are proof that David has assembled a dialed-in team that knows how to push the boat hard.
“I want all weight on the rail as long as possible after each tack,” Williams announces. “We’re going to be running the tanks mostly dry, so roll-tacking’s crucial.” Thirty minutes later I see what he means as we move through the initial prestart warm-up: Keeping weight on the rail helps swing the bow through the wind faster. Like Leopard,Rambler leaps out of each tack, accelerating with each puff. The course for today’s South Coast Race is decidedly more interesting than the previous day’s event. We’ll sail a beat, followed by a long reach to a tight chicane bend, before running to the finishing line. Then we’ll rethread this course back home.
Rambler’s tactician, Laser great Mark Mendelblatt, has David hitting the line ahead and to weather of Leopard. As we beat to the upwind mark, each tack feels more like “normal” sailing than my experiences aboard Leopard. Williams issues the call, the grinders position themselves at the pedestals, exploding into action as David swings the helm. Although Rambler uses her engine to fill her water-ballast tanks, the ride is quiet and the sound of the wind is audible in the rigging. Since the slower classes have started first, our first leg is littered with moving obstacles. I ask Rambler’s mid-bowman, Caleb Borchers, if mowing down 60- and 70-footers ever gets old. “Never,” he says with a grin. “How could it?” We rip to weather, tack, and lay the mark ahead of Leopard by a minute. The crew launches the A-sail and then immediately hoists a smaller, furled-up Solent (spinnaker staysail).
Leopard sails farther offshore before realizing that we’re capitalizing on better pressure closer in. They gybe, and David lures them too far inshore before heading up on top of them and pinning the bigger boat. We enter the chicane turn ahead. Sailing through this S-bend is like scorching through a giant-slalom course in a sportscar, except that shifting gears demands different sail and trim combinations. The Solent is unfurled for a minute or two before the angle of attack changes and the sail is no longer helping us achieve the boat’s polars. The crew hoists the jib, executes a spectacular Mexican takedown, and then the driver heads up for the short weather leg as the crew prepares the kite for the next set. Then Rambler bears off, and an A-sail is rehoisted for the drag race to the finish. Another intricate gybing duel ensues before I get it: David is goading Goliath into making a boathandling mistake.
It’s pretty silent as the two Maxis rush toward the line. David throws another gybe at Leopard, and their kite hourglasses. Many bodies instantly dot the foredeck as they wrestle with the unruly sail. Finally a button is pushed and the giant sail drops. Rambler scorches across the finish line several minutes ahead of the bigger boat, which crosses baldheaded. An understated celebration is enjoyed, but everyone knows that scores can be resettled quickly in the next race.
A big squall blows across the island, spitting rain on the course as we wait for the slower boats to finish. The wind initially pipes up, then drops once the squall passes.
Eventually the two boats enter their prestart dance. Rambler uses the light air to her advantage, ripping across the starting line, again to weather. Leopard’s longer waterline kicks in, and a small separation is established as the two boats walk the Division A boats in the now-dying breeze.
Leopard’s A-sail collapses, and we soon drift into this same zero-air pocket before the committee abandons the race. Cheers erupt on deck. While this means less sailing, it also gives Leopard one fewer opportunity to improve her standings. As the crew derigs, I walk back and talk to George David at the sternrail.
“This is only the second time that we’ve gone head-to-head with Leopard,” he says. “They beat us for line honors at last year’s Fastnet and also set a new course record, but we beat them on corrected time. They’re powerful—there’s no question—but these conditions suit us better. Really, so much is determined in the first two minutes of a race—that’s one of the most interesting times in any sailboat race—and we did well today.”
I consider David’s words as we motor into Falmouth Harbour, full of iconic yachts both past and present. As Rambler backs into her berth behind Velsheda, I can’t help but think that she’s a touch closer to the J-Class tradition than her bigger, higher-tech opponent. Still, both Maxis are spectacular, and any sailor would be hard pressed to find a better two days of racing than those I experienced.
Many thanks to Mike Slade and George David for allowing me to sail aboard their awe-inspiring machines.