June 2, 2008 / 4:12 AM / in 9 years

WITNESS: At the helm of trans-Atlantic maxi racer

6 Min Read

<p>The crew of the super maxi ocean racer ICAP Leopard sail through New York's Harbor May 22, 2008.Alden Bentley</p>

Alden Bentley is Editor in Charge of Commodities for North and South America. He has worked for Reuters in New York for 12 years. His career started in the foreign exchange markets, where he spent 10 years working as a dealer and analyst. A boatowner, he is a lifelong sailor and has crewed racing sailboats of many sizes and designs. In the following story, he describes steering the world's fastest single-hull ocean racer in waters around New York.

By Alden Bentley

NEW YORK HARBOR (Reuters) - Gliding towards the Atlantic Ocean, my knuckles whitened around the oversized steering wheel as the sailboat's mast appeared to graze the Verrazano Bridge.

I was like a go kart driver in charge of a Formula One car. A weekend sailor and crew on smaller racing boats, I had been entrusted with the helm of a vessel more than twice the size of what I was used to ... and three times as fast.

I twisted my head to take in the rare perspective of passing directly below the steel gateway to New York Harbor. Even with our 150-foot (46-metre) mast, we were clear by 50 feet.

Then I concentrated on not crashing a $14 million boat.

The ICAP Leopard was soon to embark on an attempt at setting a class record for a trans-Atlantic crossing.

Steering the world's fastest, and perhaps costliest, single-hull ocean racer ahead of that attempt, I naturally wanted to make a good impression on the professional crew and corporate and media guests aboard the custom-built, bowsprit-bowed 100-footer (30-metre) for maneuvers around New York City. I did not hog the wheel, for everyone was offered a turn, and most jumped at the chance.

For two afternoons of public relations sailing, I was sharing the dream of the men and women whose lives revolve around this high-tech "super maxi".

As Leopard heeled over in the breeze and accelerated, I pictured myself setting out with these elite sailors for the rush and glory of crossing oceans in record time.

"I love steering boats at high speed," said Paul Standbridge, 49, the sailing manager and an America's Cup veteran, over a cup of tea after my first sail.

"You don't just drive a 50-tonne boat at 30 knots with 25 crew and treat it as a lark. You take on the responsibility and I enjoy that stress."

Sky-high rigs and a vast sail plan enable these racing machines to utilize greater wind velocity high up and maximize the breeze at water level.

Later, when wind gusted across the harbor, the light-grey carbon fiber hull accelerated from 13 knots (24 kph) up to 20 (37 kph) in what felt like 20 seconds.

That was record fast sailing for me, but half the speed Leopard is capable of.

<p>Spectators watch as the 100-foot ICAP Leopard super maxi yacht sails along the Hudson River in New York May 26, 2008.Joshua Lott</p>

Wanted: Optimal Weather

Leopard 3 was launched in June 2007 and quickly knocked nine hours off the record for the Fastnet race off Britain and Ireland. Owner Mike Slade has previously owned and raced Ocean Leopard and Leopard of London.

She departed lower Manhattan's North Cove Marina on May 26 seeking one of yachting's Holy Grails -- the transatlantic speed record. Or to be precise, the crew of 12 were after the West-East Atlantic record for a monohull with power-assisted winches.

Slade missed the transatlantic sprint but was to join the boat in Britain for the 2008 racing circuit, including Cowes Week in August.

To break that coveted West-East Atlantic record, the boat would have to sail 2,925 nautical miles from Ambrose Light off Long Island to Lizard Point, Britain's southernmost tip, in under 8 days, 3 hours and 29 minutes -- a record set by 246-foot (75-metre) Phocea in 1988.

<p>The 100-foot ICAP Leopard super maxi yacht sails along the Hudson River in New York May 26, 2008.Joshua Lott</p>

The QE2 makes the crossing in about 5 days.

With optimal conditions, Leopard could also break the 24-hour monohull speed record, recognized by the World Sailing Speed Record Council. In 2007 the 140-foot MariCha IV sailed it in under seven days. The shortest time for any sailing vessel was just under four days, set by a trimaran.

"Hopefully the weather gods will play our game," said Chris Sherlock, Leopard's 40-year-old skipper. "We believe we'll easily hit 40 knots (74 kph) if we hit the right conditions. We haven't even been pushing it that hard."

A depression heading for England would speed the boat. She would have to exceed 15 knots (17.25 mph/27.78 kph), and needed a slow-moving low pressure system to push across and no big Atlantic high pressure system to block her way -- let alone icebergs and other floating hazards.

"If we hit a piece of ice, what's called a 'growler,' in the water doing 30 knots, it's pretty much game over for us," said Rosco Munson, the 27-year old navigator.

The loads on hull and rig are scary. It can carry 15,000 square feet of sail. Twelve sails for all wind and sea conditions are controlled by a mile of high-strength line. Protruding below the waterline are four long blades to balance the forces on the rig and control direction -- an 18-foot keel that cants from side to side with a 20-tonne bulb at the tip, and twin dagger boards.

Marine life beware! Leopard nearly cut clean though a six-foot shark, snagged on its rudder during the Fastnet race.

In truth, I need not have worried too much about my own steering. Aside from the world class sailors hovering nearby, the Program Logic Control is a colorful bundle of wires, pumps and switches that can sail the boat without humans.

Computerized hydraulics assist the winch drums on deck so a relatively small crew can control all the ropes by stepping on buttons at their feet to adjust the sails.

The boat's nerve center is encased in a carbon fiber and Plexiglas box, that doubles as the crew mess table below the cockpit. This blinking computer brings to mind HAL 9000 from the 1968 sci-fi movie '2001: A Space Odyssey'.

Only it must not get wet.

Editing by Frances Kerry and Sara Ledwith

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