Louay Habib rides aboard Leopard for the Round the Island Race

It was 5.30 a.m. and drizzling with rain but nothing could dampen the thrill of sailing one of the fastest sailing yachts ever built. 30 metres long and 6.8 metres wide, Mike Slade’s ICAP Leopard is like a Volvo 70 on steroids; a truly magnificent racing yacht. The crew are accomplished and highly experienced, they have all competed at the highest level in the sport but of equal importance, they have bonded as a unit, vital when crewing a yacht of this size.

Of the 1779 yachts entered for the JP Morgan Round the Island race, we were first off at 0730 but already the starting area resembled rush hour traffic; competitors and spectator boats are a real hazard. Chris Sherlock, boat captain, for Mike Slade for the past 18 years, is originally from Australia and Sherlock is not slow in advising boats endangering themselves by getting caught in the gaze of the Leopard.

We made a clean getaway beating into a light WNW of eight knots. ICAP Leopard is an incredibly stable boat with the keel fully canted to windward, it is the equivalent of sitting 200 people on the rail. Even upwind, the 100ft Maxi is creating so much apparent wind that we were sailing at over ten knots. We had good pressure all the way past Yarmouth and by the Hurst Narrows, the yachts behind were barely visible. It looked simple but tactician, Jeremy Robinson, was astutely using his expert knowledge of the Solent; playing the wind shifts and tide to perfection. Slade was at the wheel from the start, all the way to the first corner; The Needles.

“A1 on deck, please, and you only have 11 minutes to the hoist.” Announces Paul Stanbridge.

About two miles out, the foredeck crew scrambled into action, they would not rest again until we had finished the race. Stanbridge was the link man, his primary role was passing commands from the afterguard to the front. Assertive and a consummate all-rounder, Standbridge has vast experience in round the world races and the America’s Cup.

The south side of the Isle of Wight was virtually devoid of wind and progress was slow, however the foredeck crew were kept busy, changing sails in rapid succession. It takes seven crew to heave the enormous spinnakers onto the deck and that is in flat water, I wondered what it must be like to do so in the Atlantic, at night in a big seaway.

We opted to go offshore, in search of better breeze and the giant multihull IDEC glided past us hugging the island shore. We struggled to keep ICAP Leopard going, the faster yachts were coming with pressure and closing the gap. By Bembridge Ledge, Tony Todd’s 100ft performance cruiser, Liara, was ahead and we were in danger of being over taken by Benny Kelly’s TP52,Panthera, as they crept up inshore. there really was nothing we could do about it but when the chance came, ICAP Leopard seized the moment..

Rounding the last corner off Bembridge Ledge Buoy, there was a wind conversion zone and crossing it efficiently was crucial. Bowman, Zane Gills, was hoisted up the 47 metre, cathedral rig, to get a bird’s eye view and relayed the spot to cross into the fresh breeze. We were off in the new wind and soon, Liara and the rest of the fleet were once again left in our wake, as we crossed the line to take mono-hull line honours, in just under eight hours.

“It’s another record time for us!” Joked Slade. “That’s the longest time we have ever taken to go around the island.”

The entire crew stayed on for a few drinks and an excellent lunch aboard Rum Jungle and watched the seemingly never-ending procession of yachts emerging from around Castle Point to finish this historic race. The light airs meant that a record time was never on, but the competitive edge on ICAP Leopard never diminished.