The Catbird Seat

Leopard of London is poised to capture both serious racers and leisurely guests.

Leopard of London
Leopard of LondonDaniel Forester

Mixing a motoryacht's roominess and ease of operation with a sailing yacht's romance and excitement has never been simple. Too often, the result is a disaster in terms of aesthetics and performance. Not so with the 90-foot Reichel/Pugh design Leopard of London. This boat has record-breaking speed potential, a five-star interior and styling that puts many a yacht to shame.

Leopard of London is scheduled to end her first Caribbean charter season the last week of April at Antigua Sailing Week, where she will undoubtedly take her share of honors, just as she did during last autumn's Classic race week in St. Tropez. Also likely is more gushing from British owner Mike Slade, who described the yacht recently with joyous enthusiasm.

"Her ability to reach effortlessly along at 25 knots-plus, in any sort of breeze, gives us the unique ability to hop between islands within four hours-and a lot more comfortably than in a power yacht," Slade said. "With my old 80-foot sailing yacht, Ocean Leopard, it used to take us all day and was far less exciting. Now, we start our days knowing we can be somewhere else for lunch-and dinner."

Chartering for $35,000 a week in an ever-more-crowded field, Leopard of London has to be different. Her secret lies in recent advances in technology, coupled with changes in racing rules that now encourage movable water ballast and stored energy to trim sails.

"We have taken full advantage of the latest composite technology to build a boat that fulfills our requirements for an outright racing yacht, coupled with a very high level of luxury for charter work," Slade said.

The new IRM/IRC rule pioneered by Britain's Royal Ocean Racing Club, adopted across Europe and used in the Sydney/Hobart Australian classic and Antigua Sailing Week allows yachts longer than 24 meters to trim their sails with power winches and supplement crew weight with water ballast while traveling upwind. Accordingly, Leopard of London carries 4 tons of water (the equivalent of 30 people) in a system of linked side tanks. The water can be transferred from one side of the hull to the other in 90 seconds, each time she tacks. This huge volume can also be sucked in or blown out, depending on wind strength or course, within 3 minutes, making it simple to load up or jettison the water to match conditions and course.

Her interior, styled (like her deck) by Ken Freivokh Design, is formed of lightweight Nomex honeycomb finished with a light, attractive American oak veneer and edged with contrasting polished black carbon. Freivokh, best known for styling and interior design work on Sunseeker powerboats, balanced this yacht's elegance of form inside and out with the functional requirements of light weight.

There is a spacious owner's suite forward, with two double guest staterooms alongside the mast. Each has an en suite head. Amidships is a large saloon/dining area designed for corporate hospitality. To port in this airy, attractive space is a round table that seats 10. There is a large sofa opposite and space for a ballroom between. Crew's quarters for four are aft, along with a cavernous galley and engineroom.

Leopard of London is one of the biggest racing yachts built in the United Kingdom since Sir Thomas Sopwith's J-Class America's Cup challenger Endeavour was launched in 1934. The stats are impressive, to say the least, and she is easily compared with the last of the IOR maxis, such as Bruce Farr's world championship winner Longobarda, which Slade also owned. The carbon-fiber Leopard of London has the same displacement despite being 10 feet longer, and she carries 40 percent more sail area. Structural engineering by SP Technologies turned out a hull that weighs just more than 2 tons, and a 90-by-21-foot, 6-inch deck that's light enough to be lifted out of the shed by eight workers. She spreads more than 4,000 square feet of 3DL sail on a carbon-fiber fractional rig built by Hall Spars, and her asymmetrical masthead spinnaker-should she be allowed to set it-seems big enough to smother all rivals at Antigua Sailing Week.

Few would expect a racing yacht to have teak decks, comfortable cushions in the cockpit and a complete lack of coffee grinders, but Leopard of London takes push-button sailing to the extreme. The only murmur to be heard while hoisting her huge acreage of sail is from the Lewmar Commander hydraulic winch system. To trim the mainsheet or change the traveler position, a crew member simply presses a button. Playing the genoa sheets is equally easy for a crewman pressing his big toe on a sole-mounted switch.

Her decks are remarkably clear of the lines, blocks and other gadgets that make sunbathing a pain in the back. All control lines and halyards run through a conduit beneath the deck, and her deck hatches are mounted flush with the teak.

Sailing this maxi is a delight in any kind of wind. Light and responsive to the slightest touch on her giant carbon steering wheels, Leopard of London moves through the water with ease, quickly building up speed to match true wind speed plus a third in upwind conditions. Once off the wind, she is a greyhound capable of streaking along effortlessly at 25 knots.

"That's how we know where we will be for lunch and dinner each day," said Slade, whose itineraries match her speed.

Some criticism must be leveled at the inevitable compromise her designers had to make between racing and cruising. Her light displacement hull form lacks the volume required for stowage that serious cruising yachts enjoy. Also, there is little space beneath the cabin sole, so the crew must pay particular attention to keeping the bilges dry. Her first season of charter highlighted the need for a bigger freezer, which will be attended to during her return to the United Kingdom this summer. Lastly, when racing, her interior restricts sail stowage to the point where it is almost impossible to move around belowdecks.

"Those are valid criticisms," said John Bremner, her shore manager. "We knew there would be compromises from the outset, and what we have works well for the type of day/weekend racing and charter work that we do."

The problems are overcome in part by a container that follows the yacht around Europe and the Caribbean, carrying her spares.

"When we are in charter mode, we use the container to store all the racing sails and gear," Bremner said. "When racing, we pull out a clear plastic covering to protect the floors and store away the saloon table, bedding, cutlery and crockery."

These compromises are a small price to pay for guests with the sun on their backs and the wind in their hair, island hopping at 25 knots.

Contact: Reichel/Pugh, (619) 223-2299; fax (619) 224-1698; www.reichel-pugh.com. Charter contact: John Bremner, Ocean Marine, Shamrock Quay, Southampton, U.K., (011) 44 2380 220 388; (011) 44 2380 232 214; john@oceanmarine.co.uk.