Flight Controller, Leigh McMillan
Leigh McMillan is one of the UK’s top multihull sailors. He grew up on the Isle of Wight - home to the first America’s Cup - and began sailing with his father, who skippered classic yachts. He progressed to dinghies at the age of eight, representing Britain at the Optimist Europeans and Worlds. A move into the Laser Radial class saw him win the Youth Nationals before transferring to the Hobie 16 when it became an ISAF class for the Youth Worlds - he competed in the Youth World Championships in South Africa and this began his career in multihulls.
Leigh went on to win three Extreme Sailing Series and in 2015 managed a sweep of both the ESS and GC32 Racing Tour in foiling multihulls, to add to his Olympic appearances in the multihull Tornado class for Team GB in 2004 and 2008. The 36th America's Cup will be his second Cup campaign, Leigh was part of the British team for their AC35 campaign in Bermuda, as back up Helmsman to Ben Ainslie.
Who inspired you to start sailing?
My family inspired me, my Mum and Dad met on a boat, and my Dad was the skipper of classic yachts in his late teens and early twenties, skippering boats all around the world. We have sailed for as long as I can remember.
A wooden home-built Optimist called Bubbles.
First sailing club?
Gurnard and Yarmouth Sailing Clubs
Lawrie Smith. When I was young watching the Whitbread Race going out of the Solent was very inspirational.
What do you love most about sailing?
The variability of the sport, no two days are the same, you are always learning, there is always something that you can improve on.
What has sailing taught you?
I’m only happy when I’m winning, and you are not always winning, so you have to learn to deal with the setbacks and the troubles that the sport throws your way. It teaches you perseverance and a resistance to the disappointments, amongst a lot of other things. It also teaches you how to have good relationships with teammates and teamwork. Those are the important things.
Favourite ever sailing race?
We used to have a lot of fun in the River Yar in Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight, as a youngster — blasting around two up in a Topper when it was blowing dogs off chains, running aground in the mud. It doesn’t get more fun than that.
How do you know when you have good form?
It’s the relationship and feedback from the team. When everything is going well, there is a certain sense of harmony on the boat.
How do you keep going when you're on the limit?
It’s the desire to better and to keep improving and to win. It burns pretty deep with me, and that’s what keeps me driving harder and harder to better myself.
2015 – winning both the ESS and GC32 was absolutely fantastic year, but it’s not over yet! Looking back... to 2012 when we won the Extreme Sailing Series for the first time, that was a milestone.
If you weren't a sailor, what would you be?
I started a product design and innovation degree here in Portsmouth in 2001, and then deferred after the first year to pursue an Olympic campaign and never went back — but as a kid I wanted to design boats.
Freddie Carr prides himself on being the centre of attention, so we’ll give him that mantle!
Save the body and get into the trapeze boats.
What other sports did you play as a child?
I played a lot of football with West Wight Football Club from eight or nine to 16. At school I played the usual rugby, cricket and hockey.
What other sports do you play now?
I very much enjoy skiing, wake-boarding and kite-surfing.
How do you spend your time when you are not sailing (if it’s not other sports)?
If it’s not enjoying the outdoors, then whenever possible, catching up with family and friends.
Do you have any pets?
My parents bought me a Labrador in 2004, but I never actually took ownership, and so she lives with my parents. But, we now have two cats called 'Echo and Bravo'.
Do you support any particular charities?
I support Great Ormond Street.
Where do you see yourself in ten years’ time?
On the back of winning the America’s Cup and still being involved in the sport.
I’ll have to think about that one!
“My family inspired me to start sailing, my mum and dad met on a boat and my dad was a skipper of classic yachts in his late teens and early 20s. When my sister and I came along they were still sailing. My parents settled down on the Isle of Wight and we sailed for as long as I can remember just on a little family cruising boat. It’s in the blood.”
Like many sailing dads on the Isle of Wight, McMillan Sr. built his son a wooden Optimist, the classic children’s sail trainer and racing boat. “From the age of eight or nine, I started getting into the Oppie scene on the island, which was a bunch of similar aged kids who all came through at the same time. We had a couple of years of racing against each other on the island, doing a few little circuits put together with the various sailing clubs.“
By the time Leigh was 11, the group was getting good enough to head for the mainland and take on the world. “There was a group of us from the island who used to go off and do all the events, we did our first nationals in 1992, I think... in Mumbles, and one thing really led to another. Little did we know that Ben Ainslie, Chris Draper and Iain Percy were all there at the time, just finishing their Oppie careers, and we were just starting.”
There was some competition for the young sailor. “I played a lot of football. We had a really cool team on the Isle of Wight, West Wight Football Club, and we grew up playing a league, all the way up to 16. The team went over and competed in the Hampshire League and the Wessex League for its final year. That was a lot of fun. And there was all the usual; rugby, cricket and hockey. Sailing got in the way a bit in the end. These days I very much enjoy skiing and kite surfing.”
The Optimist only allows racing to the age of 16 and whilst in the class he’d been selected for the European and World Championship teams, “I didn’t perform particularly well at either but there were signs – I guess more to my dad than anyone else – that this was something worth pursuing, and so we looked to the youth classes and what the progression should be.”
Leigh picked the single-handed Laser Radial youth class so he could just get out there sailing and training. Once he was into the bigger boat, things started to happen. “I made the [RYA’s] Youth Squad and one thing led to another. I think I won the Youth Nationals in the Radial and got a third at the Laser Radial Youth Worlds in 1998.” It was the introduction of the multihull for the next season that really kicked things into gear. “Ben [Ainslie] had been a few years ahead of me and won the ISAF [International Sailing Federation] Youth Worlds, so it had quite a status to it at that stage. He went on to compete in the Olympics in 1996 in Atlanta, so the ISAF Youth Worlds became the thing that you needed to get on your CV. But I was never big enough for the Laser, and it was only in the last year that the Hobie 16 got put in for the first time to the Youth Worlds. I jumped into a Hobie 16 only a few months before the trials with a friend of mine, Mark Richmond. We went off to South Africa and competed in the Youth Worlds for the first and last time.” The pair scored a sixth.
“It really opened our eyes to the multihull world, and so I spent all my savings on an old Tornado [then the Olympic multihull class]. And as soon as I finished my A-Levels, we drove off to Europe and went straight to the Tornado Worlds, which was our first ever Tornado event. So we were trying to rig this thing up and battled it around at the back of the fleet – we did a bit of a European tour with the boat.
“On the back of that summer my dad was kind of just putting the word around on the island that I had ambitions to go full time and try and do an Olympic campaign. I was very, very fortunate to have a guy called Jamie Sheldon [now the Commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron] who supported me for a number of years in the Tornado. He brought a couple more backers in and they got together and bought me a Tornado. A good, new Tornado that I could go off and compete in. It was a bit of a life saver because the boats were expensive and there’s no way we could have done it without their support.”
It was late 1999, and the Olympics were less than a year away, but Leigh’s progress was accelerating. He didn’t qualify for the Sydney Games, but he was picked to go and train with the Team GB representatives. “I just took everything in I possibly could in that year, to stage my campaign for 2004.” In 2001 they were top ten at the Tornado World Championships, and two years later scored a second, coming very close to winning.
Meanwhile, McMillan started a product design and innovation degree in Portsmouth, completing his first year. “Then I deferred my course to pursue the Olympic campaign, which had already started but was in a slow period of the campaign. And I said to myself, ‘Either I get selected for the Olympics in a year’s time or I come back and finish this course’ – and I got selected for the Olympics. Maybe I would have ended up in the same place here, but under different circumstances, you never know. But designing was something that I was really interested in as a kid, and I wanted to design boats – but that took a back seat for the tiller.
“We went on to represent Team GB at Athens, and then carried on with the Tornado from there to 2008. At both of those events we were obviously very, very disappointed not to come away with a medal. We definitely had the potential to get a medal. We had two silvers at the Worlds in those eight years.”
Once the 2008 Olympics was over, McMillan was faced with a decision – the Tornado had been dropped as an Olympic event for London 2012. There would be no more shots at Olympic medals in this class, he would have to find another goal. “It was the end of a disappointing era for me, not to win a medal, but I certainly learnt a lot of lessons through all of that. There was quite a period of reflection... my hand was forced, but I had a feeling that forcing your way out of that Olympic arena was a good way to assert yourself in the professional side of the sport.”
One idea that already had momentum was the Extreme 40. A group of multihull sailors had come up with the idea of a one-design 40ft catamaran racing close to shore at a series of global venues early in the new millennium. By 2005 it was underway, with the Extreme 40s debuting at the stopovers of a round the world race in 2005-06. The series developed as the iShares Cup and then, finally as the Extreme Sailing Series. McMillan had been involved from the earliest stages, racing on the circuit in 2005 and 2006 before turning his focus to the 2008 Olympics. But once the Olympic dream was over, Leigh poured all his energy into making it on the new professional circuit.
The big opportunity came when he was called up to stand in for Loick Pyron in the three events of an Asian series late in 2009. He won all three. Mike Golding then enlisted him to drive his boat, and they were third in the regular 2010 season. The rest is Extreme history, with McMillan winning his third title in 2015, all as part of the Oman Sail team.
And through this period, history was aligning the tectonic plates to the advantage of McMillan and his multihull colleagues. “It was watching the Alinghi and Oracle match in 2010 that the America’s Cup took on a new lease of life for me. Seeing those machines, bigger versions of what I was racing was really inspiring. That’s where all my focus went to next. I wanted to be a part of the Cup. I felt like I was in a position to make the jump and be competing with the Cup teams.”
And then suddenly, just a couple of years later, the game changed again as Emirates Team New Zealand took it onto foils when they launched their AC72 for the 2013 America’s Cup. “I got left behind to a certain extent, because all the guys were already in teams and I didn’t get that opportunity. The Extreme 40 was the birthplace for multihull America’s Cup sailors, and then a year later it was seen as old news and out of date. I had been a solid part of the Extreme 40 for a couple of years, and so I was put in that bracket. It was very difficult to find the opportunities to prove that I had more to offer than just being an Extreme 40 sailor, a standard multihull sailor.”
McMillan never stopped planning and never stopped trying. In 2014 he bought a foiling Moth and sailed it on the Solent. “Multihulls have always been a type of boat that gives you a thrill and the sense of speed has been quite amazing, but flying above the water is a whole other dimension, so I was absolutely loving it.” He started to look at ways to get his Extreme Sailing Series team in on the foiling action.
“It was probably April 2015 when I was talking to David Graham, the CEO of Oman Sail and started throwing around the option to do the GC32 circuit. He was open to it, and so we worked absolutely flat out to make that happen. We found a boat to charter, and got it to the UK to get a few days training in. We had some absolutely awesome sailing here in the Solent, just blasting around. We lined the GC32 up with the British America’s Cup team who were out training in their AC45 [45 foot foiling multihull]. I think that opened the door. We were mixing it up with the good guys on the GC32s and showing that we’ve still got lots to give. And I started talking to the British Cup team.”
Leigh joined the team's Cup campaign as back-up helmsman to Ben Ainslie, passing on a lifetime of multihull sailing knowledge. The team were based in Portsmouth before relocating to Bermuda ahead of the AC35 in 2017, but were knocked out during the semi-final stage to eventual winners, Emirates team New Zealand.
Now, almost thirty years after McMillan first hit the water with an Optimist called Bubbles, he remains as passionate about the sport as ever. “The thing I love most about sailing is just the variables of the sport. No two days are the same. You’re always learning, you’ve always got something to improve on, and the sport is evolving and developing so much. Every year it’s making massive jumps and it’s just really exciting to be a part of that.
“Sailing has taught me a lot of lessons, because I’m only happy when I’m winning. And no one is always winning, so you have to deal with the setbacks and the troubles that the sport throws in your way. It teaches you perseverance and resistance to the disappointments, amongst a lot of other things. It teaches you good relationships with teammates and teamwork, that’s what’s important about it.
“Getting up on the foils is pretty exhilarating, suddenly the boats pick up a whole new level of speed. It makes them more difficult to sail, the boat handling is more awkward. All of the load is on two foils so you have to get everything right and it's a big workout for the crew. You have to anticipate and make decisions about what you're able to do physically.
"It's a new dimension. The increased speeds, the sensation of flying above water, the noises all change, the whistling and humming. My role on-board has changed for this edition and it's a very exciting time to be competing in the Cup right now.”