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Insight: Leigh McMillan

By Mark Chisnell

Land Rover BAR sailor, Leigh McMillan
© BAR

Leigh McMillan is one of Land Rover BAR’s helmsman, the man hired to test Skipper and Team Principal Ben Ainslie’s mettle in the in-house racing and testing. Taking on the world’s most successful Olympic sailor – going up against him day after day in training – is the kind of job that would unnerve most people. McMillan takes it on cheerfully, as befits one of the world’s top multihull sailors over the last decade. He’s the only skipper to have won three Extreme Sailing Series and in 2015 managed a sweep of both the ESS and Bullitt GC32 Racing Tour in foiling multihulls – to which you can add Olympic appearances in the multihull Tornado class for Team GB in 2004 and 2008. It all started, as it so often does, with sailing parents.

“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 McMillan 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 1993, I think... in Mumbles, and one thing really led to another. Little did we know that the Ben Ainslies and the Chris Drapers [SoftBank Japan’s tactician] and Iain Percys [Artemis Team Manager and tactician] were all there at the time, just finishing their Oppie careers, and we were just starting.”

There was some competition for the young McMillan’s time. “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 McMillan was a slow starter. He’d been selected for the European and World Championship teams, but; “I didn’t perform particularly well at all, at either of those events. 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.”

Young Leigh McMillan in his Optimist dinghy

McMillan and son picked the single-handed Laser Radial youth class, not least because there would be no hassle finding good quality crews. It meant 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 fourth 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 doing a bit of schmoozing and 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 who then 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 them.”

Final prep to Leigh McMillan's Tornado ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics

It was late 1999, and the Olympics were less than a year away, but McMillan’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.”

Leigh McMillan represents Team GB in the Olympic Tornado Class in 2008 Beijing Olympics

Once the 2008 Olympics 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. No chance to represent the nation on home waters. And 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 that was over and the Olympic dream gone, McMillan 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.

The Extreme Sailing Series 2015. Act 8,Sydney, Australia . - Sydney - Austrailia
© Lloyd Images

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.

Leigh McMillan, helm onboard The Wave, Extreme Sailing Series 2015

“It was probably April 2015 when I was talking to David Graham, the CEO of Oman Sail and started throwing out 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. And that’s where we saw the guys out and lined up a couple of times with the GC32 versus the Land Rover BAR AC45. 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 team.”

Now, almost two years later, McMillan is very clear about his role. “I’m fully pumped up for this and I want to give everything I can to make a difference to the team. I want to push Ben as hard as I can, give the best possible input and feedback to the team, the designers... I’ve known Ben for a long time, and having watched his success I want to be a part of that over the next two years, and help bring the Cup home.”

Leigh McMillan onboard Land Rover BAR during training in the Solent
© HARRY KH

Twenty five 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.”

Land Rover BAR sailor, Leigh McMillan
© Jack Brockway