Annapolitan Larry Leonard and the staff of his Sobstad Chesapeake sail loft on Bay Ridge Road in Annapolis have been working overtime formonths now, building dozens of sails for Bill Koch's America3 Syndicate to use in its quest for the America's Cup in San Diego.
As thebuilders of all of the A3 Syndicate's mains, jibs and spinnakers, Leonard and his team are involved in their second America's Cup, havinggotten their feet wet in Perth, Australia, in 1987 working with JohnKolius' America Syndicate.
For the '87 campaign, Leonard and his family moved to Australia for the duration, and he sailed with the team while designing and building sails for the boat. This time he's more firmly anchored in Annapolis, traveling to San Diego every few weeks to monitor the A3 campaign's progress and work with the loft's representative in California, Per Andersson, a sail trimmer for the syndicate.
For those of us who have been glued to ESPN or their VCRs every day to watch the exciting coverage of the semifinal rounds, some of Leonard's work, made right here in Annapolis, really stands out -- although many of the exact details are as shrouded in secrecy as the exact configurations of the boats' keels in their modesty skirts and camouflage paint jobs.
Leonard's loft has already built 18 mains for Cup racing, along withthe dozens of jibs and spinnakers he's sent to California, but no sail is as visibly different from the others on the course as the shinysilver mains made of a revolutionary new crystalized carbon materialdubbed "Cuben fiber" -- a reference to both carbon fiber and the syndicate itself.
Leonard's contract with the A3 Syndicate expressly forbids him to discuss the sail or the material until after the regatta, although he can say that the material is made up elsewhere, specially for the sails, and he then designs and builds the sails from it.
"The difference in how the new fabric stretches compared with Kevlar and other conventional fabrics has made it interesting, because to get the same target shape you're going to have to shape it differently when you build it," Leonard said.
So how does a local guy witha non-technical background get to be the man at the cutting edge of high-tech sails in the world's most visible and high-tech regatta?
"My early introduction to sailmaking came from my father making sails for racing Penguins," Leonard said. "We actually did pretty well with them. Then I spent a couple of summers cutting sails for Linda Stearns when she had Hurricane Sails. I was going to Hopkins and playinglacrosse, so after those couple of summers the sailing was put on hold.
"I was planning on going into my father's sporting goods business, but then he retired and sold the business, so I didn't really know what I was going to do with my life. Then he came up with the ideaof starting a sail loft.
"It seemed like a good idea, even thoughneither one of us really knew what we were doing at first, but in the time since we opened the loft in 1976 we've come a long way from selling a sail to (Annapolitan) Sonny Smith, who was our very first customer, to making sails for maxis and 50-footers and being involved inan America's Cup campaign."
Getting into that upper echelon of sailing was a matter of good timing as much as having a good product, Leonard explained.
"Timing has been everything," he said. "In the '87 America's Cup, Kolius needed somebody from Sobstad to go to Australia with him. He and I had sailed J/24s against each other, and likedeach other, so it was a natural kind of thing.
"At first, we onlyhad a couple of our sails on the boat, and we were in competition with several other lofts. But our sails worked pretty well, so by the end of the campaign the boat was all Sobstad. We got that lucky break and we were able to do a good job. We did it all on our own, too, with very little support from the Sobstad organization."
Leonard and his Sobstad Chesapeake team eased into the maxi and 50-foot classes in a similar way, sail by sail and boat by boat.
In the 50-footers,there was long-time customer Victor Forss, Swedish owner of Royal Blue, Leonard said.
"It kind of spread from there. We got some sailson Abracadabra, and by the end of the year we'd proved to John (Kolius) we were doing a better job, and Kolius went on and won the first Worlds with our sails."
That led to Leonard working closely with Paul Cayard, skipper of the Italian Il Moro di Venezia America's Cup campaign, although even through the Italian Sobstad loft it proved impossible to work out within the AC rule that designers of sails be nationals of the country represented.
"Cayard and his Il Moro people bought Abracadabra as a practice boat, which started our relationshipwith Paul," Leonard said. "That's what generated the interest from Japan, and, of course, Koch already had some of our sails on (his maxi) Matador."
Leonard says he relies on his eye for a speedy shape more than any other high-tech tool of his trade.