America's Cup could put win in sails of local loft

March 31, 1995|By Shirley Leung | Shirley Leung,Sun Staff Writer

Larry Leonard Jr. doesn't care which boat wins the America's Cup, just as long as his sails are on board.

Mr. Leonard's Sobstad Sailmakers Chesapeake has provided more sails for this year's America's Cup competitors than any other loft, rival sailmakers say. And his Annapolis loft is the exclusive supplier for Kansas billionaire Bill Koch's Women's Challenge.

"We've used North [sails] before and also had very good results," said Mr. Koch, whose America3 syndicate won the cup in 1992. "But now we're having the best results with Larry."

Mr. Leonard's loft has built a fifth of the sails in use at the cup races. North Sails Inc., the world's largest sailmaker, with 73 lofts around the world, provides nearly all of the rest.

Officials at the rival sailmaker concede a certain respect for Mr. Leonard and his sails, despite philosophical differences.

"I think Larry is more of an artist. We're more of a scientific approach," said Tom Whidden, president of North Sails, who is sailing with Team Dennis Conner. And even though the Annapolis sail maker's loft is smaller, "that doesn't mean I don't fear Larry," Mr. Whidden said.

Mr. Leonard broke into America's Cup circles not as a sailmaker but as the sail coordinator and mainsheet trimmer aboard America II, one of the challengers in the 1987 cup races off Fremantle, Australia.

He built sails for the boat, but he knew that to be accepted as an America's Cup sailmaker, he first had to gain respect as one of its sailors, he said. And he quickly proved that he could race among the best.

"He's a very gifted and talented sailor," said Gary Jobson, an ESPN sailing commentator who has raced aboard America's Cup yachts. "I think that's good for his sail making. It's real helpful when it comes to blending the art of sailing with the science of sail making."

America II was eliminated before the final races to determine a challenger, but its sails caught the eye of Dennis Conner, who won the cup that year. His boat, Stars & Stripes, carried two mainsails and three spinnakers from Mr. Leonard's loft.

After that, Mr. Leonard's reputation spread quickly. He made sails for some of the largest racing yachts in the world, including four Whitbread boats. Mighty Mary, the women's boat, carries 55 of his sails. His loft also has made sails for oneAustralia, Sydney 95, Team New Zealand and Young America.

"It is a relatively small loft but enjoys an outstanding world reputation, in particular in racing sails," said Duncan Skinner, vice president of Bainbridge/Aquabatten, one of the s leading suppliers of sail cloth and craft. "Larry is fanatic about building the best product he can build. His sails are like pieces of furniture -- they're exquisitely finished."

When Mr. Leonard opened the loft with his father, Eddie Leonard, in 1976, he wasn't sure the business would survive.

The older Mr. Leonard had the necessary business acumen, developed over years of running Eddie Leonard's Sporting Goods, a downtown Annapolis store that supplied uniforms and equipment for the Colts, the Naval Academy and the Orioles. But neither he nor his son had refined the sail-making trade.

The younger Mr. Leonard had been sailing since he was 10 and could stitch together rudimentary sails. But that was the extent of his knowledge.

In the early days, Mr. Leonard designed sails with a calculator, crawling around on his hands and knees to cut the cloth. He even drove a van to buy cloth from a Boston distributor.

"When we started this, we had to sell to a couple of friends," said Mr. Leonard, 41, who operates from a two-story loft in the 900 block of Bay Ridge Road.

Since then, he has spent nearly two decades and millions of dollars on research in an effort to create the perfect sail. A computer program created by his loft designs each sail, and a $100,000 laser cuts it from Cuben Fiber, a carbon-based cloth worth about $100 a yard that was developed in cup racing.

From the beginnings of the design through cutting and sewing, Mr. Leonard's loft pours at least 100 hours of work into each America's Cup sail.

Since cup racing began in January in San Diego, his staff of 30 has been working double shifts to make the America's Cup sails and to fill orders for local customers.

In an average year, the loft makes about 500 sails, grossing $3 million a year, said David Flynn, Mr. Leonard's sales manager. In an America's Cup year, the loft will add about 80 to 100 more sails to the workload.

Sails for the America's Cup yachts can cost as much as $50,000, compared with $2,000 to $3,000 for a recreational boat.

Yesterday, Mr. Koch's boat was in third place in the defender semifinals, one loss from elimination, and scheduled to race today against Team Dennis Conner's boat, depending on the decision of an international jury.

The jury will rule Saturday on the legality of controversial repairs Mr. Conner made to his boat to stay in the regatta. Now that Mr. Leonard has been accepted as a sailmaker, he said, he wants to return to America's Cup as a sailor. "When the business gets to the point when I don't have to be here all day long -- and it is getting there -- I'm going to do another America's Cup," he said.

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