Lunch with... serial sailing yacht owner Mike Slade
Mike Slade arrives for lunch at Browns restaurant in London's Mayfair deep in conversation. For a startled moment I think he has brought a guest to the interview. In fact, Slade just happens to be walking in at the same time as the pin-striped gentleman in question and in the time it takes to open a door Slade has (effortlessly and unintentionally) demonstrated a key ability: making people feel at ease. Slade is what these days is called a people person.
It's a useful talent in the property development business where Slade has made his money and his name. Helical Bar's offices are just around the corner, and he has been chief executive there since the mid-1980s. That's a couple of cycles of boom and bust for the property market, but he shows little sign of it wearing on him. We both order an appropriately classic British dish: fish and chips.
Slade was born in Port Isaac in 1946, a beautiful fishing village on Cornwall's north coast, famous for the TV serials Poldark and Doc Martin. The family moved to London in the early 1950s but returned to Cornwall for holidays every year, where Slade started to sail.
"You could hardly avoid it", he says. "If you weren't water-skiing or surfing, you were jumping in a dinghy and going out."
The family didn't have a sailing background, but all took lessons. Slade recalls one memorable early experience with his father in a 5 metre clinker dinghy.
"I must have been about six or seven. They'd taught us to sail, but not really how to get started off the shore. My father couldn't get the rudder down, and I couldn't get the centreboard down and my dear dad hung onto the one thing he shouldn't have held onto - the mainsheet. And in view of everyone we hit damn near every boat moored in the harbour.
"After that I forbade my father from coming on board, and used to sail on my own. I'd go out at six or seven in the morning for about four hours, I used to love that, absolutely loved that."
Slade got his first boat when he was nine, a GP14 sailing dinghy, and joined what was a competitive racing scene on the Camel Estuary for the eight weeks of many summer holidays. It all came to an end when he was badly injured in a car crash that resulted in him requiring major spinal surgery.
In time, Slade made a complete recovery, but for about 15 years there was no sailing, nor any cricket, rugby, skiing or golf - he had been a single-handicap golfer at school.
"The car crash put a stop to all that when I was about 22," he says. "[I had] spinal fusions and all sorts." During that time he married and started a family, now reflecting philosophically that "this was the time when one couldn't really do a lot [else] anyway."
When he did come back to sailing he was in his mid-30s. By then his parents had moved to England's New Forest, so he gravitated to nearby Lymington, and by the late 1970s he was sailing an Etchells from there with a handful of friends.
They raced the Solent circuit for a few years, until in 1986 he was encouraged to charter an Ocean 60 for Cowes Week. Slade didn't simply enjoy the experience, he also realised that yacht charter could be a profitable business. Having made some money through Helical Bar, he decided to give it a go.
It wasn't long before he was talked out of the Ocean 60, and into the Ocean 80 that became Ocean Leopard, launched in 1988. It was a jump for a man who had only previously owned dinghies, but Slade says, "It was very much a business boat, and one's had to maintain that stance all the way through. We've been running a business."
Three years went by, and Ocean Leopard had just returned from her Caribbean season and was undergoing a refit ahead of the 1991 Round the Island Race. Chris Law, one of Britain's highest-profile sailors at the time, saw the boat in the yard her potential. He phoned Slade and told him that in a windy race Ocean Leopard could do really well. Slade invited Law along to help steer, and a long, mutually beneficial relationship began.
It was Slade's first racing experience in the boat, and in the breeze they stormed around the island, broke Mistress Quickly's 12-year-old record and starred in Sunday newspaper coverage of the race. Slade was hooked. "I really got the racing bug there and then, but we also got a lot of charter work from the media exposure."
Slade's Ocean 80 charter boat was now a sought-after yacht for regattas. She went down to Saint-Tropez and Antigua, even racing in the Round Britain and Ireland, but Slade quickly realised his cruising boat wasn't really built for it.
If you're going to race, you need a race boat. So, in October 1993 Slade took a trip to Antibes. On the hard were about four retired IOR (International Offshore Rule) Maxis: Matador, Emeraude, and this Longobarda all stacked up with trailers full of gear and no one really wanted them.
Slade bought Longobarda specifically to add race chartering to the portfolio, as well as starting single-day corporate charters out of Lymington with both Longobarda and Ocean Leopard.
Longobarda crossed the Atlantic for the Onion Patch Bermuda Race and then the 1994 New York Yacht Club Sesquicentennial Regatta. He trucked the boat across America for the Big Boat Series in San Francisco, with three Harley-Davidsons as outriders, before going on to Sydney for the Hobart Race.
The resulting circumnavigation was one long adventure, which included the boat being attacked by Somali pirates on the return leg through the Gulf of Aden.
"I was at home, I'll never forget it," he says, "I was called by the (UK newspaper) Daily Telegraph at about eight o'clock. They asked if I was the owner of Longobarda, and was I aware it was being attacked? Oh, God! Thankfully they rang back about an hour later, as I couldn't ring Neil [Batt, the skipper], and told me [the boat and crew] had been rescued. Batt had coolly stalled the pirates until a Canadian frigate arrived."
Longobarda returned safely to the UK, and in 1996 Slade broke his own Round the Island record. He ran the two boats in tandem for the next few years, Ocean Leopard for term charters, Longobarda for race charters, and both doing the corporate work.
But the International Measurement System (IMS) rating rule was taking hold, replacing the defunct IOR, and as new boats were built, Longobarda was looking a little long in the tooth.
At the end of the 1990s Slade rationalised, selling first Ocean Leopard and eventually Longobarda, and replacing them with a single new boat. She would be capable of doing the Fastnet, and capable of combining race charters and term charters, Slade explains.
Leopard of London was designed by Reichel/Pugh and launched in 2000. She was water ballasted, 28 metre long and purpose-built for the task. By then, Chris Sherlock had taken over from Battt, and it was Sherlock who called Mike Slade on his skiing holiday with the sort of news no yacht owner wants to get: Leopard of London was trapped in an Atlantic storm.
The yacht was also damaged and the crew were preparing to abandon her for a Russian tanker. Sherlock got everyone off safely, and managed to leave the boat in the right shape to stay afloat.
Picked up 10 days later by a tug, Leopard of London was brought ashore and shipped home. During the shipping, however, the transporter hit a storm, Leopard of London came off her cradle and went over the side. Even then she was recovered, although with two holes in the side big enough to step through. The team rebuilt her, and she remained in Slade's hands until 2005.
Her replacement was Leopard 3, a 30 metre super Maxi drawn by Farr Yacht Design, launched in 2007 and conceived to be, in Slade's own words, "The dog's bollocks boat. I mean, this was really going to take racing and race charters and regatta charters to the extreme. This was going to break records and make a name for itself, and then be a competitive charter boat."
Slade had to pull off the trick of building a boat capable of holding its own on the race course, while still standing up to MCA regulatory scrutiny for its status as a commercial vessel.
"All credit to the designer, but as the boat was being built, Movistar was sinking in the Atlantic (during the 2006 Volvo), and suddenly McConaghys were being told to put two-and-half tonnes more carbon in the boat." Slade continues, "The question is, how do you mix the chartering and the racing? You are going to be heavy, so it's up to the designer to offset that heaviness and reduce the disadvantage so upwind we'll pull out [distance on the opposition]."
Slade adds that light air and downwind were Leopard's weakness, but they were right to add the extra weight, because Leopard 3 was tested just like her predecessor. Caught in another Atlantic storm, Sherlock and his crew ran before it with bare poles for 14 hours before it blew out, and in that time laid the boat on her side twice to slow her down. She came through it unscathed.
The plan was for the boat to have a full interior and to follow the pattern of Leopard of London by mixing term, corporate and race charter. But by the time of the launch, the global recession had changed things.
"From 2007 to about today and however much longer, the [term] charter market is absolutely dead in the water," says Slade. "[So] we didn't fit it out like we had with Leopard of London; we've only just done it five years later. During which time we've been making a bit of a name for ourselves in the boat all over the place, and that's been very exciting."
Leopard 3 has swept around the world collecting records and line honours wins. Slade again holds the Round the Island record (all four of his boats have held it) along with a slew of others. It's worked commercially too, ICAP sponsor it. "We're completely booked out in the summer, day-in, day-out, with day charters. And racing and race charters has been the most profitable way to offset costs when there is no [term] charter market in the Caribbean nor the Med for these sort of boats.
"But now the boat has got the reputation a very, very fast boat, and a great sail and now having a complete refit and putting in all the staterooms, we've got six weeks [booked] in this coming season in the Caribbean. I never did more than eight weeks in the Caribbean in the old days."
A future of Caribbean winter regattas, mixed with corporate charters in the British summer now makes sense to Mike Slade. "I think I've thrown the towel in a little on the ocean racing side," he says. "The first time I did it (a transatlantic attempt) in Leopard of London in 2003, I was solidly sick for four days. We had to give ourselves injections into the bum, we were getting so dehydrated."
There's no doubt Slade has created an unusual model of superyacht ownership. He's happy to admit he couldn't do it unless it was a business, but he's still put himself at the wheel of some of the coolest, fastest boats on the planet for a decade or more, and counting. His motivation is simple.
"At [this] age, I'm not able to play competitive tennis; I might do a marathon or something, but I'm not really competitive, and busy with business. But sailing a big boat - you can be on the start line with all the pros, Olympic champions and can compete with them - there are not many sports that you can do that."
This year he'll even get to take the family for a two week holiday aboard her. Slade has four grandchildren now, and a Wayfarer dinghy at his house in Cornwall that he still sails on his own in the mornings. He's run five marathons and plays tennis, while his wife breeds horses, running seven mares out of a stud farm.
In the spring he plans to cycle the entire length of the country from John o'Groats to Lands End for charity. And he is particularly proud of his leading role in building LandAid, the property industry charity he has headed over the last 10 years, to help young and disadvantaged people achieve their potential.
"We're trying to show that we're (the property industry) not quite as bad as people might think," says Slade, with a characteristic laugh, realising at the same moment that he has to get back to his own property business. He leaves me to wonder how anyone could think Mike Slade was anything but one of the good guys.
Originally published January 2013
Photography: Ian Roman