INTERVIEW: Leigh McMillan – Spending life conquering waves

Matt Jones - Editor 12:18 19/03/2015
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Calm seas ahead: Leigh McMillan is a household name in multihull sailing and has competed at two Olympics for Great Britain.

Leigh McMillan is considered one of the UK’s top multihull sailors and has appeared at both the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games for Great Britain.

In Athens 2004, alongside team-mate Mark Bulkeley in the mixed tornado category, he finished a disappointing 13th out of 17 teams.

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He fared much better in 2008 in Beijing though, McMillan and partner Will Howden finishing sixth, just 12 points off the medals. 

Since 2011 he has been skippering The Wave, Muscat, in the Extreme Sailing Series (ESS). The 34-year-old made history in 2013 when he became the first skipper in the series’ nine years to win two titles – winning his first a year earlier.

He has been competing in the series since its early stages and was in Oman with his Wave colleagues earlier this month for Act 2 of the ESS.

The Wave – pre-event favourites – won on home waters for the third consecutive year, leaving them joint first in the overall ESS standings, ahead of Act 3 in Qingdao, China, in April.

What’s the aim this season in the Extreme Sailing Series?

The aim is to try and win the series and to try and make it three wins for us. To make it a treble. That would be the first time it’s been done and we’re really hoping to make that happen.

We like the pressure. We like to be under pressure to raise our game and push ourselves hard. The fact we’ve won before doesn’t change a huge amount. We just want to be out there racing well as a team and performing and getting off to a good start for the season

You’ve previously raced in two Olympics. How was that?

I got selected for Team GB for Athens in 2004. I had a really quite disappointing result in the end, finishing 13th there, but we were a strong team and went to 2008 really hoping for a medal and narrowly missed with a sixth place. 

Results weren’t what I hoped. Obviously you go there to win medals and I didn’t achieve that but it was a great experience and really set me up for my career in the sport.

Leigh McMillan appeared at two Olympics for Great Britain (2004 and 2008).

Are the Olympics something you’d like to be involved in again in the future?

The Olympic dream is always burning and getting that gold medal would be fantastic but there’s very exciting developments in the sport, like the Americas Cup. That’s very appealing also and getting involved would be a big challenge and a big goal of mine too. We’ll see. Watch this space I guess.  

How did you get into sailing?

My dad sailed as a youngster and actually grew up to be a skipper of classic yachts so when I was born I went on lots of sailing trips from a young age around the Isle of Wight where I grew up. 

From the age of eight or nine I learned to sail in small dinghies and boats and doing small events on the island and then one thing led to another. I started doing more competitions and things progressed. The results kept coming and there was more opportunity to keep doing it. 

McMillan made history in 2013 when he became the first skipper in the ESS to win two titles.

Who are your sailing heroes?

Lawrie Smith was quite an inspiration in the early days for me. All the things that he did both offshore and in-shore. He was a real character too and someone that I knew through mutual friends growing up. 

More recently I suppose I’ve seen Ben Ainslie winning lots of medals, so he has been a great inspiration, and Iain Percy too. 
They’re both only a few years older than me and looking up to them through the youth classes was very inspirational. 

What are some of your favourite sailing memories growing up?
We used to watch the Volvo Ocean Race through the Solent back when it was the Whitbread Round the World Race. That was always really exciting seeing those boats go off and come back. That was a big memory of mine. 

I used to watch the likes of Lawrie racing in Ultra 30s which was really exciting. 

Then it was the Olympics when I was 16 and seeing Ben going off to Atlanta. 

That was a big inspiration for me when I was coming through the youth system. The Olympics actually became something that was a more realistic goal to go for. 

There’s been many different dreams and forms of inspiration that I’ve had.

Speaking of the Volvo Ocean Race, is that something you’d like to be involved with in the future?
Absolutely. I think it’s another incredible race and experience. The fact it’s now one design is quite amazing and adds a lot to the sport and the race.  It’s something that I definitely have my eye on and could get involved with. 

Leigh McMillan (R) and Will Howden for Great Britain during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

I believe Peter Greenhalgh on your team, The Wave, Muscat, has a particular interest in the race?

Yes, I’m following it closely. Robert Greenh-algh (Mapfre) is a brother for Peter on our team, so we get regular updates from him. 
And his sister Libby is the navigator for Team SCA so we get a lot of reports back and we follow it on the tracker too so it’s exciting and we’re very impressed with Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing and Dongfeng Race Team who have done incredible things.

What other sports do you like playing out of the water?

Personally I love watching sport and being involved in it. I’ve done a lot of kite surfing over the years and windsurfing too. 
I just love getting out in the mountains and going skiing. I’m a really big fan of that. It’s quite dangerous but if I can find some off piste that’s a big hobby of mine.

Tornado sailor Leigh McMillan looks on during a practice round before Beijing 2008.

I’m a big fan of rugby too and like to go to Twickenham on a regular basis. 

I’m really, really hoping for the English to come good this year in a home Rugby World Cup. I’ll be off to watch the opening game of that, so I’m all in.

Who are your sporting idols outside sailing?
Watching sport there’s been a few people who’ve really stood out over the years and been inspirational characters. The likes of Roger Federer who has carried himself very well as a professional sportsman. 

He’s been exceptional and I’ve really liked the way he’s played the sport.

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