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Better By Design
More than fifty years ago, a sail loft opened at the B-Street Pier in downtown San Diego, California. The space was living-room size at 15 feet by 40. “It was a little dusty and dirty but big enough to build a Star-boat mainsail,” commented Lowell North, the owner.
Today, North Sails, the company this young Berkeley-trained engineer started in 1957, is the world’s premier sailmaker with 63 major lofts and 56 service, sales, and satellite lofts in 29 countries. North Sails got where it is today through an unwavering commitment to technical leadership and a service-oriented philosophy.
North sails were used exclusively on 10 of 12 teams competing in the 1995 America’s Cup, 11 of 12 AC teams competing in 2000, nine of nine AC teams in 2003, 11 of 12 AC teams in 2007 and on both the Challenger and Defender in the 2010 America's Cup. In fact, North sails have been on every America’s Cup defender and challenger since 1980. North sails were also used exclusively by the top seven teams in the 1997-98 Whitbred race, the top eight teams in the 2001-02 Volvo Ocean Race, all eight teams in the 2005-2006 Volvo Ocean Race and all nine teams in the 2008-09 Volvo Ocean Race. North is the world’s leader in making sails for one-design and Olympic classes, and also manufactures more cruising sails that any sailmaker in the world.
The list of North’s technical achievements is unrivaled: North was the first sailmaker to scientifically test stretch and fatigue in sailcloth; the first to analyze sail shapes using computer flow codes; first with computer-driven cloth cutting; the first to use laminated sailcloth including its patented Gatorback™ construction; first with warp-oriented cloth styles in tri-radial panel layouts, first to develop accurate computer air flow simulation for downwind sails at 100% scale, and the first (and only) to build sails on a full size adjustable convex mold. This North-patented process is called 3DL and it is the world’s dominant performance sailmaking technology.
To meet worldwide demand for 3DL molded sails, North operates a 78,000 square foot 3DL manufacturing facility in Minden, Nevada. Here 11 molds and seven gantries are operating around the clock. The 3DL plant is the largest production facility in sailmaking. Addtional 3DL molds have recently been put into operation in North’s manufacturing facility in Sri Lanka.
Then and now, the company reflects the philosophy of its founder. Lowell North believed that successful sailboat racers make good sailmakers and good businessmen. North, himself, won two Olympic medals: a Gold in the Star class in 1968 and a Bronze in the Dragon class in 1964, and five Star-boat World Championships. North notables, what Lowell liked to call “Tigers,” include such luminaries as Peter Barrett, Eckart Wagner, John Marshall, Heiner Meldner, Tom Schnackenberg, Michael Richelsen, Tom Blackaller, Robbie Haines, Jim Allsopp, Hans Fogh, Vince Brun, Ken Read and Tom Whidden. That list could well serve as a Who’s Who of modern sailing and sailmaking.
Though renowned for its success on the race course, North is also the largest manufacturer of cruising sails in the world. This is due, in part, to the North Cloth division, which produces premium woven polyester, aramid and Spectra/Dyneema fabrics, each a performance and durability leader in it’s category. North recently acquired high-tech cloth manufacturer Cuben Fiber to broaden its high-performance sailcloth line.
Owned by businessman and sailing enthusiast Terry Kohler, North Sails continues to grow and flourish. North’s CEO is Tom Whidden, who has been Dennis Conner’s tactician in six America’s Cup campaigns. Whidden is assisted by a worldwide group of managers who oversee sales, service, and manufacturing in 29 countries. Other operations include; European and North American clothing and accessory lines; a catalog division, a custom graphics facility; North U. educational seminars; The Southern Group, producers of composite spars, rigging and marine components; and controlling interest in Edgewater Marine, a manufacturer of high-quality powerboats and North Flags, which supplies marine, golf, municipal and institutional markets.
Whidden, co-author of such notable books as the Art and Science of Sails and Championship Tactics, believes wholly in supporting the sport. As he has said, “We want the sport of sailing to grow.” To that end, the company offers the North U. Performance Racing and Cruising Seminars – the most popular educational seminars in sailing – and publishes and distributes coursebooks and educational CDs. Company principals and resources have helped to write such books as Sail Like A Champion and Learn to Sail (both written with Dennis Conner and published by St. Martin’s Press). North Sails produced the video, Trim for Speed, one of the sport’s most effective teaching tools for sail trim for racers and performance cruisers. It also is an active sponsor and supporter of numerous regattas worldwide, offering its North U. courses at many of them, and is a supplier to the Special Olympics.
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