THIS IS HOW NORTH SAILS BECAME THE GLOBAL LEADER IN SAILMAKING
By combining innovation and excellence with consistency and worldwide reach, North Sails is at the top of its industry.
When Lowell North left an aerospace engineering job in 1957 to establish North Sails, he didn’t realize he was starting a company that would soon become the global leader in sailmaking. But his unique style—science-based sailmaking, rather than the usual seat-of-the-pants approach—couldn’t have been better timed.
By 1960, polyester Dacron had begun to replace stretchy cotton as the sail material of choice. Suddenly it was possible to build repeatable, predictable sail shapes, kicking off a mid-century sailmaking revolution that affected every part of the industry—much the same way that 3Di is currently changing every aspect of sailmaking today.
Lowell’s first science experiment was to test different types of Dacron for durability. “We began by attaching [sailcloth samples] to the antenna of my car,” Lowell said in a 2017 interview celebrating 60 years of North Sails. “We called it flutter testing, and later built an in-house machine, which spun the attached samples on a rotating wheel or arm.” The result? A new understanding of warp and weave that would inspire North Cloth, the company’s in-house producer of proprietary materials. Today, the North manufacturing team tests every lot of woven or laminated sailcloth used in a North sail, using proprietary processes and equipment, to evaluate performance and durability.
Other innovations followed that first flutter test. CEO Tom Whidden says Lowell North achieved a long list of firsts in the 27 years he was president. “He was the first to use patterns; he was the first to use computers; he was the first to use cutting machines. He made software that looked at sail design very logically, and software that measured stress and strain.”
As the company grew, North gained a reputation for fast, repeatable designs around the globe. Sails with the round blue and white logo logged wins at all the big events, from the Olympics and Star Worlds to the America’s Cup. North products also began to dominate long-distance racing fleets like the 1981-82 Whitbread Round the World Race (now The Ocean Race).
In 1987, when Whidden took over as CEO (right after his successful recovery of the America’s Cup, as tactician for Team Dennis Conner), he embraced what had already become a North trademark: innovation. Hearing about a new approach to sail manufacturing, a patented sail molding process, Whidden was certain it was the right step forward. “We’ve been building sails the same way for so many years… Finally, there was a technological system; we could actually make sails and the sailcloth together.”
What would become 3DL, and has since evolved into today’s ground-breaking 3Di, required an enormous technological and financial investment. But it would cement the position of North Sails as sailmaking’s global leader.
Fastest Sails Around the World
On Christmas Day of 2016, Thomas Coville shattered the previous solo around the world record (57 days) with a final elapsed time around the planet of just over 49 days. He called North Sails a trusted partner—because the company believed in him before he succeeded, but also because his 3Di sails were completely trouble-free. “Before we succeed, we fail a lot. We make mistakes, but we never give up. And now North Sails is the fastest sailmaker around the world today. It’s a fantastic achievement!”
In December 2017, Colville’s impressive record was broken once again—this time by François Gabart, who finished his own circumnavigation in just under 42 days. “All our sails are North Sails 3Di,” he says. “I started working with North because they had made a big investment in R&D to get to a material that was strong, light, and solid. They also have a team that is super successful at working with people. It’s important to create a closeness between the sailing team, the design team, the architects, and the sailmaker. It’s a team effort to ensure that across the board, the boat goes fast. And this is what we’ve done with North for a long time now, and we are delighted. There are many good reasons to work with them.”
Outside the box, but in-house
Today, North continues to deliver the top-quality products customers have come to expect, while also constantly moving forward with that important company culture—science-based innovation. One reason both are possible is North’s unique proprietary approach to all aspects of sail design and manufacturing. A worldwide network of expert designers and manufacturing teams work together on a wide spectrum of sailmaking projects: from testing materials, to molding a 3Di Grand Prix jib, to finishing a paneled cruising mainsail.
With so many different ground-breaking projects going on at once, cross-pollination happens quite naturally. Adventure sailing ideas help build more reliable cruising products while theories tested in AC75s will help win races at local races around the world. Meanwhile, consistency is maintained around the globe because everyone in the company—local loft experts, a roster of world-renowned sail designers, and the manufacturing teams at the dedicated facilities (Minden, Nevada and Sri Lanka)—is held to the very high standards laid out in the North Sails Blue Book.
Fast sails can’t stand up on their own, though, which is why the North Technology Group also includes two sister companies: Southern Spars and Future Fibres. North Sails also designs and manufactures its own sail hardware.
The only way to remain the global leader of sailmaking is to continue to deliver consistently excellent and innovative products to customers all around the world. Fortunately, North Sails has spent more than half a century doing just that: a natural expansion from the original vision and culture established by its founder. As CEO Tom Whidden points out, Lowell North’s “whole model of looking at things scientifically made it pretty easy for the people who followed behind him.”
For more North Sails history, read our 60 Years stories.