July 9, 2012

America’s Cup racing sails on Milford gear

HBJ Photo / Bill Kenney
HBJ Photo / Bill Kenney
HBJ Photo / Bill Kenney

When expensive America's Cup sailing ships raced through the waters off Newport, R.I., in late June, a lot more than bragging rights were at stake. The preliminary races in the world's most prestigious sailing series also serve as a technology proving ground for Milford-based North Sails.

The company, which has been the world's largest sail maker since the late 1970s, provides sails for all but one of the eight teams vying for the America's Cup.

Providing sails for world-class racing boats involves considerably more than simply stitching together a few large pieces of cloth. Lowell North, who started the company in a 15-foot by 40-foot space in San Diego in 1957, "approached sail making from a scientific point of view," said Jay Hansen, executive vice president of North Technology Group, North Sails' parent company. "In recent years, we've become more of a technology company. Our goal is to make the best product, then figure out what it costs, then price it, which is opposite of how most businesses operate."

A case in point is North Sails' patented 3DL and 3Di sails, which are made with revolutionary three-dimensional molds. The process produces a sail that lasts longer and stretches less than traditionally-made sails. Although they are North Sails' most expensive product, they are also its best sellers, Hansen said.

The company's products range in price from about $100 for mass-produced sails for small recreational boats to $700,000 for custom-designed sails for the world's most competitive sailors.

Clients of America's Cup caliber are assigned a sail designer who works directly with the client's boat designer to ensure that the underwater technology works in conjunction with the sophisticated aerodynamics provided by the sails. The designer continues working with the team throughout its America's Cup campaign, making adjustments along the way to ensure the fastest boat possible.

Technological advances such as those being developed by North Sails continue to increase the speed of world-class racing boats. AC45 catamarans, such as the ones that competed at Newport, have a top speed of about 30 knots (35 miles per hour) while the AC72 boats that will contend in the America's Cup finals in San Francisco next year are expected to top out at about 40 knots (46 miles per hour), according to America's Cup Communications Director Jane Eagleson. "The previous ACC V5 boats had a top speed of about 18 knots, which is a fairly average speed for an AC45," she said.

North sails have been used by every America's Cup defender and challenger — the two finalists in the competition — every year since 1980, and by nearly all the contenders in the preliminary rounds as well as most competitors in other prestigious ocean races in recent years. In addition to its racing sails, North also manufacturers more cruising, or recreational, sails than any other company in the world.

North Sails moved to Connecticut in the late 1970s, first to Stratford and later to Milford, where it continued to expand and outgrow its facilities. In 2002, the company moved into the old U.S. Motors facility, which now houses North Technology Group's corporate headquarters as well as one of its 63 lofts, or sail making facilities spread across the globe. The company has operations in 29 countries. The company employs about 95 people in Connecticut and about 400 in total, according to marketing representative Victoria Brown.

Today the business is owned by Terry Kohler, who bought North Sails from its founder in 1984. North Sails is one of 11 companies under the North Technology Group umbrella. Others include North U, which provides training programs and materials for sailors who want to improve their skills; North Sails Gear, which offers clothing and accessories for the nautical-minded; EdgeWater Powerboats, which manufactures a line of high-performance outboard motor boats; North Sail Outlet, which offers discounted pre-owned sails; and Southern Spars, which produces carbon fiber products.

North Sails currently conducts about $110 million in annual sales, roughly half the total worldwide market, with most of its customers coming from Europe. "Europe has a much greater culture of sailing," Hansen said, adding that the North American market is only about one-third of the European and one-fourth of the world market. "In this country, the wealthy buy second homes, but in Europe they are more likely to buy sailboats. I can't pick up a newspaper in Europe without finding an article on sailing, but here months go by with no mention of it even in major papers."

Like everyone else at North Sails, Hansen, a native of Canada who now lives in Connecticut, is an avid competitive sailor. "We have to be. All of us got into this business because we were sailors, and we all sail regularly with our clients," he said. "We want to help our clients win and in order to do that, we have to learn, and the only way to learn is by doing."

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