The North Star
The summer season of sailing is just getting started and there is so much to talk about. I recently attended Tucker Thompson′s traveling American Magic roadshow which seems to be hitting almost every yacht club in America.
Keeping track of Tucker seems to be as complicated, if not more so than finding Waldo! His show is on the docket as we speak and more on all of that later.
On a more somber note, we also lost one of the giants in sailing: Lowell North. North put his name and moniker on almost everything that floats. He was to sailing what Henry Ford or the Chevrolet brothers were to the automobile industry.
There isn′t a sailor around that hasn′t raised a North sail, spinnaker or jib. His name is synonymous in our industry. In the Bay Area, the late Tom Blackaller managed the North Sail Loft in Alameda for years during advent from local sailing prodigy to America′s Cup legend.
From cotton, to Dacron, to polyester, to mylar, to the infamous AC wingsails to 3Di and beyond, North changed the sailing world. Who else would have one of the largest sailing lofts in the world in the middle of the Nevada desert!
Lowell North was the founder of North Sails. Nicknamed “The Pope” by his peers, Lowell began his sail-making career at the age of 14 when his father purchased a Star with cotton sails.
The father and son team came in last in every race, motivating the 14 year old Lowell to recut the mainsail of his Star. The rest, as they say, is history.
A year later (1945), Malin Burnham, one of San Diego′s hottest sailors, asked the young North to crew for him in the World Championships. They won. “It wasn′t me Malin wanted,” North had said. “It was my mainsail.”
North went on to win four world championships as skipper in this elite class. Nearly as impressive, he finished second in the world′s five times. He brought home a gold medal in the 1968 Olympics, prompting Starlights, the Class magazine, to call him “...the perfect Star sailor. He pioneered new ways to make and shape sails. His clear purpose, creativity, and competitive spirit continue to drive North Sails today.”
As an aeronautic/aerospace engineer, Lowell knew he could build a better sail through rigorous testing and incremental improvement. His methodical and scientific approach to sail-making changed the industry forever, and it also helped him win five Star World Championship titles and the aforementioned Olympic gold medal. The foundation laid by Lowell in 1957 has permanently shaped the North Sails culture.
“Lowell′s philosophy when building North Sails was simple,” explains North Technology Group CEO, Tom Whidden. “Get the best people, who he called Tigers, and commit yourself to the science and technology of making the best product. He pioneered new ways to make and shape sails. His clear purpose, creativity, and competitive spirit continue to drive North Sails today even as the company explores territories he never could have imagined.”
Lowell sold North Sails in 1984 and retired from sail-making. He continued to sail, racing his boat Sleeper for many years, as well as cruising the Pacific. He passed away in San Diego at the age of 89, with his wife Bea by his side. He will be greatly missed.
“If I started a sail-making company, would you buy a sail from me?” That is what Lowell North asked his friend John Shoemaker, one afternoon in 1957, while seated at the bar of San Diego Yacht Club. John replied, “Yes, I would,” which surprised Lowell.
Sure, they were friends, but neither man could predict that Lowell′s new company would eventually grow into the largest sail-making business in the world. Or that along the way, Lowell would become a world champion sailor and two-time Olympic medalist.
During a recent interview at his house in Point Loma, Lowell told interviewer Bernie Wilson that John′s answer “gave me the encouragement to start North Sails.” He admitted that before starting the company, he hadn′t built many sails. He said it took him years to figure out how to make a fast shape, but Lowell quickly became known for his unique approach in an industry where he had little experience. And, 60 years later, a scientific approach to material and product testing, as well as analytics-based sail design and performance development, continues to be the backbone of North Sails.
“The realization that I didn′t know anything about sail shape was really a big help,” Lowell explained. “I was then able to test a great variety of shapes, some of which tested faster. This objectivity helped us to make a lot of progress in sail shape.”
From renowned international photographer Sharon Green came this: “Lowell North touched so many lives. Not many may know this, but Lowell was a big influence on my career. At 17, I was a budding photographer. Lowell came to Canada and stayed at our home while sea trialing Evergreen for the ‘78 Canada′s Cup. One day, he came in and asked if I could process his film and make some 8x10′s so he could look at the sail design. This was back in the days of hi-tech sail design of a slide rule and calculator. Thrilled to have a job and feel like part of the team, I ran to my darkroom in the basement and got to work. As the story goes, Evergreen prevailed to win the Canada′s Cup against all odds. Evergreen′s secret weapon was Lowell North. So grateful to know ‘The Pope′ and I will cherish the memories of this legendary man. The Green family sends our heartfelt condolences to Bea, family and the entire North Sails extended family. Lowell, hope you are up there talking tech with dad, Hans and all the sailing legends.”
In 1957 at age 30, Lowell North decided to leave aerospace engineering to become a sailmaker. He never looked back.
North never relied on intuition. He was only swayed by what could be quantified, so he built a company based on science, using constant testing and rigorous scientific methodology to build better sails. And that changed sail-making forever.
When Lowell was 10, his family moved from Missouri to Los Angeles. Lowell′s father, who worked in oil discovery, purchased a 36-foot fishing boat. The purchase included an 8-foot tender, which Lowell instantly appropriated. He refurbished the boat and, at a tender age, made a new sail. “I′m sure it was the world′s worst sail,” he says. “The boat would barely sail to windward.” But it was a start.
Five years later, the family moved to Newport Beach, CA, where Lowell honed his racing skills in local one design fleets. Later they moved to San Diego, CA where the senior North bought the used Star boat so he could crew for his son. “The Star class was way over our heads,” remembers Lowell, “but we learned a lot. We had these awful old cotton sails. It started me thinking about what makes sails fast.”
After graduating from UC Berkeley, North established himself as a successful aeronautic/aerospace engineer. His restless mind, however, encouraged him to strike out on his own, so he quit his job designing rockets and started North Sails.
One of his first projects was a new Star mainsail, which he first hoisted at the 1959 Midwinter Championship in Los Angeles. The main had an unusually stretchy luff and foot that allowed a fuller shape when sailing downwind. With ample reaching and running in the regatta, Lowell won the series. North Sails was now on the map.
“I learned to win in the Star by taking a sail apart and putting it back together until it was a little faster,” North recalled then. “Sails then were so poorly designed that practically anything you did made them better. As we won more races, I convinced myself I knew what a fast sail should look like.”
Over time, as he performed more and more sail testing, he learned otherwise. “The shapes that tested faster often were not the ones we thought would be fast. We learned quickly we had to leave all preconceptions behind.” This was a cornerstone of North Sails′ future growth.
North questioned everything. He pioneered the application of plastic finishing to sailcloth after weaving, to help resist stretch. He oversaw the development of radial construction and Mylar laminates, for even lower stretch and lighter weight.
During the two-hour drive between North′s San Diego and Seal Beach lofts, he would attach strips of sailcloth to the radio antenna of his car. Afterward, he would compare the fatigued strips to un-fatigued samples from the same bolt of cloth. As makeshift as it seemed at the time, the test became the industry standard.
North embraced the computer even when it was still a relatively obscure and expensive device. If sail-making is now considered a high-tech industry, Lowell North is its Steve Jobs. He and his disciples dragged a truly ancient craft into the modern world.
While testing Soling sails, Lowell met Heiner Meldner, a professor of fluid dynamics at UC San Diego and co-designer of the St. Francis Yacht Club′s radical front-ruddered 12-meter and he suggested sail testing could be done better and faster on a computer. “If that′s so,” Lowell told him, “you might make both of us fairly rich.”
Over the next five years, Meldner computerized most of North′s sail testing, and the result was nothing less than a revolution in sail design. He was helped by Kiwi Tom Schnackenberg, who was close to earning a PhD in nuclear physics when Lowell lured him to San Diego. “It still makes me shake my head,” said North. “We made more progress in sail shape development during those five years than ever before or since.”
Within ten years the company was designing sails on the computer, testing them in a computer-simulated wind tunnel, performing computer-simulated structural analysis, and cutting sail material with a computer-controlled laser plotter/cutter. Dr. Michael Richelson, North′s brilliant sails designer who is also a software engineer and mathematician, has since carried North computer technology to even greater heights.
In 1977 North set his focus on defending the America′s Cup. He and Malin Burnham launched the super sleek, super-fast (in a straight line) Enterprise which was outfitted with the latest and greatest sail technology out of his own lofts.
He thought his chief rival would be his arch nemesis and rival sailing manufacturer Ted Hood. Hood was fielding a two-boat campaign with his new 12-Meter Independence and the old warhorse Courageous as his sparring partner with Ted Turner at the helm.
While the rival sailmakers went at it trying to out-tech each other with the latest innovations in sail design, Turner usurped both of them by sticking to old fashioned nuts and bolts sailing and beat them both to defend the Auld Mug beating Alan Bond′s Australia 4-0, representing the Sun City Yacht Club.
The NYYC held a spirited series of defense trials that summer and even as Enterprise emerged as the faster yacht, Turner and tactician Gary Jobson sailed smarter, ultimately faster as they improved Courageous slowly but surely, throughout the summer.
North bounced back in 1980 by providing superior sails to Dennis Conner′s Freedom campaign, who successfully defended the Cup and in 1983 as Australia 2 won the Cup by shocking the world with North Sails from his company′s lofts in Fremantle, WA under the direction of sailmaker Tom Schnackenberg.
In 1984, Lowell North sold his company and retired from sail-making. His clear purpose, creativity and competitive spirit continues to drive North Sails today even as the company explores territories he never could have imagined back when he gave up rocket science to become a sailmaker.
North Sails is now part of North Technology Group, a company dedicated to design, engineering and performance leadership in the marine world. The company employs over 40 advanced degree engineers worldwide, and its excellence in engineering and science has led to cooperative development projects with aeronautics companies, Formula 1 racing and NASA.
Lowell′s mantra, “You make history by looking ahead,” continues to drive the company today.
Around 1962, Lowell and production manager John Rumsey began empirically testing sailcloth stretch and fatigue. They read the numbers and confirmed the market standard was far too low. They could do better.
“The sails on the market weren′t good enough. I started re-cutting my Star sails from the prominent West Coast sailmaker at the time, Kenny Watts. We began testing cloth samples by attaching them to the antenna of my car. We called it flutter testing, it seemed to match the real-life degradation of the material and gave us a pretty good inkling of how the sail cloth would degrade in actual use. We later simulated the car antenna flutter testing by building an in-house machine which spun the attached samples on a rotating wheel or arm.”
This was the beginning of a long history in material development. The 30/30 benchmark became known among cloth specialists: 30 minutes at 30 miles per hour. Looking past woven polyester, Lowell and textile converter Noah Lamport created the first laminated sailcloth, used on the Enterprise in 1977.
In 1980, launching NorLamTM, a polyester/Mylar laminated sailcloth, complemented the company′s introduction of radial panel sail layouts.
Lowell′s legacy continued with patented three-dimensional membranes (1992), followed by the first warp-oriented polyester sailcloth, North Sails Radian™ (2008). North Sails 3Di composite membranes went to market in 2011, and they are continually improved by materials research out of the Minden, Nevada loft.
The capacity of North Sails 3Di technology continues to expand as designers and product engineers learn to adapt the product to new sailing markets. Ask North Sails designers today, and they will tell you it is all about the strength and shape of the membrane which goes right back to the same qualities Lowell North was testing for.
During this time that North Sails was first getting off the ground, Lowell met many people who would become key players in its expansion.
“Peter [Barrett] and I met in Japan at the 1964 Olympics. I think Eckart Wagner was there too. Charlie Rogers and Dick Deaver crewed for me in Japan. They were all instrumental in the early success of North Sails.”
Peter Barrett founded the second North Sails loft (Seal Beach, CA) before moving home to Pewaukee, WI to start North Sails Midwest, the first loft outside California. Eckart Wagner broke ground in Germany in 1966, followed by Andre Nellis with North Sails Belgium. Later, North Sails Italia came online with the arrival of Robin Morgan.
“At some point I went to a school for executives. They taught me if you put together a group of men that were fairly hungry for something, and you worked to provide them with what they wanted, they would help create a successful organization. The term Tiger seem to fit the personality of our loft managers at the time; they were hungry.”
A couple of years back as North celebrated the 60th anniversary of his company he reflected on how the sport has changed by weighing in on a much-debated topic between traditional and modern sailors.
“Sailing has changed very little, in that wind and water are the same. Racing and winning still rely more on the skill of the skipper then on the equipment. 60 years from now? Not much difference: bigger, faster and more aerodynamic boats, bigger sails and probably more foils.”
North was asked what makes a master sailmaker and what is the greatest strength of North Sails? He had the same answer to both questions. “The ability to build fast sails.”
And where is his favorite place to sail and he replied. “In the ocean off Point Loma in San Diego.”
America′s Cup Update
The second round of structural testing of the one design AC75 foil arms has successfully been conducted at Persico Marine in Italy.
Comprehensive tests were undertaken over the course of three days, with more than 100 different load cycles applied to the foil arm and the final step in the foil arm design and construction process which has been led by Luna Rossa Challenge. The focus can now turn towards completing the production of the foil arms before they are distributed to the teams, in preparation for the respective launches of their AC75s in the coming months.
The satisfactory result follows on from the first round of one design foil arm testing undertaken at Persico in September 2018 after which a working group with representatives of structural engineering from all of the teams to collaboratively redefine the design and build process for the one design foil arms for the AC75s.
The joint effort was led by Alessandro Franceschetti, Head of Structures for Luna Rossa Challenge together with New Zealand based composite engineering consultancy Pure Design and Stefano Beltrando of Qi Composites who managed the quality control process.
During the testing, the one design foil arms were subjected to loads well in excess of twice those that are anticipated to be reached during intense AC75 racing.
“The one design foil arm is one of the primary structural components of the AC75. Today we achieved a great milestone towards the 36th America′s Cup. This was a full-scale testing program, a 1:1 scale foil arm prototype was tested under specific critical load-cases to mimic and analyze its structural behavior under extreme conditions, such as high asymmetric loading and grounding scenarios. For the first time in America′s Cup design program history, a fully instrumented one design primary component has been tested to its full load carrying capacity until breakage. Today, we reached our targets and achieved all of our objectives, it was a synergic effort among all the teams,” said Alessandro Franceschetti.
Representatives from the Challengers, the Defender Emirates Team New Zealand and relevant stakeholders were present at Persico for this important milestone.
Andrew Corkery of Pure Design and Engineering: “While the foil arms are one design components across all teams, the same challenges in managing this project have remained in balancing innovation and performance, with safety, reliability and cost efficiency. It is always a huge challenge to tick all of those boxes, but with the outcome of these tests now positive, we will look forward to judging the performance on the water in the near future.”
Guillaume Verdier, Naval Architect, Emirates Team New Zealand: “Breaking foils in the America′s Cup is not new, it happens when you are pushing the boundaries. We did this in the last campaign in Bermuda and it is never a quick fix, but these setbacks are recoverable as we have witnessed today and that′s what the America′s Cup is about.”
Currently, the 8th foil arm is under construction at Persico, so the expectation is that the initial sets of foil arms will begin to ship to the teams in the coming weeks.
Marcello Persico, CEO of Persico Marine: “The America′s Cup foil arm project is a unique opportunity for Persico that no other company in the industry has had the opportunity to undertake. Our team at Persico has worked very hard with the Cup teams on the development of this project, the testing and to ensure that the one design foil arms are absolutely identical.”
The other vital component to make the AC75s fly is the hydraulic and electronic foil cant system which was designed and built by Emirates Team New Zealand. The foil cant systems have already been dispatched and received by the teams.
Once the foil arms are received and subsequently installed, it will be all systems go for the launch of the first iterations of the AC75. The countdown to see these boats on the water is on.
To run the foil arm test, a bespoke test jig was been built in a secure area at Persico Marine. The set up allowed the 4.5m carbon foil arm to clamp on the cant axis point with a strop attached to a steel replica wing that simulates the foil wing. Load was applied by a hydraulic cylinder. Eight series of tests were undertaken to simulate the different loads the arms will be subjected to when the AC75 will fly.
The first two tests were performed applying an asymmetric load on the inboard wing to mimic what happens when the outboard end comes out of the water. Tests number three and four were performed by applying the asymmetric loads to the outboard end using the same strains and cycles (30+) as above.
The fifth test was a bear-away load case and it was performed in order to simulate the maximum cant moment which would happen normally at the top mark.
Test six was an impact load case, to simulate the event of the arm hitting another surface.
The last two tests, 7 and 8, were again bear-away load cases, but this time the weight applied was brought to the point where audible noises (test 7) and breakage (test 8) were expected.
To monitor any potential internal damage to the board, the foil arm was covered by microphones and fiber optic strands to record the acoustic emissions and strains at all times. Ultrasound surveys were completed after each test.
The AC75 port and starboard foils are comprised of a foil arm and a foil wing.
The AC75 4.5-meter-long carbon foil arm has a wing attached to the tip of the arm, which provides the upward force needed to lift the AC75 clear of the water. The foil wing (4-meter span) is custom designed and will be built by each team.
Driving the foil arms is the electronic and hydraulic foil cant system, another one design supplied part which moves the arms and wings in and out of the water. The foil cant system was designed by Emirates Team New Zealand and manufactured in Auckland.
The Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron has advised that they received a notice from the Royal Malta Yacht Club officially withdrawing the Malta Altus Challenge from the 36th America′s Cup.
This is a disappointing outcome.” said Grant Dalton, “The Malta Altus Challenge had a strong foundation with some highly experienced and reputable America′s Cup personnel linked to the team. So, for them to pull out is not just a shame for the event but also for those people that have worked so hard trying to get this challenge to the start line. We hope they will continue to build on their foundation over the next 18 months with a view to the future and challenging for the 37th America′s Cup.”
“We are wanting the Prada Cup to include as many teams as possible.” Said Laurent Esquier CEO of the Challenger of Record. “While we have done all we can to support the Malta Altus Challenge, they haven′t been able to bring together all the layers of complexity that are needed to continue with an America′s Cup challenge. We are still guaranteed to have an exciting and highly competitive Prada Cup to select the final challenger to race against Emirates Team New Zealand in the Match.”
The two remaining late challengers, Stars + Stripes USA and DutchSail will confirm their ongoing commitment to the 36th America′s Cup by July 1st.
With all things sailing we′ll see you next month and as always write me at mark@yachts manmagazine.com H