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1957

Our Founder

In 1957 at age 30, Lowell North decided to leave aerospace engineering to become a sailmaker. He never looked back.

North, who won Olympic gold and bronze medals and four Star World Championships, 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 sailmaking 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 a 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.”

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After graduating from UC Berkeley, Lowell 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,” Lowell recalls. “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.

Lowell 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.

Lowell 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.

Lowell embraced the computer even when it was still a relatively obscure and expensive device. If sailmaking 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, who 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,” says Lowell. “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 1984, Lowell North (nicknamed “The Pope” by his peers) sold his company and retired from sailmaking. He raced his boat, Sleeper, for many years, and also cruised the Pacific with his wife Kay. 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.

North Sails Heritage Banner
North Sails Heritage Banner

Historic Events

North Star

Winning the Star Class World Championship is the holy grail of one-design keelboat racing. The classic 23-foot one-design class was launched in 1911, and has since attracted generations of highly skilled teams from around the world. Lowell North won the Star Worlds five times, a feat that has never been equaled. The first was in 1945, when a 15-year-old Lowell crewed for 17-year old Malin Burnham. In 1949 Lowell skippered North Star II in the Worlds and would have easily won except for a DSQ in the second race. His victory in 1957, however, was the most significant. Held in Havana, Cuba, the ’57 Worlds was a challenging light-air event featuring unpredictable winds and strong currents. Results were up and down for most in the fleet, but Lowell and crew James Hill sailing North Star III had an advantage…speed. Often finding themselves in the rear of the fleet like every other competitor, North and Hill displayed a remarkable ability to claw their way back to the front. Lowell followed with World Championship wins in ’59, 60 and 73, but 1957 was special. It was the year he started North Sails. Today, North Sails customers win more one-design championships that all other sailmakers combined.

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Revenge is Sweet

One of the most dramatic events in modern sailing occurred in 1983. Austraila II, with its famous winged keel, defeated US defender Liberty and took the America’s Cup abroad for the first time in its 200 year history. It was a stunning victory for Aussies that resonated far beyond the sailing world. As both boats carried North sails, the company also rode the wave. Aboard Liberty were skipper Dennis Conner and tactician Tom Whidden. In 1987 Conner and Whidden would have their revenge. With the whole world watching, the pair guided American challenger Stars and Stripes to victory over Aussie defender Kukaburra in a tense, windy series held in Perth. The Cup returned to US shores, Dennis Conner became a household name and Tom Whidden soon was hired as President of North Sails. Today, the America’s Cup remains a key platform for North sail development. Whether racing 12-meters, IACC sloops or wing-masted foiling catamarans, AC teams have helped North pioneer breakthroughs in sail technology such as 3DL aramid/carbon laminates, 3Di Raw composite sails and asymmetric spinnakers.

1989-1990 Whitbread Ocean Race

In 1973 British Whitbread Brewing Company sponsored the first Whitbread Round the World Race. In its early days, the event fleet was an eclectic mix of boat size and ocean racing experience. In 1989 (its fourth running), New Zealand ketch Steinlager 2, (ironically sponsored by a New Zealand brewing company), changed everything. Skippered by Sir Peter Blake and equipped with North Sails exclusively, Steinlager 2 won all six legs of the race in dramatic fashion. The largest margin of victory in any leg of the 28,000 mile race was a mere 90 minutes. Heroic seamanship and tight racing attracted worldwide media coverage and public awareness skyrocketed. Working closely with North Sails, the Steinlager 2 sail development program raised the bar for ocean racing programs and gave North Sails invaluable experience designing and building sails that could survive the demands of this grueling contest. North-equipped boats have dominated every Whitbread (now the Volvo Ocean Race) since. As a result of the remarkable durability of North’s latest 3Di composite sail technology, the 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race organizers awarded North Sails the first ever contract to supply sails to the entire VOR fleet. The contract has been renewed for the 2017-18 event.

Key West was Key

In 1990, North Sails began a secret sail development program under a tight lid of security. The goal was to develop a radical new sail that was lighter, stronger and faster than anything before. It would be named 3DL.

At the time, Yachting Magazine’s Key West Race Week was among the world’s most competitive offshore regattas. At the 1993 event, with fingers crossed, North equipped seven boats with the new 3DL sails. In their April ‘93 issue Yachting reported: “Seven boats at Key West…carried sails made with North’s new 3DL. Two won their classes and only one placed lower than fourth. Those results speak more for the boats and their crews than the contributions of a single sail. But there’s no getting around the fact that 3DL was a common thread.”

One year later, a more thoroughly developed 3DL returned to Key West and thoroughly dominated one of the largest and most competitive international racing fleets ever assembled. The results were unequivocal, and a deluge of 3DL sail orders produced a backlog that lasted two years. 3DL has since powered more teams to victory than any other sail in history. Key West was key.

Tough as Nails

In 2000, a young woman named Ellen MacArthur joined 23 of the best single-handed sailors in the world at the starting line of the Vendée Globe, a punishing solo non-stop race around the world. Ellen was 23 years old and had only been racing sailboats for five years. At the completion of her 94-day journey, she would become one of the best-known names in modern sailing.

Sailing her Open 60 Kingfisher, Ellen showed remarkable toughness and determination, finishing a close second after a race-long duel with winner Michel Desjoyeaux aboard PRB. Both boats broke the previous race record by over 11 days. Today Ellen MacArthur remains the fastest woman ever to circumnavigate the world alone.

The Kingfisher team worked on sail development in a close partnership with Bruno Dubois of North Sails France. Using North’s proprietary sail analysis software and sophisticated wind tunnel testing, Kingfisher hit the water with 3DL upwind sails featuring thin taffeta films on each side for added toughness and UV resistance. After the race Kingfisher operations manager Mark Turner commented, “At the finish line, the mainsail still looked like it could do the same race again. It was impressive.” Ellen’s remarkable achievement not only made a name for herself, it validated the performance and durability of 3DL sail technology and helped vault North into a position of leadership in offshore distance racing. North’s distance racing dominance has only grown since then with the advent and dominance of North’s latest generation 3Di composite sail technology. For the first time in history, the world’s fastest sail is also the most durable.

2011 Barcelona World Race

When North introduced its breakthrough 3Di composite sails technology in 2009, it was an immediate success on race courses around the world. It wasn’t until the 2010-2011 double-handed Barcelona World Race that 3Di was given the global test. Only one team in the race carried 3Di; French entry Virbac Paprec 3 sailed by offshore veterans Jean-Pierre Dick and Loick Peyron. The sails proved fast indeed. Virbac Paprec immediately jumped out in front, never looked back, and at one time had a race record 780 mile lead. The team finished the 29,000 nm race 23 hours ahead of Spanish entry Mapfre, which carried North 3DL Sails. The third place finisher arrived three days later. Virbac won the punishing race without a single sail breakdown. For the first time in sailmaking history, the fastest sail in the world proved to be the most durable.

Our Leaders

From our founder Lowell North, through the years of Terry Kohler and now with a powerful new generation of Tigers at the helm, North Sails has become the world’s leading sailmaker through an ongoing commitment to superior performance, technical innovation, and an elevated sailing experience for all our customers.

Oakley Capital, an investment vehicle founded by UK businessman and sailing enthusiast Peter Dubens, acquired North Technology Group in 2014. North Sails is the largest division of North Technology Group. Peter joined 200+ North sails employees at the first ever Global Sales meeting, where he explained his vision and Oakley’s long term commitment to the business.

North Sails Leadership

Tom Whidden

North Technology Group CEO
Milford, CT

Ken Read

North Sails Group President
Newport, USA

Trevor Jenkins

North Technology Group CFO
Gosport, UK

Dan Neri

North Sails Group CEO
Newport, USA

Paul Westlake

North Sails Group Executive VP
Sydney, AUS

Jens Christensen

North Sails Group Executive VP
Copenhagen, DEN

John Welch

North Sails Group COO
Gosport, UK