Behind the scenes at North Sails

North Sails was founded in 1957 by Lowell North in the United States. The company is one of the largest sailmakers in the world with lofts and facilities in almost 30 countries. The brand was established in Australia by John Bertrand in the 1970s and Michael Coxon joined the team in 1979 as the Manager of the One Design department. Coxon is now the Managing Director of North Sails Australia.

We spoke to Coxon and Sam Haines, the new One Design Manager about the change in the industry over the years and the appeal of one design racing.

Michael, you have been in the sail making industry since the 70s, what has been the biggest change in the industry in that time?

MC: Materials followed by technology. When I started there was only dacron for upwind sails and nylon for downwind sails and all sails were cut off the floor on your hands and knees bending sticks. North 3D one piece sail moulding is definitely the greatest advance I have witnessed in sailmaking and some 25 years on the technology is still unique to North and continues to impress developing and adapting to new technology from 3Dl to 3Di.

How has the trend in boats changed and how has that affected sail design throughout the last 20 or so years?

MC: Again, materials such as carbon have revolutionised sailmaking building lighter stronger sails. We have enjoyed the same development in boat and mast building allowing both boats and rigs to be build lighter, stronger and bigger. This results in faster boats which in turn lends itself to flatter sail designs optimised around finer apparent wind angles. We see downwind sails now built from what was upwind materials and construction. I developed the first 3Dl down wind spinnaker, an IRC Code 0 on Neville Crightons maxi Alfa Romeo a decade ago, first used in the Fastnet Race. Many were skeptical, today it is the norm with spinnakers being built from 3Di on North moulds.

What class or size of boat is the most popular based on the number of sails your sell?

MC: Within Australia, definitely the Etchells class, I started racing Etchells in the 1983 when it was the largest OD keelboat in Australia attracting the very best then and it still attracts the similar numbers and ilk of sailors today. I raced in the Mid Winters in Mooloolaba and we had 39 boats and a long list of world, national and state champions fighting it out. North have consistently dominated the class internationally over this entire period, at the recent Hong Kong worlds we filled 10 out of the 10 top places.

What goes into the process of designing a set of sails for a new customer?

MC: The key firstly starts with good communication with your customer, ask the right questions and listen to the answers to ensure you are recommending the best product and sail range to meet their needs and expectations. Then an accurate custom measurement of the boat and rig with this information transferred to EMF (electronic measurement form). At this point I work with our design office who manages the design process and has at call our international design library and wealth of knowledge within the North design group.

What was the reason behind bringing on Sam Haines for the one design department?

MC: When I joined North on 1978 I came on board as the dinghy, skiff and one design manager with the aim of complimenting the established North yacht market and expertise. Dinghy and one design sailors often feed into yacht sailing and often yacht sailors will also sail OD classes to keep their regatta skill sets sharp. As such our involvement in OD is an important piece of the overall sailing puzzle.

For North a OD specialist must have an understanding of sail design and manufacture, ideally trained as a sailmaker with sales and service skill sets.

Sam worked for North in Melbourne some years ago so I new his sailmaking skill sets and then he left to set up his own brand so I was able to observe his design, sales and service skill sets including being Glen Ashby’s sailmaker of choice, so it was a very easy decision to invite Sam to join our team. Sam’s calm nature, knowledge and enthusiasm is proving a great asset to North within Australia and our OD projects and clients are in good hands.

Sam, you have a long history in sail making, what was it about working with North Sails that appealed to you?

SH: After working with most of the major sailmaking companies over the past 17 years including running my own sail loft for many of these years, the only sailmaker that had the resources, product and people across all sectors on sailmaking is North sails.

This is across the board from design and development to sailmakers and support.

Within North Sails I am able to concentrate on my area and am backed by the best guys in the industry.

Why do you think people are so interested in one design racing?

SH: One design racing is sailing in its purest form is a true test for all sailors, there is nowhere to hide.

From a sailmakers point of view one design is a test of sail design, usability and repeatability in that when you lock in with a sailmaker and develop your sailing and boat around the sails you need to know that you can repeat these sails going forward, this is another reason that I chose to work with North sails. It’s about scale and repeatable production, in a small loft like I used to run you were limited to the amount of sails that you could design/ develop and also make. With North Sails this is unlimited and the best people are doing each part of the job.

In your opinion, and experience, what is the biggest one design fleet and why?

SH: Currently in Australia the Etchells would be the strongest one design fleet. This is because of the calibre of people sailing in the class and the reasonable costs of owning a boat and campaigning.

We are seeing a trend towards the foiling classes like the A Class cat and Moth as this is more down the lines of the modern Americas Cup. I have worked closely with Glenn Ashby with the A Class sails over many years and these sails are now available from North Sails. From when I started working with Glenn these boats have seen a lot of development and are on the cutting edge. Then you have junior classes where we see a lot of action in the Optimist and 420 classes at the moment and see these as a good pathway to any level of sailing.

How do you work with each team to ensure that you are designing the best set up for their boat while staying within the one design rules?

SH: With all one design classes there is more than one way to skin a cat, we take the approach of having a few different models for each class developed by and in conjunction with different sailors in different locations so we can cover both the style of the sailor and also the conditions you are sailing in.

I personally have sailed many one design classes, currently I sail Etchells, J24s, 505 and OK Dinghy, I find that the way to stay current with one design sails and sailors is to be involved, it is very hard to give good relevant information to the sailors if you haven’t sailed in the class. This again made my decision to work with North Sails a very easy one, as if I don’t have the knowledge in a particular class there is a team leader within North Sails for each class who I can contact very quickly get the information required and it is awesome to work with guys all around the world that share the same passion for sailing.

What do you see as the future for one design racing?

SH: This is a very hard question, I would like to think the one design aspect of sailing is reasonably stable. We will see more development of the foiling type boats and with this our sail development will continue to change with this type of sailing.

You can rest assured that we will keep on the curve of development for each class because if there is one thing that I have learnt in sailmaking is that if you stop development you will get left behind, Basically you have to stay on the train.

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