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NORTH SAILS

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.”

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.

 

OUR PARTNERS

Fraglia Vela Riva

HISTORY

SOME HISTORICAL NOTES

 

Fraglia Vela Riva has been awarded a sport distinction Stella d’argento and Stella d’oro by CONI. Throughout its history Fraglia Vela Riva has always promoted sailing events in perfect synthesis with the tourism of Upper Garda and Trentino. Today Riva is well known in the world for its excellent climatic and wind conditions and is a major attraction for International Regattas and outdoor sports. Lake Garda: that «marvel of a lake» as described by Goethe.

Every year youngsters, trained athletes and members reach new heights in their classes and events: winning national, continental and iridate titles as well as competing in several Olympic Games.
So many have contributed in creating the rich history of
Fraglia Vela Riva.

 

 

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