Hanuman yacht on a racing courseNorth Sails
Making sailboats blast across ocean waves with speed and efficiency embodies more than just a fixation with adventurous zeal. The process is advancing computer software and robotics, revolutionizing hull and sail technologies and integrating—with choreographed precision—all players in the design and construction process.
On a recent trip to Saint-Tropez in coastal southern France I visited the Société Nautique, a seemingly casual beach locale near the west side of the port. Within minutes inside this microcosm I met a parade of accomplished individuals, including a former King of Spain, a vice-president of Chelsea Football Club and a previous owner of one of the top five wine châteaux in Bordeaux. I also met sailor Ken Read, an American who understands the technology that radically altered the paradigm of how sails are produced. We pulled beach chairs through sand to the water’s edge to speak.
The engine that drives any sailboat is a sail, which transforms wind energy into a propulsive force. Read summarized how.
“Sail making went from a bunch of people on a floor cutting and sewing, to robotics. Overnight. This was 12 years ago.”
Ken Read won the U.S. Rolex Yachtsman of the Year award twice, has sailed in three Volvo Ocean races, and has been victorious in dozens of renowned nautical events. After college he owned a small sailing related company in Newport, Rhode Island, which he sold to North Sails in 1996. He has worked for them since, and is now a company president. Their sails are synonymous with durability and performance largely because the company focused their funds, as well as research and development efforts, in a different direction than any competitor.
Read explained the technology used to make their sails, known as 3Di.
Volvo Ocean Race sailboats aim from Gothenburg to The Hague, 2018.Volvo Ocean Race
It’s called spread filament. Basically, you take a filament of carbon and spread it into a tape. Then, using very sophisticated software, you take these tapes and create this ‘load map’ that takes all the loads that these crazy wild boats can distribute on them.
[To avoid interference with satellite communication signals, carbon was not included in sails for the Volvo Ocean Race.]
In contrast to traditional sails made from a uniform fabric with consistent characteristics, the material, strength, weight and thickness of different portions of these new sails varies. This reduces weight while delivering optimal performance. Read explained.
On the mainsail of a boat today, the corner at the end of the boom might be 30 or 40 millimeters thick, while part of the sail up in the middle would be 2 to 3 millimeters thick. You are absolutely distributing tapes all over the sail and matching loads, and that’s how you get rid of weight, because most conventional sails would be of the same weight and fabric throughout the whole sail—homogenous. These things are anything but. These have load distributions all over the sail with very specific finite details.
The resulting performance helped revolutionize the sport. Thomas Coville used these sails last year when he set a 49-day record for solo circumnavigating the planet on a trimaran. North Sails were also used by all boats in the 2017—2018 Volvo Ocean Race.
Computer modeling is key to design. North Sails uses three specific programs—Finite Element Analysis (FEA), as well as two others, described by Read.
Flow™ and Membrain™ are gods in the sailing world. Other companies are trying to create rival software programs to do something similar. All have their own uniqueness. Most competition is still using technology that’s 25 years old.
Saint-Tropez in Provence, France (Credit: Getty Images)
As competitors emulate the novel thinking behind this design, those at the company push thinking in even more novel ways.
Our owner, Peter Dubens, asks me ‘what’s next?’ during every board meeting, like clockwork. Even if it takes ten years, he wants the next thing to happen, and he wants us to be revolutionaries. I think fibers will be the next breakthrough. These black sails, they’re not all carbon fiber. There are mixes of all kinds of materials inside: aramid, carbon Spectra®, and in some form or fashion there are different mixes all over the sail. It’s not just loads; it’s durability in each part of the sail. For the first time in history, the most durable sails are also the fastest. That’s the breakthrough. When in history have we ever said ‘light’ and ‘strong’ and ‘durable’ in the same sentence? It’s a game changer.
I’ve done three Volvo Ocean races, and these boats are being pushed harder than ever before. That means sails are being ravished. Thank you for the drones in the last race, because their footage proved the abuse sails went through 24 hours a day. It’s phenomenal.
Saint-Tropez harbor lighthouse (credit: Getty Images)
This transition of sail design incorporated lateral thinking and long-term foresight, computer aided design, optimization and robotics. How does this impact the lives of non-sailors? The entire process involves—almost paradoxically in a modern world where specialization generates great strides in technical progress—a strong focus on integration.
‘Job specialization,’ or ‘division of labor’ is one of a few specific defining characteristics of any civilization. Modern sail production tweaks this paradigm slightly in requiring even specialists to be well aware of, and to interact with, other roles and jobs within (and sometimes tangential to) an entire industry. To perform a job effectively, individual workers must not only rapidly grasp the big picture of their industry, but be comfortable communicating well with others in associated industries. Read explained.
The biggest thing in performance yacht design now is the fact that everything is being integrated as one. Before, there would be a keel designer, and a hull designer and a rudder designer and a mast designer and a sail designer. Now, software can help designers figure out drive force coefficients that are going to come from the sail plan in order to modify hull shapes and foil designs. Everything is linked. Hydro and aero are now one. We have to learn to work with all the best designers in the world because they can’t do it without us and we can’t do it without them. It’s a whole new world. That’s one reason why these 100-foot trimarans are lifting out of the water with one guy on board. This couldn’t happen without an industry working together. As a sailor, it makes for better boats. The boats are so much more fun to sail now that the whole package works together.
(Integration between production units can also relate to sister industries; the company’s apparel line plans to produce clothing that incorporates recycled sail fabrics.)
From offshore, Saint-Tropez appears to be a relatively small, cinnamon colored town of stone buildings. This is where Villefranche-sur-Mer meets California’s Venice and Laguna beaches: hip and casual, yet still moneyed and somewhat self-conscious. Meters from a skyline of opulent yachts, a popular wine bar is a cluster of barrels outside an open garage door stacked ceiling high with boxes. This meld of privilege and casual camaraderie gives the city a unique attractiveness.
On a warm October afternoon in the Gulf of Saint-Tropez, energy during any of the Les Voiles race days can be both friendly and taut, smiling yet wary. An attraction of sail racing here is the diversity of nautical styles (including century old race boats) as well as different sized craft and architecture. Due to lateral movement of wind bands, weather can alter rapidly and turn the sea into a horizontal and viscous mogul field.
Marco Vögel steers his Inouï yacht during Les Voiles de Saint-TropezTom Mullen
Marco Vögele, owner of the 108 foot (33 meter) Inouï yacht racing in Saint-Tropez, lives on the shores of Lake Zurich in Switzerland. Yet for three months a year he lives on his yacht. The weight of installing granite in the onboard kitchen and bathrooms may have sacrificed a modicum of the sailboat’s speed across water, but the decision was common sense for a man who considers his yacht as much partial home as race craft. He selected sails from the company Read represents because of their technology—durability and performance. Previously owner of a successful apparel company, Vögele appreciates style and function, as well as the camaraderie of racing.
One attraction is having a great team around you, and all of these other boats. The crews know each other. There’s competition on the water, but on land there’s friendship with everyone.
The high performance sails now used on yachts such as Inouï will, according to Read, eventually trickle down to weekend sailors.
Sailors can have the same type of technology that the latest and greatest sailboats have on the planet. And at an affordable price out of material that’s going to last. You don’t have to have a bag for a sail anymore. Using technology, you can have more fun. That’s the goal.
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