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We speak to North Sails' Quinny Houry in Palma

by Mark Jardine 19 Jun 12:00 BST
North Sails' Quinny Houry in Palma © Mark Jardine

We spoke to Quinny Houry of North Sails in Palma, the epicentre for all superyacht matters in Europe.

It wasn't that long ago that you could look at an 80-footer and think it was a big yacht... but it now feels like you can get that craft onto the davits of today's superyachts! The scale of this industry, and the infrastructure needed to support these boats, has changed dramatically.

Mark Jardine: Can I first ask how you got sailing and what boats you first sailed?

Quinny Houry: I grew up in Kenya, away from sailing completely, but went to college in Portsmouth; that's where I started in keelboats. I never did the dinghy thing. I worked for North Sails UK for a while, before leaving to run an independent loft in Majorca. That was where I met the superyacht world. As I have been known to say in the past, "It was the first time I did not open a hatch to get into a boat; I opened a front door!"

Mark: So this was your first stay in Palma. What were the superyachts like back then?

Quinny: Anything around the 30m mark. There were some pushing 40m but those were rarer and often did not perform very well. You can remember when Swan 65s and Maxis were the biggest boats in the world. If anybody ever saw a J Class it was like a skyscraper.

Mark: Back then the technology for sails was in a different world. What did you have to do to maintain sails in those days?

Quinny: Funnily enough, servicing superyachts sails was like you imagine it was back in the 1930s; it was literally about human power. We got as many bodies as we could to move them around. Everything was hand-sewn because we didn't have machines big enough. We were developing the machines to sew them, but they were unreliable - sophisticated for the time, but hardly ever managed to get through the amount of material we needed to. However, if you used those materials to build a sail today, it would be 2.5 times heavier. We were developing as the boats were developing. I suppose we still are.

Mark: After this you moved to New Zealand; what did you do there?

Quinny: I went down with the intention to see what sailing was all about. Every Kiwi I met sold New Zealand as the only place to learn how to sail. My first lesson was that, whilst they sell it as a Pacific island, it has got the weather system of the UK. Not your typical Pacific island! But you can't fault that every Kiwi knows how to sail, competitively, and they do develop ideas and processes independently of any other thought process. So that is why it was so great for my development.

Mark: The Kiwis demonstrated that so well in the last America's Cup - exactly as you said - developing processes independently and in a completely different direction. It was during the time you were in New Zealand that we saw an explosion in the sheer size of superyachts. Three specific superyachts were built in New Zealand and travelled to Europe; can you talk about those?

Quinny: When I first went out there, the height of the Panama bridge was essentially the controlling factor; their mast heights were limited to 205ft, around 62m. In the mid-2000s, a boat called Kokomo threw that out the window saying, "Let's go bigger!" and this opened up a whole new sphere for us. First Kokomo then Mondango were built in New Zealand and came to Europe, with Panama no longer being the controlling factor. The next step was developing systems that could cope with sails of that size. Kokomo has - still to this day - the biggest genoa that has ever been built; it is 1275 square metres.

Mark: The scale of things is just enormous. Handling sails of this size must be a logistical nightmare; how do you do it?

Quinny: Once it's on the boat and the winches and furlers deal with it, human power is not needed. But when you're trying to fold up and move a sail that weighs 1.2 tons you need to use cranes and forklifts. You just can't do it with people; any part of a sail weighs upwards of 200kg.

Mark: Without the technology you now have, the weight of older materials would make it unrealistic to build yachts of this size. Without innovations such as 3Di would it simply be impossible?

Quinny: Once you get past the elastic return modulus of fibres and materials; those become the limiting factors. It doesn't matter how much material you add, it is going to elongate beyond control. As we learnt how to control carbon and Spectra, we had to develop processes like 3Di to start building sails literally per-filament, to keep them light enough. Even when building with spun fibres, you're wasting some filaments which then add unnecessary weight; we're already up in the high echelons of weight characteristics. I'm sure someone is going to come along and build a 150m boat with a 200m mast, and we'll have to engineer it and deal with it.

Mark: This pace of change is relentless. Is the sail-making technology keeping up?

Quinny: Even though 3Di is ten years old, I think it is still in its infancy in terms of us understanding the structure. New fibres, new materials, new resins will be developed, that are lighter. So, it is similar to the early days of weaving, where the machines got developed as the process got refined. We're fortunate that we are in those early stages. So yes, we do see it able to be scaled, before we have to develop a whole new process.

Mark: Even though these sails are huge, do they still wear in the same places as on a dinghy? How much inspection is done to make sure you're not going to have a catastrophic failure?

Quinny: It is not as complicated as it would seem. We develop with the mast manufacturers, and effectively it is an old game: we know where these chafe points are. We can protect them. With 3Di, because you can sand it and laminate it, it means you can do it on board. This is easier than the old days where it had to be taken off the boat to go to a loft. We can use the yacht's systems to handle moving the sails.

Mark: If effect, you turn the superyacht itself into a service area for a 3Di sail?

Quinny: Yes, we bring the tools and items we need, including a material that is specifically designed - called five ply - which has an isotropic layout, allowing it to be strong in all directions. We peel off the surface layer, line it up, and re-laminate a section on.

Mark: Is the ultra-high-tech version of sticking a patch on a sail during a regatta?

Quinny: Exactly. We saw this in the Volvo Ocean Race when MAPFRE blew their mainsail in half and it got fixed off Cape Horn. They carried on for another 1000 or 2000 miles. It was fixed in 13 hours!

Mark: The latest innovation is Helix - how has this changed what can be done on superyachts?

Quinny: Essentially what we are doing is creating sails that have wider and wider wind ranges, and wider angles in which they can be used, so that we have less gear changes. Helix brings a whole new perspective to that; we now have one sail that can cover what three sails used to have to do. It keeps the sails lighter and more manageable.

You can get Helix in both NPL Downwind and 3Di DOWNWIND sails, so can also be a panelled sail version, but in whatever form it comes it has the same end result - to make sails as universal as possible, as fast as possible, in as many conditions as possible.

Mark: From an owner's point of view, not having to store as many sails on board must be a great benefit!

Quinny: Yes, it affects things in a number of ways: the weight of sails stored on board, the number of crew required to handle them. By reducing the size of the cables used in Helix sails they become far more managable. We're constantly developing Helix, and constantly developing the flying shapes, so we can increase those angles.

Mark: With the number of superyachts here, you've got a lot on your hands. What do you manage to do for your own sailing?

Quinny: [Laughs] I'm very fortunate in that my family has a house in Antigua, and we have a little 14ft Weta trimaran. That's my fun day's sailing: get the kids on board and sail in the Caribbean every afternoon, as fast as we like, as slow as we like. The kids can drive (or crash). That's my fun sailing.

Mark: Fantastic! So while you're dealing with the largest yachts in the world, your feet are firmly on the ground with something that is just fun on the water. Thanks indeed for your time.

Quinny: Thanks for making the time to come and talk to me.

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