Please select your home edition

The relentless pace of change: We speak to Kenny Read about developments at North Sails

by Mark Jardine 16 Dec 2019 12:00 GMT
Ken Read, President of North Sails © Meghan Sepe

We spoke to Kenny Read about the some of the North Sails developments in 2019 and looked forward to 2020 discussing the relentless pace of change in sailing, the continual development of 3Di, the impact of Helix, environmental responsibilities and innovations.

North Sails focus has been to continually improve the company, strengthening their management team, hiring in younger staff members, pushing the boundaries in product development. On the water people see the North Sails logo, the 3Di sails on the superyachts and the latest racing machines, but they probably don't understand just what goes on behind the scenes to continually evolve and improve the product.

"The outside perception seemed to change for a bit when North Technology Group was sold by Windway Capital and the Kohler family to Oakley Capital and our new chairman Peter Dubens. But the fact is Oakley has continued to help us become a better company just as Windway did. All of the NTG companies, and especially North Sails, are so steeped in tradition in a sport that has so much passion around it, the #1 priority is to never alter the base DNA and culture of the organisation. What Oakley has done is continually push us to be a better, healthier, stronger company which can look to the future and start to envisage what that future might look like. 3Di is not a static product, it actually moves forward at a staggering pace and we've never had more engineers and designers involved at North Sails and we've never had a stronger, smarter young management group," explained Kenny.

North Sails is a company which clearly isn't sitting on its laurels as the largest sailmaker in the world. They are continually innovating, with products like Helix yet again moving forwards what is possible with a sail. Kenny Read is driven by the need for change:

"The pace of innovation in the entire sport is moving forward at a staggering rate if you look at the latest inshore and offshore racing and performance cruising yachts, and what some very smart, young designers have brought to the table in the sailing world.

"I remember sitting in a meeting with Bruce Farr and Russ Bohler back in the mid '90s, designing an IMS 50-footer with the goal to win the Admiral's Cup. We talked about boats, goals, masts, booms, sails and materials, then it came to deck layouts. He said 'When is somebody in the winch industry going to figure out that we don't deal with stainless steel and metal anymore, we've moved on! It's shocking that winches are just big weights sitting all over the boat!' I remember thinking at the time that we can never let our company be talked about like that; we have to be at the forefront of evolution and development.

"Sure enough the winch and block industry figured out how to use different materials and became lighter, more efficient and stronger. I honestly wake up with the fear that we won't be at the forefront of development and that a prominent member of the sport like a Bruce Farr will say "when are sails going to catch up with the rest of the sailing world", and that's what drives me on."

The latest generation of yachts like the IMOCA 60 footers built for the next Vendee Globe and the Ocean Race, are attaining staggering speeds, pushing the apparent wind further and further forwards. This has completely changed the requirements:

"Apparent wind sailing has been the rage for a while, but with the latest generation of yachts you essentially go "upwind" all the way around the world meaning that even when running, the apparent wind is so far forward it feels like you are on the wind! On the foiling IMOCAs, the sail has to be powerful enough to help you pop out of the water, but then in the perfect world, once you're foiling have the ability to reduce drag and depower easily. 3Di, a patented spread-filament process with its incredible strength to weight characteristics, can be combined with our new structural sail feature called Helix which brings a whole new side of adjustability to sails. Helix is all about load sharing between a downwind sail or headsail and a small luff cord or headstay in order to create more efficient shapes and reduce rig loads, all the while projecting the luff of the headsail forward as never seen before. But it's the adjustability which is key - enabling sailors to have the power to get going, then reducing the aero drag in order to achieve these incredible speeds."

"Helix is a different style of engineering for a sail which translates to a different style of engineering for a new boat or a better style of sailing for an existing boat. For example, if you raise a flag on a headstay on a windy day, the flag will try to pull the headstay away from the wind, whereas within the Helix concept, just through the engineering and the 3Di tape layouts, the flag material would take much of the load off the headstay and project the flag forward into the wind. In a Helix sail, the loading of the Helix structure in the sail skin is pushing the small luff cord or the headstay forward, decreasing the loads on the bowsprit, mast, running backstays and the boat itself, all the while increasing aero efficiency. What started out with broad reaching sails, moved onto reaching sails, staysails and we're now we're actively working on upwind sails."

Most people when they think 3Di, they think racing yachts, but the technology is making an even bigger impact in the cruising yacht sector. 3Di Ocean, with its durability and weight advantages makes sail handling a completely different proposition on larger sailboats and superyachts.

"With people like Quinny Houry, Mike Toppa, Jens Christensen and many, many others we have a superyacht team who have listened to owners and boat captains. Yes, owners love aesthetically pleasing, smooth sails to complement their stunning yachts, but they also need it to be simple. They need efficiency, lighter weights, making sail handling a bullet-proof operation which can happen again and again and again without breakages, turmoil and misfunction amongst the other complicated systems on board these boats. Our products and service have gotten better around the globe. We've taken our technology, listened to wants and needs, and 3Di Ocean is directly representative of everything coming together for cruising sailors who want to have a far better sailing experience."

The trend in superyachts has been for bigger, lighter, stronger, faster, all the while environmental concerns are becoming more and more important. With composite materials used throughout we can structurally achieve what only a few years ago was thought impossible:

"North Sails engineers and software are being pushed to lengths that nobody has ever seen before. It's not stopping and for a lot of these owners often bigger is better because you can get across oceans faster, bring more friends and guests in more luxury. But we're also seeing owners wanting to be more environmentally responsible, and we're seeing some of the new yachts pushing carbon neutral boundaries and are going to bring a whole new side to sailing. For example, we're looking at solar systems which could completely change the carbon footprint for sailing yachts and I believe we need to do this, not just as a company who cares and because it is the right thing but I think this is where the market is going. There are some really interesting things in development and we're going to be at the forefront of it."

This environmental focus also extends into the sails themselves, working out what can be done when they reach the end of their useful life:

"We've had engineers working on how to build a better sail. Now we have engineers working on how to take apart our sails, break them down and hopefully reuse materials - whether that is reuse in the sailmaking industry or not, really doesn't matter. As an example, we are supporting a European University PHD program who is trying to de engineer 3Di sails. Our Chairman Peter Dubens set up the Ocean Family Foundation which is partially funded by 1% of the revenue of our clothing company North Sails Collection. There is no question our industry has a long way to go but we are taking the first steps towards hopefully making a difference."

This research highlights just why the business is called the North Technology Group, and Kenny's role now reaches far beyond the core business of sailmaking:

"I wear multiple hats these days and we're always looking to work with companies and potentially buy businesses which develop innovative technology which fits within our sector. Our cable company Future Fibres and also Southern Spars and Hall Spars have technology which works well inside and outside of the marine industry. Everything we do has to hit the technology button and I'm happy to report we are true to our core DNA in the North Technology Group."

We have seen the technology used in the top end of the sport trickle down to provide benefit and convenience to everyday sailors. One of the many features of the new AC75 America's Cup yachts is the double-luff mainsail, so we asked Kenny if he thought this would be a feature seen more often elsewhere in sailing:

"That's a really great question and it's a great debate right now. We're calling them Twin-Skins, as that's what they are, which have incredible amounts of control from top to bottom, making a soft mainsail react much more like a hard wing. I personally was all for this and we've put a lot of effort and time into the development of this, helping to write the rules and create the concept. Even if the concept ends up being a one-hit-wonder, then my view is that at least we tried - you've got to keep trying to innovate and move forwards. With the speeds that offshore trimarans and the IMOCA yachts are going now, any kind of aerodynamic efficiencies increase boat speed exponentially, so we have to keep pushing for these innovations.

"Is it going to be clumsy and complicated at the beginning? Of course it is as every innovation has to go through this stage before becoming a refined product, but I personally think it has a future and could trickle through some aspects of sailing, making it more fun, more efficient, more pleasurable and in turn more entertaining for whoever wants to take it up."

Another concept that we're seeing utilised more and more on modern designs, all the way from America's Cup yachts to the A Class Catamarans and the International Moths, is the end-plate effect:

"Our computers have been able to model this for a long time and our engineers and outside designers have been screaming at us about the benefits, explaining that the efficiencies increase by several percentage points if a sail can grip the deck and not let the air out underneath. It's really the practicalities of end-plates which have been the problem; the two biggest obstacles being vision and the ability to move around the boat. They are so passionate about end-plates with the Twin Skin Mainsails on the new AC boats that some teams are talking about two separate drivers on each side of the boat and for each tack separated by the end plated mainsail... think about that for a second.

With North being a technology group, we asked Kenny if they had plans to alleviate the problems with vision on a boat due to sails being in the way:

"It's funny you should say that as the other night I was watching a ball game after work and there was an advert for a Chevrolet pick-up truck. I was listening to them talking about the 'disappearing trailer feature' - on your in-car TV screen, the trailer can disappear, allowing you to see around it. The technology is there and the lightbulb went on in my head when I saw this. This point certainly came to light with the Vestas incident off the coast of China during the last Volvo Ocean Race. Lack of ability to see through large overlapping headsails especially at night was one of the items on the list of potential causes. What if there were camera's looking forward from the masthead right next to the radar screen... just thinking out loud".

With so many strands of development, we wanted to know which area excited Kenny the most:

"That's another good question. I think with being pounded on by my 22 year old daughter about saving the planet, it has to be the environmental aspects. One thing Dennis Connor taught me was to never bet against self-interest, but self-interest when it comes to the planet can be good for all of us and good for sailing. The green aspect of sailing is undeniable in its truest form, but it is deniable when it comes to products and how boats are built, and whether a product like ours becomes refine able. I think that's a step we have to take - if we can show people that we can get rid of their sails in an environmentally friendly way instead of in a dumpster, then I think the sport takes a huge jump forwards. The same goes for boats - the industry simply has to take this on."

When it comes to the future, Kenny is always looking forwards:

"This innovation is not going to slow down, it's just the beginning."

Find out more at

Related Articles

John Bacon - from 5.5m sailor to IRC racer
Taking on the world with North Sails World Champion yachtsman John Bacon has put many successful racing programs together, and his next few months of sailing is no exception. Posted on 3 Jul
North Sails powers the Newport Bermuda Race 2022
This year marked the 52nd edition of this East Coast offshore classic The Newport Bermuda Race has kept North Sails buzzing (and busy!) since well before the 186-boat fleet set off on June 17th. This year marked the 52nd edition of this East Coast offshore classic and the return of racing after a canceled 2020 event. Posted on 27 Jun
North Sails: behind the scenes with Loft 57
Loft 57 is a conversational podcast that opens the doors to North Sails Loft 57 is a conversational podcast that opens the doors to North Sails, the world's leading sailmaker. With host Ken Read, this series goes behind the scenes with product creators and the passionate sailors who trust North Sails to power their adventures Posted on 16 Jun
North Sails roster bolstered with Bouwe Bekking
One of the sport's most experienced offshore/trans-oceanic sailors joins North Sails North Sails has announced that Bouwe Bekking has joined the brand to support their Grand Prix division. Bekking is considered one of the world's most accomplished and experienced sailors. Posted on 7 Jun
Ian Walker joins the North Sails Management Team
Olympic Medalist and Volvo Ocean Race winner named North Sails UK General Manager North Sails is excited to welcome world-renown sailor Ian Walker to their management team. Walker is a two-time Olympic medalist, an America's Cup veteran, and winner of the Volvo Ocean Race 2014-15 as skipper of Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing. Posted on 10 May
North Sails expands Palma Sales & Service facility
One all-purpose site elevates customer service to unprecedented levels North Sails has strategically relocated all their sales and service into one Palma location. Effective immediately the secondary loft space in Llucmajor is closed with all loft functions now concentrated within the Palma loft Posted on 27 Apr
North Sails supports the RC35 Class in Scotland
A busy season awaits for the tight rating band Racer-Cruiser yachts The RC35 encompasses Racer-Cruiser yachts in Scotland with an IRC Banding of 1.010 to 1.040. They also attract teams over from Ireland thanks to the Irish events on the circuit. Posted on 24 Mar
North Sails Wireless Load Sensing for Helix Sails
Harnessing the latest wireless technology to maximize the benefits of Helix with this simple upgrade Having recently made the Helix design standard on all racing Code sails, North Sails now moves to digitize the Helix range - harnessing the latest wireless technology to maximize the benefits of Helix with this simple upgrade. Posted on 15 Feb
Rig tuning with Andy Rice and Charlie Cumbley
North Sails one design expert Charlie Cumbley joins Andy Rice to discuss Etchells and J70 rig tune Join North Sails One Design Expert Charlie Cumbley joins Andy Rice from to share the art and science behind optimal rig tuning and boat setup. Posted on 19 Jan
What you should know about your battens
Batten installation and tensioning instructions for all sailors Whether you're staging your boat to launch, planning an extended cruise, or hoisting your sails for a weeknight club race, it's important to make sure you've got your battens installed properly and tensioned correctly. Posted on 6 Jan