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An interview with Tom Davis about the North Sails' newest and most sustainable cruising sails

by David Schmidt 5 Mar 16:00 GMT March 5, 2024
North Sails Launches Sustainable Sailcloth Innovation - RENEW © Amory Ross / North Sails

Sailing is an ancient art, and, as such, it’s easy to consider it a green and environmentally sustainable form of travel. While it’s true that sailboats are (often) propelled by the wind, which is a natural and renewable energy source, unfortunately, it’s also true that building sails isn’t a particularly green exercise, given the virgin and often exotic materials and resins that are leveraged to make great airfoils. This thinking wasn’t lost on North Sails, who recently unveiled their RENEW sailcloth. But instead of shaving grams and creating a stiffer, stronger, and more stretch-resistant airfoil for dominating racecourses (read: North Sails’ 3Di cloths), RENEW is aimed at bolstering sustainability and lowering the product's environmental wake, without sacrificing performance or durability.

According to North, more than 90-percent of each RENEW sail is constructed from either bio-based or recycled materials, and supplier products are Bluesign Certified, thus ensuring supply-chain standards, sustainability, and transparency. Better still, the green-minded sails (they're actually extra-bright white in color) purportedly deliver performance and longevity that's on par with the company's previous-generation cruising cloth.

North is currently using RENEW to build six types of mainsails (standard, full-batten, high-roach, in-boom, in-mast, and battened in-mast), plus roller-furling jibs and genoas, and they offer two versions of each sail. Namely, North's standard (SM) RENEW sails are built using recycled polyester materials (films and yarns), which makes them well-suited smaller yachts, while North's high-modulus (HM) RENEW sails add bio-based Dyneema threading to bolster performance (read: high-strength and low-stretch), and to handle the greater loads of 35-45-foot keelboats.

While North is currently only taking RENEW orders for 25-45-foot cruising boats, readers can expect these range restrictions to ease as the sail-making giant further develops this new technology. Racers can also expect good things to come from this new sailmaking technology.

I checked in with Tom Davis, North Sails' commercial director, to learn more.

Can you please give us a bit of background on RENEW? Where did the idea come from and how long has NS been developing this new material?

We have of course been monitoring the broad materials marketplace in terms of more sustainable options for a long time, and we've supported a number of our key suppliers on projects they've run to explore the use of more environmentally friendly "plastics" in high-performance fabrics like sailcloth.

The step from activities like this at "R&D" level work to true commercial scale happened four years ago when our PET film supplier described a new product line with no compromise in material performance even though the upstream source of the PET was discarded beverage bottles rather than petroleum/oil. We tested and ultimately approved changing to these new films.

At that point we didn't call these efforts "RENEW", but as we incorporated additional [and] more sustainable raw materials (woven PET fabrics and yarns, bio-based Dyneema yarn), [and] we ultimately reached the point where a very significant percentage of the total mass of these trial sailcloth styles legitimately fits that description.

We realized we had a unique line of sail fabrics that deserved a unique name: RENEW. Our cruising oriented RENEW fabrics feature 90-percent-plus more sustainable material content.

We're currently testing a One Design racing fabric that is 2/3 sustainable content. And this is just the beginning.

Who is your target customer for this sailcloth? Generally speaking, what kind of boat do they have, and what kind of sailing do they typically enjoy?

As noted above, today's RENEW fabrics are geared toward cruising boats. These are high-performance sails, but deliberately engineered to last a long time in often very tough sailing conditions.

Racing-oriented sails are typically lighter weight and intended for use in more targeted conditions. I'm confident we'll get there with RENEW options for racing boats - but the sustainable content percentage is likely to be a bit lower.

Can you please give us a ballpark idea of what percentage of the sails are made from bio-based materials? Also, is this used to create the actual cloth, or are the bio-based materials used as glue/adhesive, or maybe even for stitching threads?

Right now, it's the main panels and sailcloth reinforcement "patching" that are made from RENEW fabrics. In our SM (polyester only) cloth, just the laminating adhesive is not from a recycled PET source.

Our HM (high modulus) styles incorporate bio-based (trees) Dyneema warp insert and exact X cross-ply yarns, along with the same recycled PET materials found in RENEW SM - with the laminating adhesive remaining the only component that "started life" as petroleum.

As we find (or make) near-zero performance compromise sewing thread, hardware, adhesives/resins, etc. we'll be pleased to incorporate these elements into our sails.

That said, we're being extremely careful to ensure sail longevity remains a key feature of all our sails, and that of course includes RENEW.

A sail with a few percent higher sustainable materials content that ends up in a landfill or incinerator in half the time is not our idea of "sustainable".

What about recycled materials? Can you give us a ballpark percentage of how much of a given RENEW sail is made from recycled materials? Also, are we talking about previous sails, or are we talking about a process maybe along the lines of how Patagonia makes fleece from recycled plastic bottles?

The PET films, PET woven fabrics, and PET insert yarns are from discarded beverage bottles. The Dyneema fiber that augments the HM styles is from trees.

In terms of performance and lifespan, how do RENEW sails compare to North's spectra cruising sails?

As a generalization, RENEW HM sails will be a bit heavier weight, with very similar (low) stretch performance. Whether SM or HM versions, these sails will last a very long time by any sailmaker's standards.

Do you expect that RENEW will replace traditional cruising-sail cloth (Dacron, Spectra, etc.), or do you see it as another great option that's available for cruisers?

Today, RENEW is a good option. I suspect our "upstream" suppliers will continue to develop new, sustainable, component materials. We'll put these to use by doing what we do best - designing and building beautiful sails.

I hope, and expect, there will come a time when RENEW doesn't really need to be pointed out.

What kinds of boats are RENEW sails intended for? Also, monohulls only, or do you think that multihulls will also adopt this material?

Today, cruising boats between (roughly) 25- and 45-feet LOA. Mono and multihulls.

I note that RENEW sails are panel laminate airfoils. Could you foresee a time when RENEW sails are molded, 3Di style? Or, does the new material not lend itself to a molded construction process?

3Di RENEW? Absolutely.

Is there anything else about RENEW that you'd like to add for the record?

We have excellent programs in place, working with Sea Bags in North America, and 727 Sailbags in Europe, to turn retired sails into nice products that will keep the materials viable for decades longer. Talk to your North Sails rep for details.

And thanks for the opportunity to tell you about RENEW. It's been personally very interesting and energizing to do work in this area.

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