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The Professional - Part 2 of a conversation with Ken Read

by David Schmidt, Sail-World USA Editor on 31 Oct 2013
Skipper Ken Read at the helm in the Southern Ocean. PUMA Ocean Racing powered by BERG during leg 5 of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12, from Auckland, New Zealand, to Itajai, Brazil. (Credit: Amory Ross/PUMA Ocean Racing/Volvo Ocean Race) Amory Ross/Puma Ocean Racing/Volvo Ocean Race©
Ken Read (52) has been commanding sailing headlines for the past thirty-plus years, starting with his collegiate days at Boston University where he was a three-time Collegiate All American and the Intercollegiate Sailing Association’s College Sailor of the Year (1982), through his time as a J/24 and Etchells champion and a respected sailmaker in his hometown of Newport, Rhode Island. Along the way, Read amassed a fine record of more than 40 wins in National, North American and World Championship regattas, and he was twice named U.S. Rolex Yachtsman of the Year (1985 and 1994).

Dennis Conner shoulder tapped Read to serve as his helmsman during the 2000 and 2003 'Stars & Stripes' campaigns, and Read has also served on the afterguard of plenty of high-profile big-boat campaigns, including George David’s all-conquering 'Rambler'. More recently, Read served as the skipper of Puma Ocean Racing’s entries in the 2008-2009 and 2011-2012 editions of the Volvo Ocean Race (VOR), where the team finished in second and third place, respectively.

Additionally, Read has worked in various capacities for North Sails since 1996, and in January of 2013 he was promoted to the high-profile role of President. I recently caught up with Read to get his pulse on sailmaking in an modern era that features wingsails in the Cup, One Design in the VOR and a heavy Grand Prix focus on sport boats and smaller keelboats.

What kind of boats have you been sailing since you finished with Puma?
I bought a Marstom 32 catamaran and we started a fleet here in Newport. That was my fun sailing for the summer. Sailing with my kid and my wife and my niece and nephew, just ripping around Newport Harbor all summer long was great.

I have also done a lot of J-class sailing with Jim Clark on 'Hanuman'. I am staying away from really getting involved in a Grand Prix program right now because quite frankly my North Sails job is taking up far too much time to really be able to sail properly.

I am really sailing as much for fun, client based competitive sailing and for fun.

From your position as North’s President how healthy is the Grand Prix market? Are we starting to see a trend back to the pre-2008 days or is it still a little thin?

It’s still thin, for sure, but we’re definitely starting to see a bit of a resurgence in a bunch of different areas right now: new One Design concepts, 30-footers, 40-footers, even multihulls for the first time almost since forever. Super yachts are still quite healthy.

Things like the J/70 have been obviously a boom. There’s lots of pockets that are showing some signs of good health. For sure the 40-to-70-foot range is probably still a little stagnant, but even that is showing some signs of interest.

What challenges does this present to North and what kind of opportunities does it present to try and get a bit more involvement in the 40-to-70-foot range?

We are very much market driven-not the sailing market, but financial market driven, and it’s no shock that when the economy and the financial health of the world’s economy is good, sailing is good. I am also convinced - and it wasn’t looking good there for a while - that when the America’s Cup was said and done, I’m totally convinced that that was a jolt of fresh air that our sport desperately needed. We’ve seen it - we’ve sold a lot of sails since the America’s Cup, since the America’s Cup started ramping up and in its aftermath. That’s all good.

What kind of growth or health are you seeing in the club racing market?

For sure, we’re not seeing a ton of growth. Where you asked earlier where North Sails can do a better job, and that’s exactly where. Our workforce gravitated towards the bigger Grand Prix stuff and we’re making a conscious to get back and help the club racer and help the regional club racers. We know we have to make it more fun for them. We had to cut numbers of crew on all these boats.

The biggest complaint that I hear in the market place is, ‘I’d love to sail more but I can’t afford the time to try to get a crew on the boat and the reason I need a crew is that I simply I need weight on the rail.’ I mean, come on, we just have to do something about it as a sport!

As the governing bodies of the sports, let’s make it easy for owners to get out on the water and not have to kill themselves supplying food, hotel rooms, plane flights, whatever the case may be. We have got to make it easier and that’s one big way we can make it easier right out of the blocks. Even in PHRF fleets, by the way.

How did the economic downturn push North Sails as far as products? Did this make you think about ways of making a good quality sail for a lower cost, or are your clients more concerned about speed, irrespective of the price?

Clients are like snowflakes, none of them are the same, and we have to be prepared as a company to deal with this. We can’t just rely on the fact that we make the coolest, most expensive sail in the world. That’s not an option. We have to be prepared to have a product line that meets the need of all types of sailors, so that’s where we are going.

In the same vein, one of the things that we can do to help the sport is to somehow get the HPRs, the IRCs, the PHRFs-all of these rules-on the same page. One of the reasons we don’t see a lot of Grand Prix racing is because nobody knows what to build. Until the national authorities and the rules makers stand behind one rule, I don’t see it getting better.

Let’s talk a little bit about the Volvo, now they’re moving to a One Design platform.
The airfoil package is One Design as well. The sails and the rigs are all North Sails’ products and everybody has identical stuff. You can’t even recut it. You can’t even move the clew up an inch. You get a package and that’s it. Go sail around the world. Good luck. Push them off the dock.

This led to quite a bit of work for Southern Spars then?
Absolutely. It was a fun project for us but at the end of the day the 3Di product absolutely won us the project because of its performance. Volvo wanted to keep this a performance boat, but it was very clear in the last Volvo that the amount of sail problems reduced by about 95-percent thanks to 3Di. There was no delamination issues-zero. When you are going across the tropics, the sun and the moisture just kill plastic laminates so that’s why a lot of performance cruising sailors are choosing 3Di sails now because it’s so strong and durable and, for something like the One Design project for Volvo, fortunately for us it seemed a bit of a no-brainer.

More from North Sails at

Please stay tuned for Part Three of this interview series.

Mackay BoatsBakewell-White Yacht DesignT Clewring Cruising

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