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The Professional - Part 3 of a conversation with Ken Read

by David Schmidt, Sail-World USA Editor on 2 Nov 2013
Skipper Ken Read drives Mar Mostro through a frontal system off of Cape Horn. 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.

Let’s talk about the 3Di project. Are you still at the point of learning its strengths and virtues, or are you fully in production mode?

It’s fully in production mode, but we learn more about it every day. Like all highly technical products, especially revolutionary products, you learn about it every single day. We just had the 12 sail designers into our Newport offices.

They were all parts of the Aero teams for the four America’s Cups programs, and for three days and we did a debriefing. A three-day debrief on the sails that they built for their Cup projects, and it really turned into a 3Di download, talking about their taping layouts, the materials they used, how they dealt with baton pockets, the fact that there are no patches on the corners anymore.

All these incredible features that the smartest guys in our industry worked on for three and a half years all got dumped into one big basket. It’s such an advantage for us.

Every Cup program and every Volvo program we have these downloads and it is part of the deal with the teams that we get to download the information and then we get to start from scratch so much further ahead next time around because of what we learned.

You guys has made a lot of press with the 3Di sailmaking process. Has anyone started building hulls using this technique?

The process is called Thin Ply Technology. It’s kind of a sister to the 3Di process. The only hull that has ever been made out of TPT are Groupama’s hull, which just won the little America’s Cup. The process could be good for boat building, but because of its nature it would be very expensive.

The tiny little hulls on the C Class boats where perfect for it. It is really made for other industries. I think they are looking at other industries outside of the sailing for TPT. For example, we have made parts for Formula One racecars, and we have made golf shafts. We have made all kinds of intricate, really detailed pieces and I have a feeling that’s where TPT is going to go.

Oracle Team USA made quite a bit of news by teaming up with Boeing for a carbon-fiber recycling program. Is this something you guys are looking into, given all the carbon that goes into 3DL and 3Di sails?

We’ve been looking for ways to recycle sails for a long, long time and anybody who has any ideas - we’re all ears. We understand that [a sail] is a big hunk of plastic, and we want to do it right.

Do you have any secret fibers in the works or should sailors be content with the 3Di for the time being?

I maintain that 3Di is a bigger jump in the sailmaking world than 3DL was at the time, so we’ve got a nice little lead right now. Our answer just right now is to continue to make 3Di better.

There has been a lot of talk of foils making their way onto ‘normal’ boats. What kind of possibilities of foils on regular boats open for North Sails?

Foils are certainly a buzz word right now, but I can’t see a bunch of boats swinging around on their mooring balls in Newport Harbor with wing masts. Foils don’t have to pop a boat out of the water. Foils can help reduce displacement, whether it’s on monohulls, multihulls, whatever, so we haven’t seen the last of foils, that’s for sure.

But are my wife and I going to hop on my M32 and go foiling around Newport Harbor? I doubt it. You are going to have to be pretty talented and pretty switched on because when it goes bad at those speeds, it goes bad in a hurry.

Do you still have an internal company called North Performance Design Group?

It was called PRG, Performance Resource Group. It has all broken down really into Design Services now and JB Braun is in charge of the whole design team at this stage. He was one of the lead guys with the aero package for Oracle. He was an obvious choice as he’s one of the smartest guys in the world when it comes to the engine above the deck. I guess technically the group is still called PRG but we haven’t used that term in a long time.

Can you tell me about this group? Is it the kind of thing that Joe average sailor could interact with them, or is it more the kind of thing that yourself, in your former role as skipper of Puma, would work with them?

Well, your average sailor is interacting with them without ever knowing it. Here is a great example. J/70s. So the Johnstones came to us and said that they were going to do this new little boat called the J/70, and they said they wanted us to design a package that works with the boat from the deck up.

This is the unbelievable part-these guys are within a half a turn of rig tune numbers right out of the block, just put the sails on and sail away.

Then, of course, the Grand Prix guy comes in and says ‘I’m building a boat that I want to break this, this and this record with’, so we set up a completely custom package for them.

How much of your business is white sails or one design sails versus string sails or fancy design surface projects?

As revenue the larger, fancier sails [generate] the most amount of revenue we do, but as far as sheer numbers of sails, the smaller whiter sails and the One Designs make up far more sheer numbers of sales, there but obviously the dollar figures are in the big sails.

What exactly is the Newport Sailing Mafia and are you the Don of this family?

Oh Boy. Who put you up to that one? [Laughs]

We were very fortunate in 1996. Dan [Neri] and I had a nice little company in Newport. We were Shore Sails and we were Sobstad Sails, and then Tom [Whidden] came in one day and bought our company and we joined forces with North. Dan and I got to go on the board right away, and it was pretty exciting times for our facility in Newport.

We had some really talented people and it just so happens that those people have stuck with the company and have spread out all around the country and around the world.

Dan has run the 3Di and 3DL plant forever. Jeff Holden is the head of scheduling worldwide and Peter Colby is the head of service worldwide, so you can go through the company and there is plenty of Rhode Island influence, but I like to think it’s because we were pretty lucky back then. We had some pretty talented people and those people have stuck with it.

Anything else you'd like to add?

Well, I think you can’t emphasize enough that we all need to get together and make the sport grow a bit more. We can talk about our sails and products all we want, but if there aren’t people there to buy them then we’re just wasting our time.

A big part of what I do every day is try to figure out ways to help people get more enthusiastic about the sport and to enjoy it. But we, as opinion leaders in the sailing world, have to take on a more aggressive role in getting people into the sport.

More from North Sails at

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