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North Sails 2021 LEADERBOARD

Michael Coxon: From scissors to screens and now beyond

by John Curnow 27 Aug 2020 20:13 PDT
Fresh delivery! Michael Coxon and Alby Pratt inspect the new 3Di Mainsail for the supermaxi, Scallywag © John Curnow

Michael Coxon retires today. Best known simply as Cocko, for 45 years he has applied himself to sail making with vigour, drive, dedication, and loads of passion. The great bulk of this time has been deployed in building North Sails Australia. He leaves when they have lofts and agents around the country, and are the largest in the land, just as the parent is, all over the world.

Ostensibly, nothing will really change. Now in that very statement actually lies the real beauty of what Cocko has crafted. Always on the lookout for great talent as the next generations emerge; today the North Sails spinnaker has truly massive shoulders to its powerful form. Creating that shape are the likes of Alby Pratt, Noel Drennan, Vaughan Prentice, Aaron Cole, Billy Sykes, Andrew Parkes, Ben Kelly, and Mark Bradford, with experience in the America’s Cup, Round the World races, the TP circuit, offshore events all over the globe, and countless hours in many a One Design class.

Coxon began his Apprenticeship with Bruce Hewish Freshwater Sails in 1976. He then set up Coxon Wadham sails in 1977, and subsequently in 1978 joined North Sails to look after their Dinghy and OD department. It was Rob Antill who approached Coxon, and in a way probably set him on a course to continue to look for the right people to have around himself.

It wasn’t the only aspect he collected, for Coxon has often spoken about the degree of business acumen that Antill also passed on. Gold Medallist, and personal friend of Lowell North, David Forbes is clearly another key individual whose amazing foresight placed Coxon and Grant Simmer together. Coxon has also always freely given of his own knowledge to anyone who approached him, whether that was sail tuning or the industry itself.

The man who gave his name to the company

Of course it also meant you had one on one time with Lowell North himself. Naturally, during the course of Coxon’s immense journey there was time with many of the biggest names that ever been. If you had to name drop, then this is one impressive list. Good friend and confidant Iain Murray, Peter Barret, Jay Hansen (the unsung hero of North Sails in Coxon’s opinion), Terry Kohler, Tom Schnackenberg, Gary Weisman, Tom Blackaller, Tom Whidden, Vince Brun, Dennis Conner, and one John Bertrand.

Immediately after the America’s Cup win of 1983, Bertrand consolidated the Melbourne and Sydney lofts, but then pretty much realised it was not the business he wanted to be in. “Michael Coxon and Grant Simmer got together to buy me out and this proved to be a very successful and enduring partnership.”

“North Sails have separated themselves from the competition by the application of technology and certainly moulded sails prove that. It is really interesting however, to see the continued domination of the 18-footers by Cocko and his team in this technically difficult class. So to be the one and only is a testament to his overall skill and design ability. The 18s are still an art form and it is here that he and the team excel.”

“Surely now with Cocko retiring they can make the mainsail bags a bit wider, so we can at least stow our mainsails more easily!”, said Bertrand having a lend of his friend.

Far reaching career

No matter how you look at it, there is incredible diversity in Coxon’s achievements. Whether it’s IOR, Etchells, IRC, or supermaxis like Alfa Romeo, there have been milestone campaigns around the globe. “North Sails has given me opportunities to sail at the highest level from 18-footers in the USA, to Etchells with Dennis Conner, being an Americas Cup skipper and tactician on Sydney 95, then there are Fastnets, Transpacs, Cabo San Lucas, Kenwood Cups, San Francisco Big Boat Series, the Maxi World Championships, Block Island and myriad of other things. All of them wonderful.”

Neville Crichton, the Skipper of Alfa Romeo II amongst many other craft said, “I would like to congratulate Michael Coxon (Cocko) on his retirement. Cocko has played a major part in my sailing career over the last 20 years.”

“Apart from supplying North Sails exclusively to all of my boats since 1988, he has been part of my sailing team since 2000 - on each of my maxis calling tactics and sailing strategy. We won virtually all the major races in the world over the period, including Hobart (twice), the Fastnet, Transpac, Maxi Worlds, Giraglia, Middle Sea Race and the list goes on…”

“As well as being a business associate, Cocko is a great mate, and we have shared many memorable times together over the years. I really would like to wish him, and his family a great retirement and happy cruising.”

Heralding in the changes

So just like the boats themselves, the engines in the sky have also changed dramatically over the course of time. Once there were scissors, now there are computers. “It has been one big tech curve, for sure. I have been involved with the transition driven by material developments, all of which were driven by North Sails. Moulded sails are the greatest advance in my time, and this is now highlighted brilliantly by 3Di.”

For Australians, it is important to note that all sailcloth is manufactured overseas, as too are the vast majority of the sails that it goes on to create. North Sails Australia is the largest employer of sailmakers in Australia with a commitment to training local sailmakers that no other loft offers. Australian made is just not part of the overall language. Australian inspired, and designed, for sure, as too the time to tune it and the rig on board, but in volume terms sails sewn together here is a statistical anomaly.

Coxon commented, “Competition is healthy, and keeps us all focused but being a part of what is the largest sail making group in Australia, and the world. It is a great place to be, and defend. The key is staying in front of technology and investment in people. We could not service the market we have if we were burdened with local manufacture, as that consumes you. Then you take your eye off the ball, in our case they’re our clients, and subsequently not provide them with the best sails and service. Also, the investment in infrastructure would not be viable.”

What’s next?

You could think that Coxon might be off on a round the world cruise, but his next boat is actually a powerboat. Never fear, however, for all that knowledge gained as a Skipper and Sailing Master is still going to be put to good use on the J/V 62, Chinese Whisper.

“My good friend David Griffith owns her and has also just been appointed to the Board of the CYCA. A mini maxi is a great size yacht. Big enough to be fast and on the edge, yet light enough that it is not too hard on an aging body! My mind misses the Etchells, but my back does not....”

“Honestly I do not yet know exactly what I will miss. I am a hyper guy who has to have projects lined up, and my biggest concern this week has been which project around my house and boat shall I take on first! Life shall go on for both North Sails and also Michael Coxon.”

Of course that wonderful segue raises the very question. Who will be in charge now? “I recognised Mark ‘Squark’ Bradford’s ability years ago, and invited him to join the North team. In the back of my mind I thought this could be our destiny, and now he has the opportunity to inject new enthusiasm and leadership into a well-oiled machine. He has earned the right.”

Different face. Same dedication and passion.

Clearly very much aware of the contribution that North Sails has made locally, Bradford commented, “We have 40 direct employees over six sites, and 10 agencies that all exist as a result of the brand. Yet it is bigger than that, because in addition to those who are with us now, there are other apprentices and so forth that have elected to pursue of forms of sailing careers. Look at Stacey Jackson, Nick Maloney, and the late Peter ‘Spike’ Dorien as examples.”

“Even more importantly than all of that, look at all of the results our clients have achieved with North Sails power. No matter whether they are club racers or multiple boat owners campaigning around the country or the globe, we appreciate what they are doing for our sport and industry.”

“We have been working on this succession plan for three to five years now. Sometimes it is hard to really comprehend the magnitude of what Cocko has left behind, but I’m inheriting a great team, and one that is strong in a lot of areas. Just look at crew members like Alby Pratt, Vaughan Prentice, Noel Drennan, Billy Sykes, Paul Westlake, Nick Beaudoin, Dick Parker, Andrew Parkes, Ben Kelly, Sandy Higgins, Stewart Gray, and Andrew Harry (to name but a few), and you know that the team that has been delivering the goods will still be doing just that. This gives me great confidence moving forward.”

“In reality, as a 60+ year brand I am aware that I am the next custodian, with people like Grant Simmer, Ross Lloyd, Richie Allanson, Rob Antill, John Bertrand, and now Michael Coxon all making their impact on this great company felt throughout its journey. On top of that you have Lowell North’s own legacy, as well.”

“I am really thrilled to have the opportunity. I met Lowell back when I was about 24 years old and he was cruising through the South Pacific. I had done some repairs for him, and then after we had talked through them he said his name, which has to be taken in light of the pre-Internet era, when Googling a pic of him was not as easy as reaching for your phone.”

Certainly the new man for the job

Bradford and Coxon do have a lot of similarities in their careers. There were Skiffs early on, and then Etchells later, as well as the offshore and big boats. Incidentally, all of it done at similar ages. Both have also sailed with Dennis Conner at different times, and enjoyed a similar mentoring process.

Bradford added, “Cocko has directly mentored me from sailing a lot with him on keelboats. He taught me about managing big teams, and I subsequently applied this to the Black Jack campaign.”

Like Coxon, Bradford had time in the America’s Cup with Oracle from 2003 to 2007. Both competed in about five Farr 40 World Championships. Neither gentleman is short on participation and wins, as you would expect, and I dare say both reflect fondly when the pair was aboard Loyal that first time she collected Line Honours in the Sydney to Hobart.

Reflecting on the here and now Bradford said, “We’re looking after all of our clients on regional basis in these times, whilst we all wait to see what comes up later. It is terrific to be having a great time with sailing being on and it seems like it is bringing yet more people into our great sport. Never before has the grass roots been so important.”

Ever the racer, Bradford closed by looking to Christmas, “It is wonderful to see how much short-handed has been embraced, as is evidenced by our own President, Ken Read. Around a third of the current Hobart fleet comes from this division. This means lots of 3Di sails, and certainly the soft furlers utilising Helix Load Sharing Technology (where wire is not required for the luff) makes sail handling so much easier.”

One thing is for sure. North Sails is about passion, and all of the team exude this not only through out history and the present, but invariably into the future as well. Yes. North Sails is certainly powering on under Mark Bradford and the 40-strong team every sailor knows so well.

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