James Allsopp isn't just puffing his chest when he tells how North Sails was the dominant supplier of sails to the Whitbread Round the World fleet. Indeed, the worldwide company with sales offices and repair facilities in Annapolis and a sail-making loft in Stevensville has supplied about 90 percent of the sails being used in the race.
"We built all the sales for Chessie," Allsopp, a North Sails director of sales and marketing, said of the Maryland race entrant, Chessie Racing.
But North Sails is not the only local sail-making company with ties to the race. Quantum Sails, in another Annapolis loft, "built" some of the all-important spinnakers, or front sails, for Swedish Match and BrunelSunergy, two other entries in the fleet that is in Baltimore and Annapolis this week.
"We had to fight pretty hard to get sail orders," said Per Andersson, Quantum's vice president of sales.
Since a sail budget can be $750,000 per boat, it was clearly worth the fight. It's important for the boats, too, since each can have a maximum of 38 sails for the Whitbread race, apportioned how each wants among the three sails -- the spinnaker, genoa and mainsail -- from which each boat draws its power. A single mainsail for a Whitbread boat can cost $30,000.
North Sails is an industry powerhouse, with "lofts" or sail-making factories around the world. In addition to the locations in the Annapolis area, it has a high-tech facility in Minden, Nev., and a wind-tunnel testing facility in New Zealand. When it comes to research and testing, Quantum's no slouch either: It used the wind tunnel at the University of Maryland to test its designs, and its sales offices dot the country.
North Sails is doing its part to change the way sails are designed and constructed. The loft in Stevensville in Queen Anne's County is a study in the ways of today and those of tomorrow. Workers use a very light nylon to hand-build scale models of the sails that are one-sixth to one-tenth the size of the actual sails. Those models give the company an idea how their larger cousins will act.
When the actual sail material is cut, it's laid on a vacuum table with hundreds of small holes that suck in air and hold the material to the table to make sure it doesn't move -- almost like an air-hockey table working in reverse. A laser is used to cut the material, with a preciseness measured in millimeters.
On the shop floor, workers fiddle with models and do some final sewing on a few sails. In an office, seated at a powerful computer, another worker, John Thompson, designs sails using a "CAD-CAM" software program -- computer-aided design, computer-aided manufacturing.
When sails are hand-sewn, there is a base that panels of material are stitched to for strength and performance.
The design for the sail, helped by the company's research, can be transmitted to Minden. There another computer takes the data and shapes a form over which sails will be molded from roughly three different materials that are bonded, or fused, together: a film base, composite fibers that are aligned to give the sail maximum strength, and then a Mylar covering for stability and protection.
This patented lamination process, called 3DL, is like the process used to make a photo ID card or driver's license, though the sail-making involves a much higher level of precision and technology. With a driver's license, a picture is taken, is fused to a card and then is covered by a piece of plastic that's affixed using heat.
The mold shape can be changed drastically or subtly with computer, whether that PC is in Minden or in Stevensville.
The 3DL approach is efficient from a production standpoint and a sail-performance standpoint, Allsopp said. North Sails' research has shown that, in a conventional, paneled sail, up to 40 percent of the fibers or yarns woven into the sail do nothing for strength -- the ability of the sail to hold its designed shape for maximum propulsion from a sailing breeze. The computer can align the fibers in the sail where wind loads are greatest.
North Sails' 3DL sails have helped boats to take top 10 honors in such events as the 1997 Admiral's Cup Series and the more recent Champagne Mumm 36 World Championship.
"No one else can make them this way: they're laminated, made in one piece, with no stitching," said Paul Murray, shore-based sailmaker for the boat EF Language. Murray noted North Sails' worldwide reach: "North Sails provided us with a pretty good design. We had ours built by North Sails in Sweden."
Quantum's fight for a piece of the business is expected to pay off with more business from the Grand Prix sailing crowd that is the company's forte, said Quantum's Andersson. The company is expanding.
"We have done pretty good," he said. "We've worked hard for many years. And we have a lot of experience in three America's Cups. We had about 40 percent of the work for the 1992 race in San Diego. It was a huge development program."
Pub Date: 4/26/98