America’s Cup racer turned commentator, one design keelboat champion turned two times Volvo Ocean Race skipper, Ken Read is President of North Sails and was in Antigua last week sailing in the J Class. Tip & Shaft caught up with Read.
Ken, we are back seeing a resurgence of interest in the J Class which you love, describe their special magic for you compared to other big boats you sail?
Well for start the minute you stop and you don’t look around and think ‘Jesus Christ this is one of the nicest boats that has ever been built’ then you’re doing yourself a disservice. And you see owners smiling all day so that’s where our job is, we are in the entertainment business. The minute you think this is just another big race boat race is the minute you fail, so there’s so many more factors.
But will the J Class always be cyclical, owners’ interests in high level racing ebbing and flowing?
I do think so because I think in the nature of boats like this, owners cruise them, some race them, some do a little of both. Some want the Med in the summer, some want East Coast USA, some want West so to get them all together in one place is hard sometimes, and that is for all the right reasons. They want to use their boats and use them the way they want.
But is there not an element of owner’s egos involved, some guys are not used to not winning in their world?
I don’t think its egos. For example the Lionheart (world champions) folks, they cruise with their families. I’ve seen Velsheda out cruising with the family. So it just depends on how you use it.
How important is this J Class and the big performance superyachts to North’s business?
Quite important. And it kind of goes back to 2007 the last AmericasCcup where there were a lot of (Cup) boats and a lot of sails. After the Americas Cup stepped away from sails for a while we needed something to fill in the gap and fortunately the J Class and performance super yacht sailing came in and did just that, so it’s been huge for us and huge for our company.
And in terms of these big performance superyachts where is that side of it going?
I think it’s really good to split the rules up the way they are, the real performance end of it and then the fun point-to-point end of it. But we have to keep emphasizing the fun side of it. It’s easy for people like us to lose sigh of that. It’s the entertainment business. We can’t lose sight of the fact that we just want people to use their boats and we can’t put pressure too much onto the performance side of it because then we lose sight of the important part which is getting these things off the dock and getting them sailing.
Where is the biggest growth for North in terms of revenue?
It’s still boats like this. If we have a good year with big boats then it’s a good year for our company. We build 30,000 sails a year and a lot of those sails are dinghy sails so from the smallest of small one designs all the way through to Aquijo over here, an 80 metre two mast boat. I don’t think we prioritise one over the other. We try not to because one design is such a part of the heritage of our company, but at the same time this (here) is a performance driver for the company, no question.
Are you close to the limits of technology with these big performance superyachts?
No I don’t think so, again the 80 metres over here, when that boat was built there was certainly some head scratching but it’s all about improvements in the software. We can build anything with the 3Di process. We are reliant on the software though and the software has to adapt to bigger, stiffer, faster, more loads, more righting moment and everything else. As long as the software keeps up with the whims and wishes of clients then we’re in great shape and I think we have the smartest people in the industry working on that at all times.
Presumably the software developments come to you from the Cup still?
No question, I mean a guy like let’s say Michael Rickleson who is really our lead software guy…. For….. forever. Many people would say he’s the smartest guy in the business, understated and quiet but he’s with Prada and for all the right reasons. We shove our best and brightest out to Cup campaigns whether it’s wing mast or not because everything we do improves because of the interaction with those teams. Those teams are spending ridiculous money on the most miniscule details and we want to be part of that.
Will these new Cup twin skin rigs trickle down to the market?
It’s a good question. The twin skin mainsails, there’s certainly hope, I would say they’re still in their elementary stages. I talk to the teams all the time and ask how it’s going. There’s some sceptics, some critics and some real positive responses too. It’s just a bit finicky to get up and down, it’s not quite as easy as I think they’d hoped. They’re getting the lift from them in many conditions like they’d hoped but I think it’s just like anything, just some ways to go and just more development.
And the French IMOCA market is a big development area for North?
It’s evolving like a bat out of hell. Some of these guys – some of these teams are much more well funded than they’ve been in the past, IMOCA’s have always been ……I wouldn’t call it the poor sister to the Volvo programmes but the budgets themselves are dramatically less. A few of these teams are quite well funded and doing some real interesting stuff. Of course the VPLP’s and the Verdiers and Juan K’s of the world, these guys are just smart and they are making boats go faster and faster all the time and just keeping them in one piece. That’s my only fear.
Will we see a quantum leap in terms of a key development this time, one race winning sail maybe?
This time there’s really different aspect ratio changes some of the teams are doing, they’re doing more triangular sails versus than high aspect sails. I think that’s a big difference from how they sail the boat. Some of them are sailing more like the Volvo Race last time where they are essentially going downwind on that 65 footer with the big genoa up. Others are sailing with A4’s still so there’s radical differences still in how they’re setting the boats up and how they are deciding to sail the boats so there’s a long way to go but that’s going to be fascinating in the end.
And the IMOCA business is big for you?
Well in France it’s massive. Our French loft, you could make a case that I would say it’s primary. It’s almost like the feeder system through the Figaro’s, Mini’s all the way up to all the double handed stuff up, this groundswell of double handed up to the IMOCA’s then the Ultimates. Really when you look at it it’s quite an interesting natural progression for a lot of these younger French sailors so sure enough our French loft is a) really good at it and b) really focuses on it for all the right reasons.
So there is a lot the world can learn from France!
Other than how to race offshore? (smiles) There is the general trend which started there to sail short handed. That’s why I started sailing double handed. I just did the Fort Lauderdale to Key West race on a Jeanneau 3300 with a girl named Suzie Leach and I can tell you that I haven’t had that much fun sail boat racing in a long, long time. It comes from England, France, other European countries – that’s not to say there isn’t pods of double handed sailing spread all around the world.
It is happening everywhere, in the USA?
No question, well hopefully everywhere. It falls into the same original principle we were talking about here which is getting people off the dock. Two crew versus 10 on the same size boat, a smaller inventory, a much more specialised inventory, boats that aren’t going to break the bank, to get more people off the dock and out there sailing. I think it’s a natural progression and I’m going to keep doing it because hopefully people can use maybe a bit of this publicity and think ‘Wow, that looks kind of fun, let me go try it’.
But you don’t fancy racing solo?
I don’t like myself enough to go solo. That is clear to me. It’s close enough, I see myself solo when maybe Susie’s down below getting some food and it’s a beautiful night and I’m up there on deck by myself thinking ‘wow this is really cool, this is really fun’. I think the double handed side of it is really fun.
So you are a fan of mixed offshore for the Olympics?
No question, that’s a really great instigator, an impetus to getting this all going, there’s no question in my mind so I’m going to keep trying to do it.
Were you involved in the campaign to get it into the Olympics?
Well Stan Honey (who is on the World Sailing offshore committee) I talk to all the time. There’s no question that I was a supporter of it, I love coastal sailing and I love coastal offshore sailing, I always have.
And so the age range offshore at the Games could be broader than any other class….
Massive, you could have 20 year olds and 60 year olds there’s no question in my mind. It is going to be really fun. The more it starts churning up interest the better it is for sailing around the globe.
And your thoughts on the new AC75 Cup boats are you a fan?
I am, I think any time something new comes around I think it’s good for sailing in general. Something that looks on paper so insane, we got all the sketches and thought ‘what?!’ and then all of a sudden you see these guys zipping around like they’ve actually got everything under control. I think like any Cup, sailors are going to figure it out. The best sailors in the world will figure it out and we are going to see some good racing.
But the reliability and complexity seem to be an issue right now?
Again, they’re going to figure it out, you don’t want to start heavy. Start light, break it, fix it, make it a little stronger and then go. It looks and feels like a real natural Americas Cup progression to me.
But the costs this time really are prohibitive and unsustainable? Should it not be in a boat which is more accessible and promoting a Cup with eight or ten teams, say?
It’s not for me to say, I don’t know if we could go back to standard keel boats at this stage because I think our best young sailors around the globe are now hooked and addicted to this stuff. You could not tell the next generation that they can’t follow through on what they’ve been training for their whole lives. The Cup is never going to be cheap, it’s never going to be easy, never going to be without controversy, ever. But let’s keep making the boats harder.
But there are three only three challengers?
My question to that would be do we really have to have it be a successful Cup with 10 teams, I don’t know. Any initial new boat Cup is always going to be hard and could they have stayed with the 50’s for another Cup? Maybe. But it’s the Americas Cup, it’s supposed to be hard, that’s the way it works.
Photo: Claire Matches
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