Masts and Sails
MINDEN – Amid the sagebrush and tumbleweed of Nevada’s desert, an oasis of high-tech maritime industry is growing strong.
North Sails, a San Diego sailmaking company, moved its most technologically advanced operation to the Carson Valley about five years ago.
Bill Pearson, director of product development, said Nevada offered an inviting business environment.
“At 60,000 square feet, it’s the largest sailmaking factory in the world,” he said. “So when they were looking at places to build it, they needed to go where the land was affordable but still a reasonable distance to the ocean. I’m sure Nevada taxes had something to do with it too.”
More than 200 miles from the San Francisco Bay, the Minden factory makes the mainsails and genoas, or headsails, for the multi-million dollar America’s Cup boats.
Pearson said 10 of the 11 boats that competed in this month’s Louis Vuitton Cup, a qualifying heat for the America’s Cup race, used a mainsail made in North’s Minden factory.
The sails, made of a lightweight polyester Mylar material, are heat molded – a patented process that has dominated sail design in the costly world of racing.
The technology is called 3DL, for three-dimensional laminate.
“We’ve broken through a technology that is 6,000 years old,” Pearson said Friday. “We really have no competition.”
He said the one-piece Mylar sails are stiffer and about 30 percent lighter than traditional sails that are stitched together – an important feature in racing where lighter equals faster.
A flexible mold allows sail designers to adjust the shape of the sail with computer imaging. Each sail North makes has specific dimensions, matching the boat.
On the table, a $70,000 mainsail for the Italian boat Prada, winner of the Louis Vuitton Cup, is being constructed. Prada will fly the sail, which is about 110 feet long and 35 feet wide at the boom, in the America’s Cup race which begins Feb. 14 in New Zealand’s Hauraki Gulf near Auckland.
As Pearson describes the sailmaking process, Laurie Pearl floats in the air above the enormous sail in a body harness that is attached to a computerized robotic arm. The arm controls her movement pattern over the sail as she spools out strands of carbon fiber in directional patterns to add strength to the material. Strips of Kevlar, a lightweight cloth material, are also added for strength.
Pearson said the next step involves spreading a laminate over the carbon threads and adding a second and final layer of Mylar.
“It takes about five or six days to complete the process,” he said. “Then it will be folded and shipped to New Zealand.”
Next door, Omohundro, a sister company to North Sails, produces lightweight carbon fiber masts and rigging.
Three U.S. boats in the Louis Vuitton race – America True, Stars and Stripes and America One – flew their mainsails from masts and rigging made in Omohundro’s Minden plant.
The carbon fiber masts made for the America’s Cup class, which are 40 percent lighter and stiffer than aluminum materials, cost between $250,000 and $400,000.
John Barnitt, chief executive officer, said Omohundro got its start in the aerospace industry, making nose cones for smart missiles but started looking for other business propositions when “peace broke out” in the late 1980s.
Omohundro, which originated in Costa Mesa, Calif., joined the high-tech sailing world by making spinnaker poles, spreaders and masts. Demand for the products was heavy enough to warrant a move to a larger plant in 1991.
Tom Omohundro, the company’s owner at the time, choose Minden for its proximity to the Sierra Nevada and its recreational opportunities.
The North Marine Group, parent company to North Sails, bought Omohundro and opened the sailmaking plant in 1994, when 3DL technology was in the developing stages.
“We developed our own robotics, software and machinery and that’s one of the most challenging parts of the business,” Pearson said. “We’ve had NASA engineers come out to see our flexible molds – it’s definitely a rocket science.”
Pearson said sometimes profits must be given up for technological advancements.
“On paper, this doesn’t make sense,” he said. “But we’re doing this because the company believes in it and if we’re at full capacity, there’s a nice margin.”
Omohundro and North Sails have been at full capacity for a year and a half, making gear for the America’s Cup boats and other high-tech racing ventures such as the Around the World Race.