Eight Bells: Lowell North

Legendary sailmaker and sailor passes away at 89.

Lowell North
Lowell North, sailmaker and Olympic sailor, passed away this week at 89.Courtesy of North Sails

Lowell North, a legendary sailmaker and racing sailor who, in his later years, became a dedicated long-distance voyager and cruiser, passed away on June 2, 2019, at his home in San Diego. North, the founder of North Sails and a two-time Olympic medalist who won gold in the Star class in 1968, was 89.

Nicknamed “The Pope” by his peers—“God” was probably pushing it—North began his sailmaking career at the tender age of 14, when he recut the cotton sail of his dad’s Star in the family’s garage. Almost instantly, the father and son went from last place to first in uber-competitive Star class regattas and North became a hot commodity. San Diego sailor Malin Burnham recruited North to sail with him in the 1945 Star World Championship, which they won handily. North’s wry assessment of this feat was both humorous and probably very accurate: “It wasn’t me Malin wanted. It was my mainsail.”

Before long, everyone wanted North’s sails. Having obtained an engineering degree, North opened his first loft on Shelter Island in 1957. As sportswriter Bernie Wilson noted in a retrospective story on North’s life, “His methodical and scientific approach to sailmaking changed the industry.”

Lowell North
Lowell NorthCourtesy of North Sails

As North Sails grew into the leading sail loft on the planet, the company’s founder continued to race at the sport’s highest levels. In addition to a silver medal in the Dragon class at the 1964 Olympic games, North won the Star Worlds’ on three more occasions and finished second five times. He skippered Enterprise in the 1977 America’s Cup trials, and Dennis Conner was flying North Sails when he won the Cup in 1980.

North sold his company in 1984 and, in retirement, continued to race competitively. A consummate sailor who loved every facet of racing and cruising, he also purchased a Tayana 52 called Wannago, aboard which he voyaged and explored extensively in the South Pacific for many years.

North was inducted into the National Sailing Hall of Fame in its inaugural class of 2011. “In my wildest dreams I wouldn’t have imagined where North Sails has gone,” he said. An innovator, visionary and gentleman, Lowell North will be sadly missed. His legacy remains, on the familiar, little blue patch bearing his name on the tacks of racing and cruising boats all over the planet. While North may be gone, his impact on the world of sailing remains strong and lasting.