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Five Questions for Ken Read, president of North Sails Group

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to unfold, we’re taking the time to catch up with contributors and friends in the marine industry. For this installment, we’re chatting with racing skipper and North Sails president Ken Read.

May 19, 2020
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Ken Read
Ken Read sees lots of local sailing ahead this summer. Courtesy North Sails

As the coronavirus continues to change and reshape the world as we know it, Cruising World is reaching out to contributors, our partners in the marine industry, and other sailors to get their take on where they are and how they’re doing. We’re asking five questions to each of them, and in this installment, we’re checking in on Ken Read, president of North Sails Group and one of the best-known racing sailors out on the water. Ken was at the helm through two of Dennis Conner’s America’s Cup campaigns, and then went twice around the world as skipper of Puma Ocean Racing’s entries in the Volvo Ocean Race. Some of his more recent adventures have unfolded aboard big boats, including the record-setting Comanche and J-Class yacht Hanuman.

1. Where are you this spring, and how is COVID 19 affecting your day-to-day life?

This is the short answer to what is long and complicated. I’ve been working out of my house at the very northern tip of Aquidneck Island, in Rhode Island, at a place called Common Fence Point. I’m very fortunate to be staring out at Mount Hope Bay from the spare bedroom that I have turned into my office. Obviously the COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world upside down and North Sails is no different, as are the rest of the North Technology Group companies. We have worked essentially around the clock during all this to preserve these great brands that we are so fortunate to be associated with, but also, attempt to thrive as we come out of this on the other side into what most are referring to as the “new normal.” What the new normal is—is anyone’s guess, and fortunately we have a great management team along with 2,000 employees who simply get it. It’s been a long haul, and like everyone else in the world, there are some really good days and there are some really bad days. We are trying to make the right, and necessary decisions every day. Every day is a step closer to getting back on the water!

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2. How is North Sails adjusting to life during the pandemic, are lofts open and how has the company’s focus evolved during this period of shutdowns?

North Sails is obviously a manufacturing, service, distribution and technology company. The manufacturing side took a big hit when the country of Sri Lanka put a curfew on all the people that live there. We essentially lost a month of manufacturing in Sri Lanka. The rest of the world, interestingly enough, has shut off for brief periods, but for the most part, our lofts have stayed open. We have seven manufacturing facilities in seven different countries. Sri Lanka produces by far the most amount of sails, and Minden, Nevada, produces the biggest sails. Minden, for the most part, has stayed open, as has Milford, Connecticut, and Gosport, England. The complete shut offs were Sri Lanka and New Zealand, and New Zealand came out of their quarantine last week and got right back up to speed. In Sri Lanka, they’re back to two shifts out of the three shifts that they normally run this time of year. France and Spain were both down for a bit, but are back at full capacity.

For North Sails as a whole, it could have been a lot worse because this is our busiest time of year. We’re going to work like crazy to make up for lost time on the manufacturing side, as we had a really good backlog due to great selling months in December, January and February. Hopefully, we can begin to catch up as we come back to full speed. Our salesmen are engaged. Our webinars have been a huge success, allowing our knowledgeable people to talk directly to the marketplace and open up the conversation on an individual basis. We’ve changed up a lot of how we work, but we are still focused on the customer’s needs being number one in the new landscape. We’re bullish going forward, especially on the cruising side.

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3. North recently came out with its 3Di NORDAC line of cruising sail products, how’s that going and what new ideas are your sailmakers experimenting with for cruisers?

Let’s just be brutally honest. Cruising is our immediate future! All the regattas were canceled very early on in the COVID-19 crisis. We therefore front-footed the cruising side and moved almost a year ahead on the expansion of our key cruising products.

Our 3Di patented spread-filament technology and its applications are as wide ranging as you can get in in the sailing world. We have 3Di NORDAC at one end for the smaller boats. 3Di Endurance is a crossover sail for a wide range of boat sizes and owners who are looking for a blend of performance and extreme durability. And 3Di RAW, for flat-out racing performance, from 20-footers to 200-footers. To help bolster our cruising line, we fast-forwarded the development and production of a new line of cruising sails called 3Di Ocean. These are strictly for cruisers who want to look at and trim beautiful modern sails. 3Di Ocean is engineered to have a little more give to it, but at the core it is the same three-dimensional spread-filament technology as our best racing sales. We’re really excited about this new line and Cruising World readers can sign up on northsails.com to be the first to know.

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Volvo Ocean Race
Ken Read takes an on-deck break during a leg of the Volvo Ocean Race. Courtesy North Sails

4. Having led a couple of Volvo Ocean Race campaigns, you have more experience than most with being locked down in close quarters and seeing the same faces day after day. What sort of advice can you offer to people on how to stay positive and productive? You know, not feel like killing each other?

My longest leg was 42 days from China to Rio. We’re probably beyond 42 days at this stage during the COVID crisis. The most important thing is respect; respect others more than you’ve ever imagined before in your life. Respect their space, respect their habits, respect their quirks. Second is communication. Open up dialogue like you’ve never done before. And just don’t let it get to you. If something gets to you, it’s already too late. So, you gotta figure out how to stop the thing that is bugging you long before it starts bugging you.

Unlike being in the middle of the ocean, the good news is that we’re not soaking wet all the time. You can take a shower when you want to and you don’t have to eat freeze-dried foods. God help us if we get to the point that we all have to eat freeze-dried, not take a shower, and have cold salt water dumped on our heads 24 hours a day. When you think about that, being confined to our homes sounds pretty good!

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5. On a personal note, this summer’s racing calendar is looking as though it’s going to be pretty disrupted. As restrictions start to ease, what are your plans for getting out on the water and what sorts of sailing—or other adventures—are you looking forward to?

I think this gives us all an opportunity to get back into our local markets like maybe we haven’t in a long time. For somebody like me, it’s easy to be tempted by the big programs and the big projects and the glamour part of the sport. But, I can’t wait to get back into the local sailing scene. I’m hopeful a lot of the local racing is still going to happen like shorthanded beer-can local racing, yacht club cruises, and just day sailing. It’s going to be one of those summers where I’m actually looking forward to really not being on an airplane all the time. We’re gonna think global but act local. All around the world, all of our North sales facilities are going to be servicing and communicating with local markets and the yacht clubs and sailing clubs that we grew up at more than we have in a long, long time. And hopefully, that’s not just temporary. Hopefully, that’s for the future. Our local markets are vital to helping sailing grow again. Timing is great to hit the refresh button!

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