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North’s new 3Dr racing sails

Brad Cameron owns a Merit 25 racer/cruiser and competes in 30 races a season on San Francisco Bay. He drives a truck for a living and judiciously spends his dollars on racing gear like laminated membrane sails, which he loves “because they go faster longer.”

Brad Cameron owns a Merit 25 racer/cruiser and competes in 30 races a season on San Francisco Bay. He drives a truck for a living and judiciously spends his dollars on racing gear like laminated membrane sails, which he loves “because they go faster longer.” Cameron is the prototypical weekend warrior and, as such, a poster-boy customer for North’s new 3Dr racing sails.

A dozen years after the world’s largest sailmaker (about 35 to 40 percent of the market share) introduced 3DL three-

dimensionally molded membrane sails — which have become the standard on winning America’s Cup, Volvo Ocean Race and Grand Prix-level yachts — the technology is trickling down to one-design classes, dinghies and keelboats below 35 feet that previously were considered too small. Advances in production technology are putting these high-tech sails within reach of small-budget racing sailors. The promised performance gains come from significantly lower weight aloft and the sails’ ability to hold their shape better across a larger wind spectrum than conventional Dacron sails, which tend to stretch more.

Like 3DL, 3Dr are three-dimensionally thermo-molded sails that are produced with aramid fibers under vacuum pressure with adhesives instead of stitches at the seams. Rather than using a conventional stationary mold, 3Dr sails are manufactured on a rotating drum with 2,200 computer-controlled pistons inside to adjust the surface continuously so that it conforms to the sail’s designed shape. North experimented with rotary mold technology for five years before arriving at this process that combines film, fiber and scrim materials over a three-dimensional molded shape. Heat, vacuum pressure and adhesives are then applied to bond the final product. A spokesman indicated that North has licensed the rotary mold process to the Boeing Company, where it will be used in the production of composite aircraft fuselages.

North says 3Dr will significantly increase the production efficiency of 3D-molded mainsails, jibs and genoas for boats smaller than 35 feet, without taking up the large 3DL molds in its facilities in Minden, Nev., and Sri Lanka, while simultaneously reducing the wait for new sails.

“It’s been a long haul and a sizeable investment for North Sails, although finally, this amazing machine is producing sails each and every week,” says Jay Hansen, vice president of North Marine Group. “The 3Dr mold will produce smaller sails at about 10 times the rate of the 3DL molds. This will allow us to increase sail production capacity for larger sails.”

North also emphasizes that the curing time for the adhesives in the heated 3Dr drum is shorter than with an open mold, where heat lamps can cure only one section of sail at a time.

Currently, 3Dr sails are limited to a sail-foot length of around 22 feet and a fiber density of up to 15,000 deniers per inch. Pricing and shipping for the new sails may vary, depending on demand and other factors, but a No. 1 genoa for a J/105 in 3Dr costs around $3,260 and ships in seven weeks. The aramid panel version of that genoa is around $3,180, and ships in seven weeks as well. The same sail in “traditional” 3DL and Kevlar fiber is around $3,660 with a three-month delivery time.

Some of North’s competitors are watching the 3Dr rollout closely, calling the new technology a breakthrough. However, they also speculate about possible limitations of 3Dr. “The rotating drum requires vertical broad-seaming, meaning that there are fewer panels and their orientation is foot-to-head instead of luff-to-leech,” says David Flynn, marketing director at Quantum Sails. “Vertical panels have been known to make sail shapes more difficult to control. However, this is not about making a superior product. It is about making a good product more affordable.”

David Ullman, president of Ullman sails, concurs. “It took [North] years to develop this process with successes and failures, but it is absolutely revolutionary and allows them to offer a product that’s more in line with the price of other molded membrane sails.”

But Ullman wonders whether 3Dr will be as good as 3DL. “It’s about the right shape and the right amount of camber,” he says. “The real test isn’t so much in PHRF but one-design racing. We’ll learn more during the season.”

Up to now, club-level racing has been a key market for small, independent lofts, but 3Dr might change that. Kame Richards, a veteran sailmaker and owner of Pineapple Sails in Alameda, Calif., vows to stay his course. “Many customers want to see where and how their sails are being made, and they want to talk to the sailmaker when they have questions,” he says. “In this job you’re also a shrink, so personal relationships are important.”

Will weekend warrior Cameron dip into his kitty and spring for a set of 3Dr sails? “I’m in the market for a new main that I want to race two or three seasons,” he says. “If 3Dr is in my price range and fast, I might give it a whirl. There’s only one problem: How am I going to tell my buddies at the old loft?”

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