The Pope of Sailing

Lowell North, who died in June, revolutionized sailmaking and the sport of sailing
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Lowell North (right) at the helm of his boat Sleeper. He turned North Sails into the largest sailmaker in the world.

Lowell North (right) at the helm of his boat Sleeper. He turned North Sails into the largest sailmaker in the world.

Lowell Orton North didn’t just put his logo on his sails. He left an indelible mark on sailing.

The founder of North Sails—which turned into the world’s biggest sailmaker—died June 2 at age 89. The cause of death was a stroke, according to news reports.

Born in Missouri in 1929, the man who would become known as “the pope of sailing” got his first taste of the sport as a youngster, moving to California and
commandeering the little pram that came with his father’s powerboat. North made a sail for the pram, and the die for his career was cast.

At 14, tired of always finishing last in the Star Class boat that he raced with his dad, North recut the old cotton mainsail and started winning races. At age 15, he won his first Star World Championship when he crewed for 17-year-old Malin Burnham. Afterward, North quipped, “It wasn’t me Malin wanted; it was my mainsail.”

At 28, after earning his aeronautical engineering degree at the University of
California, Berkeley, a supervisor at the aerospace company where he worked said North needed to choose between his work and sailing. He quit his job and started cutting sails full time. That year, he won his second Star World Championship—his first as a skipper—and launched his company, North Sails.

At age 38, having already won a bronze medal at the 1964 Olympics as the U.S. Dragon skipper, he won a gold medal at the 1968 Olympics in the Star class. Minutes before one race, his main halyard parted. He and crew Peter Barrett lowered the mast on the water, threaded the main up the spar, tied it off and restepped the spar in time to make the start.

At 44, he won his fifth Star World Championship; five times he finished second, twice he finished third. Somewhere along the line, someone in a bar referred to four-time Olympic champion Paul Elvstrom as “God.” Someone else asked: “If Elvstrom is God, what does that make Lowell North?” The answer: “the pope.” The nickname stuck.

At age 48, he skippered an America’s Cup yacht. Three years later, Dennis
Conner would choose North Sails to defend the America’s Cup, successfully, and by 2007, 11 out of 12 America’s Cup syndicates used North Sails. To this day, the company continues to be the most popular sailmaker for America’s Cup campaigns.

North pioneered the application of plastic to sailcloth after weaving, and oversaw the development of radial construction and Mylar laminates. Using scientific methods, engineering skills and computers, he took sailmaking from an ancient craft to a high-tech industry. Under his leadership, North Sails pioneered the design of sails on a computer, their testing in a computer-simulated wind tunnel, the performance of computer-simulated structural analysis, and the cutting of sail material with a computer-controlled laser plotter/cutter.

At age 55, he sold North Sails. He retired, raced his boat Sleeper, and cruised the
Pacific with his wife. Eight years ago, he was inducted into the inaugural class of the National Sailing Hall of Fame.

North was also admired for his demeanor. After he passed, Burnham told ESPN, “He was always calm, cool and collected. He was a great listener. He was special.”

Clearly, Burnham didn’t just want North’s mainsail. He also liked the cut of his jib. 

This article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue.