Sailmaking ain’t what it used to be, especially out in the Nevada desert

Some years ago I visited the Bavaria factory and was amused at the thought of a powerhouse boatbuilder turning out its products smack bang in the middle of rural Germany, surrounded by fields of cows and crops. This past spring I visited two factory buildings in deepest Nevada that house the most sophisticated sailmaking operation I’ve ever seen. Obviously, building boats or sails by the water isn’t a big deal anymore.

Followers of high-level racing have no doubt noticed the increasing number of dark gray sails among the fleets over the last few years. These are 3Di sails, built at the North Sails factory—you could not call it a loft—in Minden, Nevada. What makes 3Di sails different is their construction—other sailmakers also use high-tech fibers oriented along the load paths in a sail, but the fibers are sandwiched between layers of Mylar film. North’s patented 3Di process does away with the film, instead using a clever system in which fibers are split into their elemental filaments, which are then laid up side by side into tapes, which in turn are made into sail panels by a robot and then thermo-formed into a complete sail on a three-dimensional mold.

The result, according to Minden plant manager Gautier Sergent, is a sail that is light, extremely durable and that holds its shape for a long time. The experience of the Volvo 65 one-designs and the big French Ultime multihulls would bear these claims out. With no film involved, there is nothing to delaminate. They can be torn, although with difficulty, but are easy to repair, and they take well to roller furling, unlike some film sails.

In short, the technology sounds ideal for cruisers, were it not for the expense involved in anything built with exotic fibers. The latest news from North, and the reason for my visit to Minden, is that the 3Di process is now being used to build Dacron sails. The 3Di Nordac sails will be built in exactly the same way as the sails for Grand Prix boats, but use polyester fibers and adhesives instead of expensive carbon and aramid fibers.

I took a walk around the factory buildings with Gautier to check out the process. I have to say I was impressed. Here’s how the sails are built…

1. It all starts here: spools of carbon, aramid and Dyneema fibers, each thinner than a human hair, feed a machine called the “pregger,” short for pre-impregnator. The fibers are grouped according to the kind of sail being built; raceboats will be mostly carbon, cruisers a mix of aramid and Dyneema.

1. It all starts here: spools of carbon, aramid and Dyneema fibers, each thinner than a human hair, feed a machine called the “pregger,” short for pre-impregnator. The fibers are grouped according to the kind of sail being built; raceboats will be mostly carbon, cruisers a mix of aramid and Dyneema.

2. The individual fiber filaments are arranged side by side and “pre-pregged;”—dipped in adhesive and laid onto paper backing. This is passed through a dryer to burn off solvents and then cut into narrow tapes.

2. The individual fiber filaments are arranged side by side and “pre-pregged;”—dipped in adhesive and laid onto paper backing. This is passed through a dryer to burn off solvents and then cut into narrow tapes.

3. The rolls of tape are refrigerated to keep the glue from kicking, and must be used within 90 days.

3. The rolls of tape are refrigerated to keep the glue from kicking, and must be used within 90 days.

 4. On the sailmaking floor, the tapes are loaded into a computer-controlled tape laying head connected to an overhead gantry.

 4. On the sailmaking floor, the tapes are loaded into a computer-controlled tape laying head connected to an overhead gantry.

 5. The machine lays out the tape according to the instructions the sail designers have programmed into the computer, building up the layers in high-load areas. There might be 60 or more layers in the corners and at reef points, and as few as 6 in the middle. Because of the size limitations of the sailmaking floors, big-boat sails are built in sections with tapered “scarf” joints that will be overlapped on the mold. It was fascinating to watch this machine orient the tapes in what seemed like random directions but followed the load paths on the sails. It’s hard to credit, but between 11 and 12 miles of tape goes into a mainsail for a 65ft yacht.

 5. The machine lays out the tape according to the instructions the sail designers have programmed into the computer, building up the layers in high-load areas. There might be 60 or more layers in the corners and at reef points, and as few as 6 in the middle. Because of the size limitations of the sailmaking floors, big-boat sails are built in sections with tapered “scarf” joints that will be overlapped on the mold. It was fascinating to watch this machine orient the tapes in what seemed like random directions but followed the load paths on the sails. It’s hard to credit, but between 11 and 12 miles of tape goes into a mainsail for a 65ft yacht.

6. Sail sections are rolled onto cardboard tubes and covered up for protection before being brought to the mold shop, where they are unrolled onto the mold.

6. Sail sections are rolled onto cardboard tubes and covered up for protection before being brought to the mold shop, where they are unrolled onto the mold.

7. Here is one of the smaller molds in action. The sail sections are carefully placed on the mold and covered with plastic sheeting. Pneumatically controlled jacks under the mold move individually to coax the designed shape into the sail. A vacuum sucks the air out from under the plastic film and compresses the sail against the mold. The sail is then heated to set the adhesive and lock in the shape. Each sail is different (except for one-designs) so the mold must be re-adjusted between jobs.

7. Here is one of the smaller molds in action. The sail sections are carefully placed on the mold and covered with plastic sheeting. Pneumatically controlled jacks under the mold move individually to coax the designed shape into the sail. A vacuum sucks the air out from under the plastic film and compresses the sail against the mold. The sail is then heated to set the adhesive and lock in the shape. Each sail is different (except for one-designs) so the mold must be re-adjusted between jobs.

8. Where flat sheets of fiber went into the mold, a shaped sail comes out, and is left to cure for 5 days.

8. Where flat sheets of fiber went into the mold, a shaped sail comes out, and is left to cure for 5 days.

9. It’s not all mechanized—human hands are needed for the final touches. The finishing floor was familiar territory at last.

9. It’s not all mechanized—human hands are needed for the final touches. The finishing floor was familiar territory at last.

10. And here’s the finished product, ready to be shipped to the customer.

10. And here’s the finished product, ready to be shipped to the customer.

July 2017

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