Images trigger memory. Preparing to interview the golden boy of American sailing, I thought I would find a picture that would show Ken Read at the peak of his sailing career, his heyday, to share and have a warm and fuzzy start to our conversation.
It was a commanding image from the weather quarter of Dennis Conner’s Stars and Stripes during the 2003 America’s Cup. That dark, high-gloss hull, red, white and blue cove stripe, sponsor logos everywhere. And there’s Kenny Read, blond hair flying around, hunched on the rail where any racing sailor with any ambition wanted to be. He was the leader of a two-boat Cup team, with all the top American sailors and designers. As good as it gets.
My idea backfired.
“The 2003 Cup was no fun,” says Read, with a nervous laugh. He pauses, stares at his desk, then looks up. “I had to manage huge expectations. We had all these different teams that didn’t speak to each other. How could it be wrong? It was a disaster.”
One of the two boats, USA 77, sank while training off San Diego when its rudder post failed and the Pacific Ocean filled the carbon hull. The team never recovered.
“Dennis wasn’t easy on me. There were a lot of fingers being pointed,” Read recalls. “I came out of that at the lowest point in my career.” Up until the eventual elimination of Stars and Stripes, the awkward silver trophy that is the America’s Cup was all that mattered to Read. He hadn’t thought beyond it. Afterward, he had to re-think everything.
Sitting there in Read’s light-filled North Sails office on lower Thames Street in Newport, we were a stone’s throw away from the same wharves that saw the birth of such American heroes as Hood, Turner and Conner. However, while Read’s name is often used in the same breath as these Cup legends, he has never won the America’s Cup. Nor has he won either of the rest of the big three: the Volvo Ocean Race and the Olympic Games. In fact, how a sailor who never won any of the big three became the most influential American sailor of his generation is a curious story that in many ways runs parallel to the growth of modern professional yacht racing in general.
Today, he’s a two-time Rolex Yachtsman of the Year and runs the largest sailmaking company in the world, North Sails, with well over $100 million in annual sales. He has been the face and voice of multiple America’s Cups for NBC, carrying the torch lit by Gary Jobson in the 1980s. Even Optimist sailors know him from his visits to big junior events. Then there are his pet projects—like the record-setting 100-footer Comanche—that drive every aspect of the sport forward and inspire others to do the same. In other words, he’s a leader.
Beyond that, if there is one attribute that, more than any other, has helped get Read where he is today, it’s that he knows how to capitalize on an opportunity.
First impressions of the 58-year-old Read are often that he’s deferential, curious about his audience and a little loose. You’ll see him stick his hands in his pocket, purse his lips, lean in and listen, really listen—to the crazy wealthy business mogul who is thinking of building a new J-Class yacht; to the top French designer of the latest Jules Verne record holder; to the North Sails employee who has never sailed before; or to a college sailing crew introduced by their parents. For such a seemingly macho, driven guy, Read spends more time listening than talking.
“He’s one of the world’s best communicators,” says Shirley Robertson, host of CNN’s MainSail and a double Olympic gold medalist. “He can connect with owners and sailors. In the Volvo, he has brought that event to life. It’s so crucial in our sport and so rare.”
Back when Robertson featured Read on MainSail, she met him at both a North Sails board meeting in England and the company’s Minden, Nevada, manufacturing facility. She subsequently labeled him one of the “busiest men in sailing.” “He’s really well respected,” Robertson says. “You see him in action. He leads people, and people listen. He has a true understanding of the sport and how to develop it.”
The competitive gene runs deep in the Read family. Mom was a multi-sport hall of famer at Connecticut College. Dad was a varsity hockey player at Brown and also sailed with his now-famous sailing buddies Ted Turner and Tom Hazelhurst. Training for Read and his brother Brad consisted of cruising and Sunfish time trials around a mooring field.
Having only sailed on Narragansett Bay as a child, he promptly won the Freshman New Englands upon entering Boston University. That led to three years as an All American and his being crowned College Sailor of the Year as a junior in 1982.
“I was blown away how much time my sailing schedule took,” says Ken looking back on his college career. “I learned how to fight for everything. How to be prepared. To tactically control a race. I was constantly trying to lose weight.”
Boston’s coach at the time was Skip Whyte, one of the country’s dinghy stars sailing Olympic 470s. Classmates Pete Melvin and John Shadden, who would also become Olympic medalists, pushed Read hard. The writing was on the wall.
Timing is everything. The iconic J/24 was the international class where, beyond the Olympics, top national sailors were compared. Right out of school, Read got what he saw as a golden ticket and an opportunity that he would capitalize on in spades, setting the course for his professional career.
“There were a few kids in their senior year that people knew were good,” says Read, explaining how, like a professional football draft, industry leaders in New England, including Goetz Boats, Hall Spars and Shore Sails, were all looking for sailors. “There was no $500 per day. You were drafted by an industry. Part of the job was, ‘Shut up and go win.’”
In the end, Shore Sails tapped Read, making him head instructor at the Barrington Yacht Club where Bill Shore gave him a J/24 for the summer. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, they’re paying our expenses.’ The boat was named Momma Tried. We had the greatest thing going ever.”
Later that year they won the Canadian nationals, and then a few years after that Read and Dan Neri bought Shore sails with a five-year high-interest loan from the state. “We had less than zero money,” Read recalls. “We paid off the loan in three years. The business took off, and so did my career. That was a way to get by.”
Taking on an Olympic campaign was easier in the 1980s when you worked in the sailing industry. Read started along that path as a natural progression. “I wanted to sail against Dave Curtis, so I started a Soling campaign,” he says. However, for a young businessman, the two sailing gigs weren’t compatible.
“We had to sell sails and pay people,” says Read. “I quickly realized I couldn’t do it. So I sent all the checks back to our donors.”
Financially, Read made an excellent call. The titles rolled in, six world championship victories in the J/24 alone and countless North American wins. In the late 1980s, these accolades led to Read’s first paid jobs on IOR big boats at $500 a day, which he split with his business partner, Neri. Business soared.
It wasn’t long before the rapidly expanding machine of North Sails just had to have Read on its team. The organization is so influential in the sport that when a sailmaker switches over to the “blue team,” people refer to it as going to the “dark side.”
With more support and his uncanny ability to boil down technology into a sales pitch for his team, Read made big strides. He was on the leading edge of developing the revolutionary manufacturing process for 3DL, which eventually evolved into 3Di. He would eventually lead the company.
“The North presidents were Lowell North, Gary Weissman, John Marshall,” says Gary Jobson, the figurehead of sailing broadcasting and Cup winner with Ted Turner. “This was a science-based operation. They were engineers and good at selling. Ken follows in that mold. He’s technical and great at sailing.”
Read’s pre-America’s Cup pinnacle came when he led the American team to victory in the Admiral’s Cup aboard Helmut Jahn’s 50-footer Flash Gordon. The top big-boat performance in the fleet, the victory showed that if you wanted to win in big boats, Ken Read was your guy.
The 1995 America’s Cup could easily be forgotten by the San Diego Yacht Club since that was the year New Zealand took the trophy away from the United States. For Read, it was a rude awakening, too.
As strategist for PACT 95, Read found himself in a kitchen full of chefs. Helmsman Kevin Mahaney and tactician John Kostecki were boiling over with talent, as was Read. In the end, though, the three weren’t cohesive, and Read was bumped from his role.
“I was flying back to San Diego with a senior member of the syndicate, and he said they were taking me off because we weren’t meeting expectations,” Read recalls. “I don’t think it was a bad idea, I just didn’t see it coming. It was my first real punch in the nose. The key to dealing with that was not being an individual and pointing fingers. Just go to work and do your job.”
At the Louis Vuitton opening ceremonies that year, Dennis Conner came over to Read and said, “I can’t believe they canned you,” and Read wound up forging a tight bond with Mr. America’s Cup. The next Cup in 2000 saw Read and the one-boat Team Dennis Conner overachieve and place a close third in the Louis Vuitton challengers series. “We did so much with so little,” says Read.
After the failure of Stars and Stripes, though, Read realized he needed something new.
“What it did was make me sick of windward-leeward racing and want to go around the world,” Read says of his final Cup experience. “In 2005 I wasn’t thrilled with work, and when I read that Kostecki had left the Ericsson Volvo Ocean Race team to start a Cup team, I thought I would get a call. Three minutes later [Ericsson skipper] Neal McDonald rang.” McDonald asked Read to sail Leg 6 of the 2005/06 VOR from Baltimore to New York. Read, however, wanted more and told McDonald, “OK, but I want to do the rest of the race as well.”
“I learned how tough you have to be,” Read says now, explaining how the team had a serious case of the slows. “There’s a whole other world out there I never saw.”
Afterward, when Read asked Ericsson for a spot in the next race, Ericsson said, no. “Thank God they did,” Read says. “That’s when the Puma thing came.”
Sportswear manufacturer Puma ultimately sponsored Read’s team in both the 2008-09 and 2011-12 race, in which they finished second and third respectively, despite a famed dismasting in their second appearance. In fact, all of Read’s skills were needed in the Volvo—schmoozing with sponsors, program and design management, team selection and a heavy dose of leadership. “Before the first race in Alicante, I ran behind a container and threw up,” Read recalls.
In the end, though the last two editions of the Volvo that showcased the avant-garde, wildly fast Volvo 70s were largely defined by Puma’s iconic black cat. And the next thing Read knew he was once again a favorite on the world stage, despite only being in his late 40s.
President of a Sport
Post-Volvo, lacking the stamina and desire for another lap of the planet, but reinvigorated, Read took up the offer to become president of North in 2013.What followed was a string of campaigns that established him as one of the most influential individuals in the sport. Indeed, it seemed there was no corner he didn’t touch: he was a Cup analyst and on the ground floor of lucrative one-design sail packages for the Cup and Volvo; he helped kickstart the ridiculously fanciful recreation of the J-Class with Jim Clark’s Hanuman; and he led the creation of a new breed of ocean-record-setting boats with the wildly fast monohull Comanche.
“You’ve got to get someone to believe in you and fund you. Then you have to deliver,” Jobson says of Read’s organizational ability. “He’s always listening and learning. [With Comanche] he brought together some talents. He knew who to call. He was a conduit for those developments. He’s made a good living at it. He’s excellent at identifying an opportunity and doing something with it.”
With respect to the question whether Ken Read is one of the greatest sailors of our time, Jobson says without hesitation: “He scores in the excellent category, but not extraordinary. Part of that was his concern over making a living and selling sails. He’s an inspiring guy. Upbeat. I think that’s infectious.”
As for Read’s brother, Brad, who exposes thousands to the sport annually and helps create professional pathways for aspiring young sailors, he says: “Ken’s one of the best sailors to compete on any level. In one-design and his leadership in the Admiral’s Cup, especially as a project manager, he’s one of the best natural sailors. He’s right there with Torben Grael.”
As for Robertson, she says she sees Read’s role at North as bigger than just running a business. “He’s always looked at the sport with a commercial eye and looked at the bigger picture of the sport, not just his next gig,” Robertson says. She adds that her visit to the North facility in Nevada also illustrated how it is that Read can be so influential. “He knew everything. He stood up in front of the workers and showed pictures of the boat they had made sails for,” she says. “He brought the whole thing together for everyone there. Whether you’re someone who clocks in at Minden, or the owner of a superyacht, Kenny knows how to communicate at that level and knows how to sell our sport.”
Meanwhile, Read continues to look forward, although in contrast to his Cup years, he now has control over his destiny and can channel his influence where and when he wants.
“We need to get more amateurs back into the sport and have more females in key roles on teams,” says Read. “I love the athletic part of the sport right now, too. But I think the professional side needs to be regulated. Amateurs should be separate from professionals. We have to find a line, but the classes also have to do it.”
As for his personal sailing goals, when I spoke to him Read was preparing to fly to St. Barth for a superyacht regatta. With a house on the water, he is also learning to windsurf and has recently partnered with his neighbors in a little classic racing boat, a Graves Constellation, which they sail in Wednesday night beer can races. Asked if he has another big racing campaign in mind, though, he shakes his head. “Now it’s time to run the company,” he says.