Sea of technology for sailing in Carson Valley

The site in the ocean where America's Cup racing takes place is just south of Auckland, New Zealand.

But the sea of technology for participants in sailing's premier event is located in the heart of the Carson Valley, more than 10,000 miles away from the actual racing.

Two Minden companies, North Sails Nevada and Omohundro, are highly visible suppliers for the majority of the Challenger syndicates now battling for the Louis Vuitton Cup off the Kiwi coast. The winner of the Louis Vuitton Cup, whose final races are set for Jan. 25 through Feb. 13, 2000, will advance to sail for the America's Cup against the Defender -Team New Zealand.

The two companies are physical neighbors on Heybourne Road and both are a subsidiary of Windway. Omohundro was the first of the two to locate in Minden; North Sails moved in next door to create some synergy among the two sister companies and reduce shared costs. (Note that there is no relationship between the amount of wind in the Carson Valley and its suitability for the production of sailing equipment.)

Of the 11 Challengers in the Vuitton Cup, North Sails is supplying 10 of the entrants with sails. North Sails will also provide Team New Zealand with its sails during America's Cup competition. Omohundro products, which include masts, spars, booms and spinnaker poles, are currently used on three of the yachts.

North Sails' near monopoly among the Challenger syndicates stems from the fact that the company's Minden facility is the only one in the world currently capable of producing 3DL (three-dimensional laminating process) sails, a type of sail which leaves the traditional sewn, multiple-panel sails in its wake.

"The 3DL sail can make a significant difference, up to 30 seconds per (three-mile) leg in a race," said North Sails general manager John Welch, who noted the other major variables on a yacht are the hulls, keels, rudders and masts. Vuitton Cup races are 18.5 miles in length and include six legs.

Although an engineering degree helps to understand the process, a 3DL sail is first molded into the sail shape desired by a syndicate. Mylar film is then put on the mold and tensioned. A structural fiber (such as kevlar) is then applied to the Mylar to strengthen the sail to its anticipated loads. A second film is then laid over the two layers and then the three layers are heat cured together.

The advantages of a 3DL sail, which is 30 percent lighter than a traditional sail, come into play at very high loads over a long period of time. Considering the sail area of a America's Cup Class can reach more than 5,000 square feet and there are 30 days of racing remaining in the Louis Vuitton Cup, it's no wonder North Sails products are in high demand - even with some main sails, which will last from 6-100 hours depending on conditions, priced at nearly $60,000.

"It's very much like Formula One car racing," said Welch, a native New Zealander who himself competed in the America's Cup in 1987 as a sail trimmer on the Kookuburra team which lost to Dennis Connor's Stars and Stripes. "Sailing has always been technology-driven, with people looking to go past existing boundaries."

With the demand from the America's Cup combining with the usual requests for North Sails products, most of the company's nearly 100,000 square foot facility is covered by sails in various stages of production.

About 150 employees work at North Sails, including several employees who spend their day dangling in harnesses above the huge sails applying the various layers of material. The company plans to do about $22 million in retail business this year, with more than one-third of sales to America's Cup syndicates.

One of the most fascinating steps to watch in the production of a 3DL sail is the actual electronic mold shaping of a sail through the use of a computer program. The program manipulates the sail into its desired "computer conceived" flying sail shape through the use of more than 200 critically positioned pneumatic pistons.

With its near monopoly among the Challengers, North Sails must maintain a high level of confidentiality among itself and its individual clients. It is company policy that the mold shapes, fiber composition and thread layouts chosen by one syndicate cannot be divulged to another syndicate.

"You can't share information between the teams when you're in a business like this," said Tom Dodson, the managing director for North Sails, New Zealand, in a Louis Vuitton Cup website interview. "If we got caught once, we'd never be trusted again. It just doesn't happen. It's that simple."

Next door at Omohundro Company, the situation is similar, as the company is supplying masts for AmericaOne, America True, and Stars and Stripes. But because there is more competition within the mast industry, Omohundro doesn't have quite the same monopoly among the syndicates that North Sails enjoys.

At Omohundro, masts ranging from 30-185 feet long are produced out of carbon fiber/epoxy materials. The goal is to produce a strong, stiff - yet still lightweight - mast for the company's customers whether they are sailing a small catamaran or an America's Cup Class Yacht.

"The compression weight at the bottom of a America's Cup mast can reach 60 tons," said Scott Vogel, the director of design engineering at Omohundro, when explaining the necessity of a superior mast. "Some people think New Zealand won (the '95 America's Cup) because of its sail and mast combo and how it interacted."

The materials used in Omohundro's mast originated in the aerospace industry. In fact, Omohundro was primarily an aerospace defense company before Dennis Connor approached Tom Omohundro in 1988 to build a 100-foot carbon catamaran mast.

The America's Cup windfall for Omohundro occurred before the actual racing began. Unlike sails, masts are a big-ticket item with an indefinite lifespan. Vogel said it's common for syndicates to purchase two masts for the race series, a considerable amount considering the masts are priced at about $300,000 apiece.

Vogel himself has competed in four America's Cups and was twice on the winning team. In 1980, he won on the Freedom syndicate's Enterprise, and in 1987, he was on the victorious Stars and Stripes.

While at work, Vogel occasionally takes a peek on the Internet to see how the Vuitton Cup competition is shaping up. He's especially interested in the three yachts using Omohundro masts.

"One customer doesn't matter," Vogel said. "We're looking for a good overall result."

The following Challengers are supplied with sails by Minden's North Sails:

-- AmericaOne (USA), Skipper Paul Cayard: Representing the St. Francis Yacht Club of San Francisco, Cayard was named the 1998 Yachtsman of the Year and won the 1997-98 Whitbread Around the World Race (Uses Omohundro masts).

-- America True (USA), Skipper Dawn Riley: Riley, the only American woman to sail in two Whitbread Around the World Races and two America's Cups, is the first woman to lead an America's Cup Challenge (Uses Omohundro masts).

-- Australian Challenge (Australia), Skipper James Spithill: The entry from the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia is led by the youngest-ever skipper of an America's Cup challenger, 20-year-old James Spithill.

-- Fast 2000 (Switzerland), Skipper Marc Pajot: Switzerland's first challenger for an America's Cup comes from the Alps near Lake Geneva.

-- Le Defi (France), Skipper Bertrand Pace: The French entry is skippered by Bertrand Pace, an America's Cup tactician in 1992 and 1995.

-- Nippon Challenge (Japan), Skipper Peter Gilmour: A two-time semifinalist in the Vuitton Cup, the Nippon Challenge is back for a third run with three-time world champ Gilmour, an Australian, in charge.

-- Prada Challenge (Italy), Skipper Francesco de Angelis: The richest of the challengers, its budget has swelled to $50 million. The last Italian challenger reached the Cup final in 1992.

-- Spanish Challenge (Spain), Skipper Pedro Campos: Campos is leading his third challenge for an America's Cup. He finished fifth in the Vuitton Cup in '92.

-- Team Dennis Connor (USA), Skipper Dennis Conner: The man who has won the America's Cup four times and lost it twice is back, this time sailing a version of Stars & Stripes designed by the highly successful team of John Reichel and Jim Pugh, whose boats have won the last two Cups (Uses Omohundro masts).

-- Young America (USA), Skipper Ed Baird: Baird coached Team New Zealand to its 1995 victory. The Young America team, representing the New York Yacht Club, boasts 17 Cup victories.


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