Eight Bells: Lowell North

Published on June 3rd, 2019

Lowell North, founder of North Sails, passed away June 2 with his wife Bea by his side in San Diego, CA. He was 89 years old.

Born in Springfield, Missouri, North was 14 when his curiosity led to him re-cutting the mainsail of his Star boat. A year later (1945), Malin Burnham, one of San Diego’s hottest sailors, asked the young North to crew for him in the World Championships. They won. “It wasn’t me Malin wanted,” North had said. “It was my mainsail.”

North went on to win four world’s championships as skipper in this elite class. Nearly as impressive, he finished second in the world’s five times. He brought home a gold medal in the 1968 Olympics, prompting Starlights, the Class magazine, to call him “the perfect Star sailor.”

Peter Barrett and Lowell North (right) at the medal ceremony in Acapulco 1968 Olympics.

North had won another Olympic medal (bronze) in the Dragon class (1964).

He was known for rigs so refined that occasionally something would let go. Shortly before one Star race, the main halyard parted. North and his crew, Peter Barrett, lowered the mast while on the water, threaded the mains’l into the groove, and raised it in time to make the start.

Obsessed by the shape of speed on the water, North applied his degree in engineering to sail making. He opened his first North Sails loft in San Diego in 1957. From the beginning, his was a scientific approach. He was among the very first sail makers to embrace computer modeling. He hired other champion sailors — “Tigers,” he called them — to demonstrate and sell his products. He figured anyone who could make a sailboat go fast could also be a good businessman.

Lowell sold North Sails in 1984 and retired from sailmaking. He continued to sail, racing his boat Sleeper for many years, as well as cruising the Pacific. In 2011, he was inducted into the inaugural class of the US National Sailing Hall of Fame.

Source: North Sails, National Sailing Hall of Fame

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