At this year’s boot in Düsseldorf, US sailmaker North Sails presented the new NPL Renew, a sustainable sailcloth for yachts up to 45 feet (13.7 meters) in length that consists of 90 percent recycled material and Finnish trees. SeaHelp spoke to Tom Davis, NPL RENEW Product Director at North Sails, about sustainability in sailing.
There is hardly a sailor who is not familiar with the name North Sails. The global innovator in sailmaking, action sports and apparel was founded in California in 1957 by aerospace engineer and sailmaker Lowell North and is now the sailmaker of choice for prestigious events such as the America’s Cup, Grand Prix, ocean racing, Olympic Games and superyachts, as well as offering a range of sails for almost every boat and yacht.
However, North Sails has never been satisfied with the status quo. On the contrary: the sailmakers around President Ken Read are constantly redefining sailmaking. In partnership with Oakley Capital, North Sails is the cornerstone of the growing North Technology Group (NTG), a conglomerate of companies in the nautical industry that also includes Southern Spars and EdgeWater Powerboats.
One of NTG’s latest innovations to cause a stir in the yachting scene is Renew, a North Panel laminate for performance cruising yachts, which claims that around 90 percent of the raw materials used in sailcloth production come from sustainable sources. SeaHelp spoke to Tom Davis, Product Director at North Sails and responsible for the Renew program, at boot in Düsseldorf.
SeaHelp: How did the new, sustainable sails come about at North Sails?
Tom Davis: For North Sails, making high-quality sails has always meant using the best materials. Since our inception, we have often developed products that have changed the industry, we have pioneered innovations in sailmaking technology, and we have developed many materials and processes in the past to meet the needs of the widest possible range of boats and sail types.
We are now using the same approach to find solutions for sustainable sails, environmentally friendly manufacturing, the use of alternative fibers and opportunities for the circular economy of materials. In 2022, we began conducting life cycle analyses of our manufacturing processes to find ways to reduce our carbon footprint, pollution and waste and increase the longevity of our products.
This led to the development of NPL Renew, which will be launched later this year and is available for cruising boats up to 45 feet (13.7 meters) in length. For us, it is the start of a new and important shift in sailmaking towards a more sustainable sail that does not compromise on performance and durability.
How exactly did the development of the new, sustainable fabric take place and what is it made of?
The story behind NPL Renew began a long time ago through continuous collaboration with the upstream suppliers who produce the most important raw materials for sail manufacturing. We have been diligently learning about the new, more sustainable materials being developed in various areas, particularly films, fibers and fabrics.
We also carefully and comprehensively checked the authenticity of sustainability claims and thoroughly tested the materials developed before launching the product. With Renew, we want to be 100 percent sure that we as a company can really stand behind the carbon footprint improvements and the authenticity of the sustainable materials in our sailcloth.
The first step was the integration of polyester film. In 2020, North Sails switched the film in our entire NPL range to using a polyester film developed from recycled water bottles. Our supply partner produces a 100% recycled polyester film that is chemically indistinguishable from conventional film and offers comparable performance. North Sails had already made this change in all of its product lines without much fanfare at the time.
The next important innovation was the development of more sustainable yarns. The problem with this was that yarns made from recycled materials don’t usually match the performance of virgin materials, but we didn’t stop there and worked to compensate for this through innovative fabric design and sail construction, with minimal increase in sail weight.
Next, we looked at high modulus, high performance yarns such as carbon fiber, Kevlar and ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene such as Spectra, Dyneema and others. For NPL Renew, we used Dyneema, which our supplier uses trees from the pulp industry in Finland to make into polyethylene.
The fourth and final area we looked at was resins and glue systems. We have found that the types of resin we use at North Sails are incredibly durable and we have not yet found a good alternative that is more sustainable. We are still conducting tests and working with various suppliers to find a more sustainable solution in this area too. However, we are confident that North Sails will soon be the first to find the right resin, which will further improve the sustainability of our Renew sails.
How – and for how long – were the new, sustainable sails stitched?
We started by testing the raw material at laboratory level. North Sails has state-of-the-art research and development labs in Minden, Nevada (USA) and Sri Lanka with sophisticated equipment specifically designed to simulate real-life conditions that our sails are exposed to on the water.
We then tested the materials and finally the resulting NPL sailcloth on the laminator. The next step was to build different sails and test them on the water, closely evaluating the performance and sail shape of each. The final raw material mix was – and is – then optimized and manufactured in North Sails’ own factory in Sri Lanka.
The bottom line is that we have tested our new product to the limit. After the tests, which were very satisfactory for us, we are very confident that with the new NPL Renew sails we will be able to offer the cruising sailors among our customers unbeatable durability and sail shape in relation to conventional sails, without compromising on performance.
How the new Renew cloths are made
The North Panel Laminate sailcloths are produced using the most advanced laminator in the world. Our machine was developed by our material engineers at North Sails specifically for laminating sailcloth. North Sails has been producing exclusive fabrics in our Sri Lanka factory since 2010. A fully integrated and powerful computer code controls the entire laminating process.
Our perfectionist level of control ensures the highest quality laminated materials possible. As a natural extension of the NPL cloth line, Renew sails are now also made in Sri Lanka, with no changes or additions required in production or shipping.
The magic of North Paneled Laminates lies in our Exact X-Ply machine, which we introduced in 2014. A rotating creel, unique to North Sails, allows for the quick application of variable angle X-scrims. This customized laminate machine and our proprietary construction process allow for exceptional laminate bonding with minimal adhesive.
The resulting product is functionally superior sails; higher strength and longer durability compared to non-North laminates, whether it’s Renew products or sails from the broad NPL line. We are of course particularly proud that with the new NPL Renew we have managed to produce a sailcloth that is sustainable and still offers the performance and durability that our customers value.
One of our customers, the owner of a Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 349 from Newport, Rhode Island, said of the new cloth that “his toy is now a bit cooler” thanks to NPL Renew, and that this is a good thing.
Are further steps planned in terms of sustainable solutions at North Sails?
NPL Renew is just the beginning. Not only will we strive to further optimize RENEW in terms of sustainable raw material sources and the sailing performance and durability of the product, but we will also turn our focus on sustainability to the broader North Sails product lines, including 3Di.
We will continue to work with suppliers to identify and refine the raw materials we need to produce ever more sustainable sails for all customers. The next big innovation in sustainable sourcing needs to be in carbon fiber, and you can be sure that we are working hard with the industry leaders on this right now.
The ocean is our life source and keeps us in business. To ensure a healthier ocean and so that we can continue to sail in this amazing environment, we are committed to making changes to our products and operations and advocating for the health of the oceans, winds and life on earth.
That’s why North Sails Group has made three sustainability pledges: we want to reduce emissions from our own operations, we want to be a leader in responsible product innovation, and we want to empower our employees to care for the environment. Finally, we are committed to using the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) method to learn more about the environmental impact of our products and set targets to reduce waste and pollution.
An important aspect of achieving these goals is to introduce more recycled content and minimize waste and pollution during manufacturing. By 2025, North Sails will introduce a Responsible Product Scorecard for all our products to monitor and assess the environmental footprint. We will also set measurable targets for circular products that can be recycled at the end of their life cycle.
More information about North Sails: northsails.com, until Sunday, January 28 at boot Düsseldorf in Hall 10H22.
SeaHelp at boot: visit us and SeaHelp Insurance Broker in Hall 10, Stand F55 – easy to find by simply following the large SeaHelp balloon in the middle of the hall. Here you can also pick up the latest issue of our SeaMagazine 2024 free of charge. Up-to-date information on boot Düsseldorf 2024 can be found on the website www.boot.de.