Lowell North, World Champion Sailor and Innovative Sailmaker, Dies at 89

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Lowell North, a five-time world champion and Olympic gold medal-winning sailor who was also the founder of North Sails, the largest sailmaker in the world, died on Sunday at his home in San Diego. He was 89.

His daughter Julie North said he died a day after having a stroke. She added that he had had several strokes in the past.

Mr. North’s string of championships in Star Class sailboats began when he was a teenager. From the start, he approached sailing as an engineer as well as an athlete.

Star Class boats are stripped-down, two-sailor vessels that are designed to maximize speed and are tricky to sail — the sailing equivalent of Formula One racecars. In an interview on Tuesday, the sailing historian John Rousmaniere called the Star Class world championships “the World Series of sailors.”

At 14, Mr. North recut the sail of his father’s Star sailboat, improving it so much that the next year Malin Burnham, a 17-year-old rising star of the San Diego sailing scene, asked Mr. North to crew with him in the 1945 Star Class world championships in the waters off Stamford, Conn.

“He didn’t want me so much,” Mr. North told Newsweek in 1968. “But he wanted to use my sails. As for navigating, he was quite a bit ahead of me. In fact, Malin soon learned to ask my advice and then do just the opposite.”

The boys won the championship, and soon after that they began to compete against each other on the regatta circuit.

Mr. North went on to win four world championships skippering Star boats, in 1957, 1959, 1960 and 1973. He won a bronze medal at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, sailing in a three-person Dragon Class boat, and a gold medal at the 1968 Olympics off Acapulco, Mexico, in a Star Class boat.

Mr. Burnham said in an interview on Wednesday that Mr. North had been an inveterate tinkerer. In the 1964 Star Class world championships, he said, Mr. North “probably had an extra 30 holes drilled in his deck from moving fittings from one place to the other.”

“Lowell was always looking for a better way,” he added. “He was never satisfied with what he was doing.”

That drive to improve led Mr. North to found North Sails in the late 1950s, setting up shop in San Diego. It has since grown to more than 80 locations around the world. North Sails used synthetic materials like Dacron to make lighter, more resilient sails; embraced computer modeling to create more efficient sail shapes; and in time became a leader in the industry.

“He approached sailing and sail making in a more scientific way, which led to advantages,” Mr. Rousmaniere said. “He was a real scholar of the technology, which was quite complicated.”

By the late 1970s Mr. North was spending more time racing much larger yachts. He was a contender to sail in the America’s Cup in 1977, racing against sailing luminaries like Ted Turner and Ted Hood in trials, but he did not qualify.

Since 1988, North Sails has been a regular supplier for boats in America’s Cup races.

Lowell Orten North was born on Dec. 2, 1929, in Springfield, Mo., to Willard and Juanita (Williams) North. His father was a geophysicist for oil companies; his mother was a homemaker. The family moved to Southern California when Lowell was young, and he began sailing while growing up in Newport Beach and later San Diego.

Mr. North studied at San Diego State University and earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of California, Berkeley. He worked as a structural engineer in the aerospace industry and married Kay Gillette in 1956 before founding North Sails. The marriage ended in divorce.

In 1994, Mr. North married Helen Beatrice Davidson, known as Bea, with whom he lived in San Diego. She survives him. In addition to her and his daughter Julie, he is survived by another daughter, Holly North; a son, Daniel; a stepdaughter, Sandra Kelly; a stepson, Houston Spencer; a grandson; and two step-grandsons.

Mr. North sold North Sails in 1984 for several million dollars and then bought a cruising yacht and sailed around the world. The company he created now employs more than 3,000 people and has expanded into spar- and mast-making, rigging, kites for kite surfing, and apparel, among other things.

Tom Whidden, the chief executive of North Sails’ parent company, North Technology Group, said those various businesses generate revenues of about $400 million a year.


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