There are countless tech relationships between America’s Cup sailing and kiting – from sail design and foil performance to high-tech materials development. For North, it all culminates in one single golden egg: their talent. Victoria Stuart looks at how North Sails and North Kiteboarding are combining their knowledge in the hope of developing a super kite

WORDS: Victoria Stuart / PHOTOS: North KB

The best and brightest minds are combining the sheer experience they have gained from working at this cutting edge of technology for so many years... along with their love of kiting and sailing. America’s Cup racing provides a hotbed for developing and sustaining design talent. The race programme allows designers to experiment – it’s a space that rewards innovation. Everyone is striving to create unique solutions to the same age-old design conundrums: how do we make this product lighter, stronger, more durable, stiffer or more flexible? Throw some America’s Cup budget at the sailing industry’s best brains, many of whom are also as or more passionate about kiting, and the results will soon filter across.

Photo: North Kiteboarding Brand Director Mike Raper, David Little and North Product Manager Uli Sommerlatt

Photo: North Kiteboarding Brand Director Mike Raper, David Little and North Product Manager Uli Sommerlatt

The best and brightest minds are combining the sheer experience they have gained from working at this cutting edge of technology for so many years... along with their love of kiting and sailing. America’s Cup racing provides a hotbed for developing and sustaining design talent. The race programme allows designers to experiment – it’s a space that rewards innovation. Everyone is striving to create unique solutions to the same age-old design conundrums: how do we make this product lighter, stronger, more durable, stiffer or more flexible? Throw some America’s Cup budget at the sailing industry’s best brains, many of whom are also as or more passionate about kiting, and the results will soon filter across.

North designers have been involved in America’s Cup sail design for many years, with all its associated cutting-edge technology and material developments. Somewhere along the way the designers develop an uncanny ability to see what could be improved and how - and not only in America’s Cup sailing.

“In effect, it is our people who are our primary technological advantage.” says North Kiteboarding’s Kite Innovation Project Leader David Little. “North Sails has five sail designers currently working with different America’s Cup teams. When these people go kiting, they can’t help looking at the kites or wings they are using and thinking about improving them. They come at it from a different perspective to people who have been in the kite industry for a long time. But we all love the feel of being on the water and great equipment really helps add to that sensation. As designers, we’re always looking for the same end goal of higher performance.”

Little reminds us that kiting is sailing. “It’s sheeting on and off. It’s putting your sail from a neutral position to a position where it’s powered up; it has attached airflow going over and it drags you upwind. There is no need to be a sailor to work out how to do it, though.” The New Zealand-born sailmaker first joined the North Sails family as an apprentice sailmaker in 1993. Since then he has managed North’s sail lofts worldwide and worked on America’s Cup race programme teams in several roles, from sailmaker to sail loft production manager. Being so closely connected to America’s Cup gives Little and his North team a unique ability to adapt their learnings to kiteboarding – in particular when using foils.

Photo: Dave Little's knowledge goes a long way

Little reminds us that kiting is sailing. “It’s sheeting on and off. It’s putting your sail from a neutral position to a position where it’s powered up; it has attached airflow going over and it drags you upwind. There is no need to be a sailor to work out how to do it, though.” The New Zealand-born sailmaker first joined the North Sails family as an apprentice sailmaker in 1993. Since then he has managed North’s sail lofts worldwide and worked on America’s Cup race programme teams in several roles, from sailmaker to sail loft production manager. Being so closely connected to America’s Cup gives Little and his North team a unique ability to adapt their learnings to kiteboarding – in particular when using foils.

Photo: Dave Little's knowledge goes a long way

“When foiling, as your speed increases your apparent wind speed goes up and your apparent wind angle goes forward.” says Little. “The easiest way to explain it is when you are sitting in your car, you put your hand out the window and there is no wind. Of course, once you’re going 100 kilometres an hour, there is wind. The faster you go the more apparent wind comes around further in front of you – that’s why AC boats never seem to ease their sails much. It is also why you won’t see them with a Code Zero on very often.” (A Code Zero is an extra free flying sail, designed to help a boat sail closer to the wind.) In January 2020 Little travelled home to NZ to see his family and some mates down in Whangamata when Richard Lott (Chief Operating Officer, North Technology Group) called. “I didn’t know it was about a job – I thought he was picking my brain about inflatables. I’d done quite a bit of work on inflatable battens and inflatable end plates for the wing on the AC72 in 2013 and had most recently been working on airships in New Mexico. When he offered me the job, I asked, ‘Who do I answer to and where do I work?’. Lott said, ‘You can work from home (Corte Madera, California). The North Sails loft is just down the street if you need it.’.” “So I cleaned out my garage and built a bench; then Covid came along. California went into lockdown and I was working from home. I had my sewing machines there – so I was hands-on making kites and wings and experimenting with different ways to test bladder and kite materials.”

Little is excited to further utilise the ground covered by America’s Cup in materials technology. “We can utilise the work and spend they’ve done already and apply our learnings to kite and wing material development.” claims Little.

“Carbon fibre and Dyneema weren’t invented by AC. They were taken from somewhere else and adapted. The materials that we use now in North Sails are either 100% carbon or a blend of carbon fibre and UHMWPE (Dyneema) fibre. We can see manufacturers already looking toward this application for kiting - for example, the Aluula that Ocean Rodeo has invented uses Dyneema. The durability and stiffness are up there, but at the moment they come at a cost in dollar terms. America’s Cup designers spend whatever they need to, but kites are a bit more price sensitive. “My main goal is to create unique materials that nobody else can make. Then we can integrate that technology across sailing and kiting.” says Little.

Photo: North Kiteboarding are hoping that being able to tap into a vast amount of work already done by North Sails America’s Cup designs will pay dividends in their future kite performance levels

Photo: North Kiteboarding are hoping that being able to tap into a vast amount of work already done by North Sails America’s Cup designs will pay dividends in their future kite performance levels

“Carbon fibre and Dyneema weren’t invented by AC. They were taken from somewhere else and adapted. The materials that we use now in North Sails are either 100% carbon or a blend of carbon fibre and UHMWPE (Dyneema) fibre. We can see manufacturers already looking toward this application for kiting - for example, the Aluula that Ocean Rodeo has invented uses Dyneema. The durability and stiffness are up there, but at the moment they come at a cost in dollar terms. America’s Cup designers spend whatever they need to, but kites are a bit more price sensitive. “My main goal is to create unique materials that nobody else can make. Then we can integrate that technology across sailing and kiting.” says Little.

North Sails designer Steve Calder agrees that sailing is like kiting: “In a way, when kiting your body takes the place of the boat. If you are sailing upwind and the boat gets a puff, everyone feels it and hikes a little harder. The helmsman adjusts. Kiting makes you more attuned to the wind and allows you to take immediate advantage of that puff. Instantaneously, you can edge up and gain speed. There is nothing between you and the power of the kite.” In 2020 Calder teamed up with Little and North Kiteboarding Chief Kite Designer, Pat Goodman, an industry authority on kite design and innovation. Goodman’s ability to understand and translate rider requirements into high-performance kite designs puts him among the world’s most awarded, respected and successful kite designers. Calder, who first worked together with Little on the BMW Oracle Racing team in Valencia 2007, started as a sailor, winning a Bronze medal for Canada in the Soling class at the ‘84 Olympics. He is now at the pinnacle of sail design at North Sails, designing, engineering and putting forth revolutionary products applied to the sport’s highest calibre boats. “The goal of a sailmaker is to provide the best aerodynamics solution for a set of objectives,” says JB Braun, Director of Design and Engineering at North Sails. “Steve’s love of creating faster sail designs has driven him to the top of the sport of sailing. He gets intimately involved with the structure of the sails. He’s exploring new ways of working with materials, like 3Di to refine sail structure. You give him a challenge and he’s right in it, making sure that the design satisfies the customer’s goals.”

Sophisticated, proprietary North Design Suite software allows designers to push the boundaries of sail design and be confident in the results. The modelling software uses a computer-simulated wind tunnel for testing to see where the stresses are in the sail or kite and where gains can be made in aerodynamics. Goodman, Calder and Little are combining the North Sails foundation of data-driven design with their intuition, as kiteboarders, and applying it to the kites to help innovate and create the next generation. Combining their skills and knowledge, the team has found it fascinating to brainstorm and push the envelope with kite design and its applicability across a wider audience. Starting from scratch and having the opportunity to work with Pat Goodman is a dream in some ways for Calder. Goodman is known for being the guru of kite design, in the same way that Calder is with sails, he can fly a kite and sense what to streamline to make the product better.

Photo: Hands on in the North Sails loft

Sophisticated, proprietary North Design Suite software allows designers to push the boundaries of sail design and be confident in the results. The modelling software uses a computer-simulated wind tunnel for testing to see where the stresses are in the sail or kite and where gains can be made in aerodynamics. Goodman, Calder and Little are combining the North Sails foundation of data-driven design with their intuition, as kiteboarders, and applying it to the kites to help innovate and create the next generation. Combining their skills and knowledge, the team has found it fascinating to brainstorm and push the envelope with kite design and its applicability across a wider audience. Starting from scratch and having the opportunity to work with Pat Goodman is a dream in some ways for Calder. Goodman is known for being the guru of kite design, in the same way that Calder is with sails, he can fly a kite and sense what to streamline to make the product better.

Photo: Hands on in the North Sails loft

Pat Goodman says, “It’s so nice to have that opportunity to bring together the North Sails design and material development expertise into the mix. A modern-day dream team, working towards the goal of crafting a perfect kite.”

“The core aerodynamic principles are the same” says Calder. “It’s all lift and drag. Having an idea and appreciation for how a kite or wind wing behaves and the requirements to build a good wing are the first principles of aerodynamics. In a way it’s similar to designing sails, but in other ways it’s brand new. You can make a kite that’s too stiff, right? Often with sails, however, you can’t make a sail stiff enough. There are all sorts of design acumen in kiting that doesn’t relate really to sail because the kites behave in an entirely different way.” North sees an opportunity to set a higher design benchmark in the kite industry with Pat Goodman and this team at the peak. “Goodman has spent a lifetime designing kites. As much as I’ve spent my life devoted to sailboats and performance sailing,” says Calder, “I can get on any boat and I can look up and tell you what will improve the performance of that boat; whether it’s the boat, the sails or the rig. Goodman can do that with a kite.”

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