Superyachts, 3Di, Dragons and detailing: We speak to North Sails’ Jens Christensen
We spoke to Jens Christensen, who is based out of the North Sails loft in Herlev, Denmark, about the growth of superyachts, how 3Di has adapted to the demand of these vessels, why the finishing and preventative maintenance is so important, and about his own sailing in the Dragon class.
Mark Jardine: Superyachts are getting bigger and bigger; how are North Sails catering for them?
Jens Christensen: There are some 80 metre superyachts around, and we’re even talking about a 120 metre yacht at the moment, but they are the exceptions. These megayachts often have two, or maybe even three masts, so the size of the sails is not a big issue relatively as they are smaller than the biggest sails we’ve for other smaller boats. The biggest challenge has been in the 50 to 70 metre range, where yachts like Ngoni, Pink Gin, Hetairos, Unfurled and AquiJo have been challenging.
We have grown with the boats; first we built sails for a Swan 112, then a 131 footer, then 147 feet, 40 metres, 45 metres, 50 metres and now 50+ metres, so we have learned as we go along the way. There have of course been exciting challenges, and it’s been a lot of fun to have the opportunity to be part of these ground-breaking yachts.
Mark: With sail handling, the weight of the sails themselves makes them incredibly difficult to move around the deck or ashore. How do you make the compromise between the durability of the sail and then making it manageable for the crew?
Jens: The durability always comes first: the risk if something goes wrong means the durability is always the primary concern. The difference between the sail being 600 kilos or 650 kilos doesn’t really matter – however you look at it, it’s really heavy. When you are presented with a problem with how to handle these sails then people are innovative. Yes, it takes more people to move them around, but it’s not an insurmountable problem. When we had to take a headsail off a 55 metre yacht in Palma, yes it took 32 people to do it because the headstay had broken and it had to be unfurled on the ground, but normally it’s only a 30 minute job. Whenever we deliver sails now they have slings around them and we use the halyards to lift them onto the yacht. It’s not a big issue.
The key for us is to create sails in such a way that they don’t have to be taken off the yacht again. Taking a 600sq.m mainsail off a yacht, getting the battens out, folding it up, taking it to the loft and doing a repair is a nightmare.
Mark: So, when you deliver a sail, you want it to stay on the boat, do its job, and for the owner to be able to forget about it?
Jens: That’s the dream! It’s what we’re working towards, but of course we don’t always succeed, but we’re trying really hard to reach that and we keep reminding ourselves of that aim. We’d rather triple-check something beforehand. We believe we’re doing pretty well with our aim.
Mark: 3Di has been a game-changer when it comes to durability. In events like the Volvo Ocean Race we’ve seen sails going round the world, coming back, and still being useable. Is this what has really made the difference in the superyacht sector?
Jens: It’s definitely a part of it. The big advantage of 3Di is that it doesn’t delaminate, period. You don’t have the film, so it doesn’t delaminate, which is the big change. But, even with a 3Di sail, you still have the webbing in the corners, the batten pockets, the UV cover and a lot of other details, so yes, it’s a game-changer for the material, but we still need service the sails every 12 to 18 months to check them over and make sure that nothing breaks in the middle of the ocean, as then it’s really an issue.
Preventative maintenance is key, and our mantra in the loft when servicing sails is, “If you’re in doubt, then change it. Don’t even think about leaving it.” The preventative repair cost is nothing compared to the cost of the sail and the repair cost if something goes wrong.
Mark: So while the material itself in 3Di is a game-changer, the finish quality, the detailing and the preventative maintenance is what gives the sail its long life?
Jens: Yes, that’s exactly what I believe. If you look at Francois Gabart sailing around the world, you see he is pushing hard, but also taking very good care of his sails. He knows that if it breaks then everything is gone. The sailors who take care of their sails are the ones who also do best. We are trying to make life as easy as possible for the owners and the boat captains as they usually have enough else to do with their yachts and their lives. Whatever we can do to help them and make their life easier, they usually like.
Mark: The North Sails team are out on the water on these superyachts. How important do you think it is having such good sailors in the team out on the water with the boat captains and the owners?
Jens: I think it’s vital. It’s not only the sailors: we push very hard for our designers to sail on the yachts, and the sailmakers themselves who construct the sails. Many of our designers are very good behind a computer, but luckily for us our designers are also very good sailors, and they need to see how a sail interacts in the real world. For example, when you have a ketch with an inner forestay, and you have to furl the jib through the tacks in St. Barts in 20 knots of breeze, you see the beating that everything takes. I think that is essential that you’re there and you can see all the small improvements that can be made to a sail: the kind of details that you’d never know about if you didn’t get out on the water with the crew.
Mark: An idea which looks beautiful on the computer, could be totally impractical if you didn’t have the experience of the real-world practicalities of sailing these superyachts?
Jens: That can very well be the case. Early on we made mistakes, but now within all the segments of North Sails; superyachts, grand prix, racing, one-design, performance cruising, cruising, classics and multihulls, we communicate to ensure that we learn from the best practices in each of those specialities. This also helps with the trickle-down of technology; for example we share what we learn in the TP52s to see what can be utilised in other segments. Of course not everything from a TP52 can be used in a performance cruiser, but 3Di NORDAC is an example of a cruising product line which has developed directly from our grand prix racing product, and it has been a massive success.
Mark: You are a very accomplished sailor yourself, but your Dragon sailing with Kim Andersen, the President of World Sailing, has been put on ice in 2017 due to your busy work schedules. What do you have planned for 2018 and beyond?
Jens: The plan is that we are going to get back into it in 2018. There is a great event in Denmark that we’re going to take part in, and we’re looking at competing in the Dragon Gold Cup in Finland. Our aim then is to do the World Championship in Perth in January 2019. Kim and his team have had a massively busy year and I believe we are going to see some really positive changes in World Sailing – it’s a long process, but they’ve started well and I hope they will succeed.
Mark: What is the appeal of the Dragon to you?
Jens: One of my very early sailing memories is when I was eight years old and I walked down the dock in Hellerup harbour, the home harbour of Paul Elvstrøm, and a Dragon sailor called Axel Holm asked me if I wanted to join him for a sail where he was testing a new genoa. I remember I just jumped on the boat and on the way back we passed Paul’s house and shared a drink with him.
I then started as a junior and for many years I didn’t sail the Dragon, but we then had a Gold Cup in Copenhagen where I was invited to sail with Peter de Ridder, so I took part in that. I sailed a few more Dragon events and then later Kim Andersen and I decided to get a boat around seven years ago.
The Dragon is a beautiful boat to sail, it’s a little difficult, and there are a lot of very good sailors in the fleet who have won medals in various classes. Some might be a little older now, but they know exactly what they are doing. We’ve won a few events here and there, but it’s a constant challenge.
Mark: Many thanks for your time Jens.
We will be publishing more with Jens about youth sailing, how to encourage people to enjoy sailing for life, and his views on personal coaching at junior and youth level at a later date. Watch this space!
by Mark Jardine