The DL Story

In 1990 two back-room engineers working for North Sails saw the future of sailmaking from an entirely different perspective. Swiss-born sailor J.P. Baudet and his friend Luc Dubois brought the idea of molded sails to North and were given free reign to create what seemed revolutionary. The idea of molded sails had been discussed for a number of years, but talking about it and doing it are two different things. Working out of an office at North's headquarters in Milford, Connecticut, Baudet created a wooden mold in the shape of a J/24 headsail, and with painstaking precision glued Kevlar yarns under tension to a sheet of Mylar that was draped on top. In order to do so he had to hang suspended above the mold like some high-tech Peter Pan and create the sail piece by piece.

Once the initial threads were laid down with each thread following a specific load path, a second piece of Mylar was placed on top and the sail was then vacuum bagged and heat applied to set off the glue. The result, its builders claimed, was a sail that was 33 percent lighter than a conventional panelled sail and held its shape through a wider range of wind conditions. It was also remarkably smooth and surprisingly rugged.

While this J/24 headsail was certainly a breakthrough, there was no way that larger sails could be similarly manufactured in any remotely cost-effective way, at least until a more flexible mold platform could be both designed and built. Since it was sailors who first brought the idea to engineers, it was not surprising to see that the system for changing the shape of the mold was done by a series of pulleys and cleats, not unlike those found on boats. With this system in place, the mold platform could be manipulated to create different shapes for different sails, and an entirely new way of making sails was created.

These days the mold platform is precisely controlled by computer-driven hydraulic rams and technological leaps have taken place in the way fibers are applied and sails vacuum bagged. Still, it was from those simple beginnings that this new technology was begun.

sailed with this area was vulnerable to delamination because of the number of fibers laying on top of each other. But this is an issue that over time has been addressed and improved upon.

From the beginning it seemed obvious, even to a casual observer, that North's 3DL technology was strikingly similar to the Genesis process, and that a lawsuit might ensue; although there are also plenty of differences, which helped to give the lawyers plenty to talk about. We will spend more time on 3DL than on the other molded sail techniques, not because it is necessarily a better way to make sails, but because North has come to dominate the racing market since it started making and marketing 3DL sails. Bear in mind, however, that despite the hype, it is not the only way to make a top-of-the line racing or cruising sail.

Looking under the 3DL mold platform where a series of computer-operated rams manipulate the shape of the mold to suit the design of the sail.

A worked suspended in a harness keeps an eye on the armature that applies the threads to the surface of the sail.

3DL actually stands for "three-dimensional laminate" and has become synonymous with cutting-edge sailmaking. One of the biggest advances that 3DL technology brought to the industry was not only a new look for sails, but the elimination of an entire step in the manufacturing process, since the 3DL process manufactures both the fabric and the entire sail at the same time and in one piece. It's this advance, as much as any of the performance gains, that has rocked the sailmaking world.

3DL sails are currently being manufactured in a modern facility in Minden, Nevada, where the low humidity in the air is critical for a successful lamination process. There are eight molds, the largest of which can build a headsail for an 80-foot maxi-boat in a single piece. While the early molding platforms were quite rudimentary, these newest molds are sophisticated pieces of equipment with precise surfaces being created by a series of hydraulic rams manipulating a flexible base. In 2002 North introduced a new "Rotary Mold" that can manufacture sails for smaller boats on a revolving drum rather than a regular mold.

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