Talking superyacht racing with sailing legend Ken Read

Written by Charl van Rooy

From a humble sail-making background in his hometown of Newport to the world stage as one of the most celebrated sailors of our time, there are few people who deserve a shorter introduction than Ken Read. As a globally recognised face from three America’s Cup campaigns and tearing up the world’s oceans during as many Volvo Ocean Races, Read’s experience in the field is second to none. I met up with the man himself during the recent St Barths Bucket to find out how a lifetime of competitive sailing and gruelling ocean races makes him one of the most valuable and trusted ambassadors for the super sailing yacht business today. Ken Read

As President of North Sails, one of the world’s largest sail suppliers to super sailors, Read is no stranger to the glamorous side of the business, regularly attending some of the most prestigious events on the yachting calendar. But he is not simply here on the jet set Caribbean island to represent the North Sails name and sip champagne. Read is on a lifelong mission to ensure the longevity of the sailing superyacht business and actively throws himself into the superyacht sailing lifestyle as enthusiastically as he did during his competitive career.

'“What can we do to change the ratio of motor yachts to sailing yachts in your publication?” he asks me as he scans through the latest motor yacht-rich issue of The SuperYacht Times newspaper. Sailing is Read’s life. From being drafted by a sailmaker after excelling at sailing in college, to being awarded the US Rolex Yachtsman of the Year trophy twice and later selling his own sailmaking company to North Sails at the age of 35, “It’s been one hell of a ride,” he says.Hetairos sailing yacht by Baltic Yachts in St BarthsPhoto: Charl van Rooy / SuperYacht Times

Read’s involvement in the superyacht sailing scene kicked off in 1996 when North Sails acquired the Sobstad Sails (previously Shore Sails) company he owned. “With that, I stepped onto the company board and started this incredible process of using high-profile sailing events to learn about building a team, managing expectations and to communicate with these highly intelligent, wealthy owners to further develop our product and make sure we offer the best that we can.” 

Joining the company wasn’t the end of Read’s sailing career. Instead, under the mentorship of his boss, Tom Whidden, Ken received the guidance he needed to eventually reach the highest level of professional sailing. No less than four sabbaticals during his time at North made it possible for Read to compete on the global stage in some of the most memorable races of his life. St Barth's Bucket 2019Photo: Carlo Borlenghi“I remember Tom telling me, ‘I’m going to keep pushing you out the door to go and get better and improve your name on the world stage. Go out and make the mistakes you need to, and you will return a better manager of North Sails’, Ken smiles. “If you look at it from a business perspective, going off to take part in the Volvo Ocean Race or America’s Cup, many of the people I would normally deal with are a part of those races anyway. So you end up with real friendships and partnerships that you can utilise in the future.” And that is exactly what Read has achieved as preparations for the next Volvo Ocean Race (now The Ocean Race) in 2021 are underway. “Today I enjoy having taken on the role as a supplier to many of the teams and being able to bring some of my experience to the table when they ask for it.” 

Back on the superyacht racing scene, Read views these prestigious super sailing yacht gatherings as more important than ever. “Today, the boats are evolving into even higher performance, sportier superyachts which suit our field of expertise and skillsets perfectly. Our 3Di sails, in particular, are designed specifically for these types of yachts and the type of racing we see here in St Barths. These events make or break our year, really, and directly impact our bottom line.”Hetairos yacht the St Barth's Bucket 2019Photo: Carlo Borlenghi

During his time attending superyacht regattas, Read has found that to ensure the success of these events and, indeed, the continued success of the sailing yacht industry as a whole, more needs to be done to provide an inclusive experience. Regattas are often associated with performance maxis and intense racing scenes, but can overlook the vital role bigger, slower yachts in the Corinthian class play in the overall perception of the industry.

“The important part of performance superyacht sailing events such as here in St Barths and the Superyacht Cup in Palma, for example, is that different classes are offered for the different styles of sailing. You can have a very relaxed Corinthian style class that is as big and carries just as much weight as the performance boats that are fully crewed. For a few years, the scene seemed to lean too much towards a ‘performance-only’ experience.”

“I think we can do a better job of promoting the Corinthian side of these regattas; it can’t only stand out to the cool, fast boats. We need equal representation in the press and on the podium for all classes. Sailing a big Perini that is larger than a house is a hard thing to do. I won’t call it a performance boat, but it is operated and pushed to a performance level in a cruising class. Without those types of boats, these events will not be the same.”Racing action during the St Barth's Bucket 2019Photo: Carlo BorlenghiLooking to what can be done to prevent these large yachts from dropping out of regattas due to a technical issue with their sails, Read continues: “Early on we found that this is one of the most disappointing things that can happen to an owner during these events. Whether it is our sails or another manufacturer’s, we need owners out on the water, participating and having fun. We started our regatta service some years ago, and a technical team is on site to make any repairs to the sails if needed. It’s not a money maker for us - it probably costs us money each year,” he laughs, “but it is something we feel we have to do to ensure that these events continue and that owners leave happy.”

Increased participation in increasingly sophisticated, inclusive sailing events and regattas around the world is great, but with inconsistent trends in the sailing yacht market, is it enough to rejuvenate the super sailing yacht business? “I think we have already noticed a slight shift. Many owners are involved in environmental projects today, and many are looking to make a change on the global stage and considering sailing yachts as an alternative for their superyacht experience. Over the last ten years, there has been more interest in big sailing yachts than I have ever experienced before. Even on the semi-production side of the business, companies like Baltic, Swan and Southern Wind are talking about projects of 100-130 feet in length. People are asking about these projects. That is a great part of the market which didn’t exist a few years ago. I think we are seeing a good comeback with good energy.”St Barth's Bucket 2019Photo: Carlo BorlenghiBusiness aside, with so many years working - and playing - in the world of sailing, does Read still indulge in the sport for fun? “Back home I do sail for fun, yes,” he chuckles. “I had an M32 catamaran for a number of years, and we sailed Tuesday night beer can series. I am also sailing in the 12 Metre World Championships this summer in Newport. I’ve been racing with the Js for a long time on Hanuman and will probably continue in the J Class format in some form in the future as well.”

And that is precisely where Read’s focus is now firmly set on: the future. Having denied considering taking part in another Volvo Ocean Race, his feet will stay on dry land - at least for now. “My focus now will be the running of North Sails. As long as I can remember I’ve been here in St Barths out on the water sailing as either a helmsman or tactician. I have to say, it’s weird getting up in the morning and not having to figure out how to beat someone on the race course. But it's still a lot of fun for me, and I think it perhaps paves the way for the next direction of my life.”

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