June 2019

Lowell North, the sailing world will miss one of its legends

Today the world of sailing is a little poorer. One of the great  men who contributed immensely to the sport of sailing is no longer among us, but what he built will always be.

Lowell Orton North, born on December 2, 1929, in Springfield, Missouri, passed away today, but will always be remembered for his competitive successes and for creating the North Sails empire from just a little loft in San Diego in 1957.

From the beginning, his was a scientific approach. He was among the very first sail makers to embrace computer modeling. He hired other champion sailors - “Tigers,” he called them - to demonstrate and sell his products. He figured anyone who could make a sailboat go fast could also be a good businessman.


Lowell North was defined ‘the Perfect Star Sailor’ in the 1969 Starlight article we are honored to share today. What this article is missing though, other than the international growth of his industry, was the fourth Star World Title as a skipper that he claimed in 1973 in San Diego with Peter Barrett, the crew he won the Olympic Gold with in 1968.


When Lowell North was 14, he re-cut the mainsail of his Star boat. A year later (1945), Malin Burnham, one of San Diego’s most renowned sailors, asked the young North to crew for him in the World Championships. They won. “It wasn’t me Malin wanted,” North has said. “It was my mainsail.”


Sail on Lowell North and thank you.



Lowell North (Starlights, August, 1969)

"Who is this fellow North and how does he do it?"


These were the opening words of the LOG account of the 1949 World's Championship, in which Lowell North's North Star crossed the finish line first four times and second once, but was disqualified from one race. This astounding performance at the age of nineteen provoked the quoted question from a startled Star world, and Lowell has since fulfilled the promise of that whirlwind introduction many times over. No one in the Class has a more impressive record today, culminating in the winning of the gold medal at Acapulco last fall.


Rear Commodore of the I.S.C.Y.R.A. for the past seven years, Lowell North is famous both for his yachting victories and for his skill as a sailmaker. The sailing came first, then the sailmaking. By profession originally an aeronautical engineer, he built or helped to build his first two North Stars, and did well with them from the very beginning. His list of nine Blue Stars of the Fifth District dates from 1948, and even before that he had been Malin Burnham's crew at Stamford when they won the World's Championship in 1946. He also holds a Silver Star from the 1957 North American. But his most impressive scores have been in World's Championships: no one else has ever been first three times and runner up four times. Two of those second places were in the last two World's Championships that have been sailed, so that it is Lowell's high point score that brings the Gold Star event to San Diego next month.


North's engineering training, plus his consummate skill in handling unexpected problems that would make most of us give up in despair, have served him well in staving off many a catastrophe. He sails with a perfectly tuned and highly refined rig, so refined that occasionally something lets go at a critical moment. He is famous for effecting emergency repairs during the last five minutes before the start, or even in the middle of the windward leg. His latest exploit of this kind occurred at Acapulco when he and crew Peter Barrett unstepped the mast at sea, threaded the mainsail into the groove, latched it, raised the entire rig again with the mainsail up, and made the start of the race on time.


Lowell's yachting activities have not been restricted to the Star Class. In 1964 he won a bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympic games skippering the U.S. Dragon. In 1968, prior to his successful qualification as U.S. Star representative, he made a try for a berth on the team as 5.5 skipper. During America's Cup years his business keeps him in close touch with the Twelve Meters; and he had planned to sail on a Twelve in 1967 but in the end decided against it in favor of campaigning his Star for the season.


Needless to say, the whole North family shares Dad's interest in the sport. Daughter Holly, at the age of nine, handles a sailing dinghy with easy confidence. Lowell's attractive wife Kay points out that, "We even spent our honeymoon in Havana while Lowell was sailing and winning the 1957 World's Championship." How sailing oriented can you be?


Tall and thin, calm and modest, not yet turned forty, Lowell North perhaps comes as close as anyone ever has to being "the perfect Star sailor." He will be at San Diego, his home town, next month, playing the gracious host with one hand while doing his level best to win one more World's Championship with the other.

Rachele Vitello

SSL Press Officer since 2015