The Doyle Dynamic

Cut from the cloth of old-school sailmaking, Robbie Doyle has evolved to become one of the most technical sailmakers of his generation.

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With America's Cups, Whitbread Races, and years of other sailing experience under his belt, Robbie Doyle knows a thing or two about sails.Paul Todd / Outside Images

By the time Doyle finished his freshman year at Harvard in the late 1960s, he’d won the Sears Cup twice and the North American Solo Championship, and was an alternate on the U.S. Olympic sailing team, an All-State basketball player in Massachusetts, an All-American sailor, a top swimmer and a strong tennis player. As a top student as well, he thought he was destined for medical school, but sailing somehow kept getting in the way. Modern medicine’s loss would eventually be sailing’s gain, for from the mind of the brilliant sailor from Marblehead came great innovation and even greater success.

In 1974, Ted Turner drafted Doyle, only 24 years old at the time, for the unsuccessful America’s Cup defender trial with Mariner. The boat was seriously off the pace, but once dispatched from the competition, Doyle was invited by the Courageous Syndicate to help develop its sails. Courageous defended against Australia’s Southern Cross, and three years later, Doyle joined Turner again, this time aboard Courageous. It was here, in 1977, that I sailed alongside the man with shoulders as broad as his smile, and where I quickly learned what made him unique. He’s highly intelligent and methodical in his sailing, seeking technical improvements through trial, error and careful analysis. With Doyle, the science has always been the art. Doyle’s early mentors included Ted Hood and MIT’s Dr. Jerome Milgram, a design contributor to more than eight America’s Cup syndicates. Both Hood and Milgram influenced Doyle’s fascination with design efficiency. “Milgram was a pioneer,” says Doyle. “He raised the level of scientific analysis of yacht racing. He came up with the idea of testing sails in a water tank. Unfortunately, the water made the sails change shape due to softening the resin, but it was an interesting test, and from that we did learn how to design a faster shape.”

After winning the America’s Cup with Courageous, Doyle returned to Hood Sails and immediately went to work helping Cornelis “Connie” van Rietschoten with his inventory for Flyer in the Whitbread Round the World Race. Van Rietschoten won in 1978 and again in 1982. One of the breakthrough design elements at the time was the use of a hydraulic mast jack to adjust rig tension, equipment now standard on grand-prix boats.

“The concept came out of discussions we had at a pub in Marblehead,” says Doyle. “Connie told me that they could not easily loosen the rig during the stopover in Cape Town. That’s when we came up with the idea of putting a hydraulic ram under the mast.”

Hood Sails was sold to an investor in 1981, and Doyle took the opportunity to branch out and start Doyle Sailmakers in 1982. Growth was rapid, and today the company stands as one of the most innovative sailmakers in the world, making sails for high-profile yachts. Doyle is quick to acknowledge his competitors in the sailmaking industry, as well as the challenges of innovation and staying one step ahead. “It’s a tough battle,” he says, “ but I don’t go to bed every night thinking about specific competitors. I go to bed worrying about what we’re doing and how we can get better.”

Several years ago, Doyle and his team anticipated the exploding superyacht market and seized the opportunity. “We spend a lot of time on engineering analysis and design,” he says. “Big yachts create tremendous loads and forces on the sails and the rigs.”

Doyle’s son, Tyler, with engineering degrees from Stanford, started his own engineering design company, Doyle CFD, located in the Doyle loft. Tyler, says his dad, is a master of computational fluid dynamics and was instrumental in developing the sails for the innovative 289-foot superyacht Maltese Falcon. Doyle’s latest consuming project is the sail inventory for the triple-masted 468-footer Sailing Yacht A, commissioned by Russian billionaire Andrey Melnichenko. Described as one of the world’s largest sailing yachts, the boat has 300-foot carbon free-standing masts.

Doyle Sails’ production loft today occupies a former factory in Salem, Massachusetts. The loft is stark and sprawling and allows the service team to floor mainsails with luff lengths measuring 300 feet or more. A one-design division also resides within the building, run by Etchells world champion Jud Smith. Doyle’s wife, Janet, oversees customer relations and personnel. “She’s really a big part of the reason why we’re successful,” says Doyle. “The personality she brings to both customers and employees really brings everyone together. She is the glue of the crew.”

In summers past, I’ve skippered an entry in Nantucket Race Week’s Celebrity Pro-Am Regatta, a charity event using International One Designs. I’ve finished a point or two behind Doyle over the past three years, and even when I have good starts and make minimal mistakes, he always gets his boat going faster, edging us out every time.

I eventually caught on to the fact that I can’t beat him, so instead I asked him to join me last year for the International Masters Regatta, hosted by the San Diego YC. During that event, I noticed that Doyle has a knack for looking around at other boats and analyzing how they’re trimming sails, making quick adjustments to his own, always with immediate improvement in speed.

Where does such talent come from? The answer, of course, is years of practice and study. Doyle is constantly writing notes about everything. He asks good questions and thrives on experimentation, even when it’s not about sail trim.

For example, during his two years as commodore of Marblehead’s Eastern YC, he says, his mission was to invigorate sailing at the club: “We made some bold moves, bringing in [Boston College sailing coach] Greg Wilkinson. He helped us put the emphasis at the club back into sailing. The younger members embraced it.”

Eastern then introduced team racing two nights per week, purchased a fleet of boats for young members to use, and tapped Wilkinson to coach its members during regattas. Reflecting on his experience as a club officer, Doyle says he enjoyed it thoroughly. “We put together a really good team to run it. It’s fun to sit at a council meeting every month and talk about ideas, and then watch people go out with passion and make things happen,” he says.

Much of his time today is spent with owners seeking the ultimate performance from their luxury superyachts, a challenge that he revels in, especially given that the sails are one of the few things teams can work with to find an advantage. It’s important to get the right balance with these boats, he says: “We are rediscovering double-headed rigs. Herreshoff had them a century ago and, done just right, we are finding them to be fast, effective and more versatile than a low-clewed blade jib. Plus, the loads are reduced, and there’s less fabric weight compared with flying large genoas.” Lately, Doyle has been racing on the 72-foot maxi Proteus. The boat came with three cameras embedded into the deck, which take pictures of the sails every five seconds. The team uses the data to measure cord depth and leech twist, as well as headstay sag and sail trim. “We are trimming the jib at 3.5 to 4 degrees [from centerline],” he says, “which comes close to making the mainsail and jib one continuous sail.”

Although a helmsman during his early years, Doyle has since transitioned into tactical and sail-trim roles. He’s raced on the Reichel/Pugh Maxi 72 Shockwave, which won two Newport to Bermuda races, two Jamaica races, the Giraglia Rolex Cup, Key West Race Week, a Caribbean 600 and numerous other regattas. His favorite boat to sail, however, is the one-design Etchells. “It’s the best all-around boat,” he says. “It sails beautifully.”

The Etchells even inspired Doyle to create a daysailer that eventually evolved into the e33. “The ‘e’ stands for ‘easy.’ I wanted a comfortable boat with a big cockpit, a simple rig and no winches. The boat is small enough to be handled by one or two people easily. We thought we would give Skip Etchells his due.” When asked about the next innovation in sailmaking, he quickly points to the improving accuracy of computational fluid dynamics, which is more efficient than tow-tank and wind tunnels. “With the evolution of design software, we can now learn quickly what makes a boat sail faster,” he says. “This saves money too, especially when you consider how expensive it is to do two-boat speed tests on the water. CFD has been a big help with our one-design sails too.” Doyle’s chance to attend medical school has long passed, but he has no plans of retiring from the sport that feeds his insatiable curiosity.

At 66, he’s just as involved as when he was young and establishing himself as a pioneer in the sailmaking industry. When he says to expect big things from the company that bears his name in the years ahead, he’s speaking literally, of course.