Tape Heads of Minden

An exploratory excursion to Nevada reveals the sophistication of modern sailmaking.

The blonde pig-tailed bartender at the Genoa Bar Saloon, Nevada’s “oldest thirst station,” flashes a smile at Per Andersson as he steps up to the bar. “Hey sweetie, nice to see ya,” she says reaches into the well for a bottle of hooch. “What can I get ya?”

Andersson, a fit and trim and outdoorsy type sports a Patagonia ball cap, a plaid oxford shirt, and jeans. He’s a sailor, but he fits right in with the saloon crowd. He smiles back and orders a beer. He’s been in Genoa for eight years and It’s obvious he’s established local status at this storied establishment.

“I love it here,” says the 30-year sail designer and America’s Cup veteran who now resides and works about 200 miles and a 3-hour drive from San Francisco. By here, he’s talking about Genoa (locally pronounced juh-NO-ah), a tiny old western town established in 1855 at eastern base of the Sierra Nevada. On the opposite side of the range is big, blue and deep Lake Tahoe, which Andersson says is better suited for powerboating than sailboats.


Not that he spends any time on the lake, anyway. Whenever he can break away from the manufacturing of millions of dollars of high-tech sails in the neighboring town of Minden, he’s either crewing on custom raceboats in San Francisco, hitting the slopes of nearby Heavenly Mountain Resort or grinding through two-hour hilly bike rides.

Andersson, a longtime sailmaker and former pro sailor, moved to Genoa, from Annapolis to oversee North Sails’ new three-dimensional sailmaking system, 3Di. As senior designer, Andersson took over the reins of the operation after a few East Coasters could no longer stomach the dust and isolation of Northwestern Nevada. Andersson, although Swedish-born, is right at home on the range.

The seat warmers in Andersson’s car are barely hot before he finishes his commute from Genoa to North Sails Building No. 1, in Minden, where up a flight of stairs and to the left, is his tidy office, sparsely decorated, save for a framed Artemis Racing catamaran poster from the 33rd America’s Cup. His tall windows, looking west, perfectly frame the snow-capped Sierra peaks. He uses a stand-up desk, healthier, but also makes it easier to dart to and from the ground floor “loft” to check on sails in various stages of final construction.


On this day in mid-July, Andersson steps away from his desk to lead a media tour of the 87,000-square-foot facility. The winter’s new-sail order blitz has gone out the door, but the place is still humming. Covering one entire wooden “finishing floor” the size of a football field are sections of carbon sailcloth being assembled for a superyacht mainsail. Next to that is the oldest three-dimensional mold in the building. It’s a massive shapeable surface supported by a web of steel lifters, which force the surface into the shape of a flying sail.

This particular mold, says Bill Pearson, North’s technical director and Minden’s longest-standing employee, was built in the early days of North Sails’ 3DL laminating method, and is famous for shaping 997 sails for the 32nd America’s Cup in Valencia. Many of those sails, says Pearson, never saw the light of day.

Today, on this same surface is a mainsail for a customer’s 75-foot Nautors Swan. A vacuum-bag applies pressure to the sail, constructed of the proprietary “tapes” that define North’s latest 3Di method. A heater with red-hot lamps suspended from a rolling gantry passes slowly over the sail, kicking off the resin that will ultimately preserve this beautifully cambered shape when it’s filled with wind. It’ll be on the mold for the next few hours before being pulled off and replaced by the next in waiting.


“We can build about a million dollars of sails per week,” says Pearson. “Nobody else in our industry is close to that. We’ll make 4,500 to 5,000 3D sails per year and that includes those here and our factory in Sri Lanka.”

Toward the back of the building is another mold, and beyond that, two more housed in an expansion built a few years ago. There’s a carbon-rich medium headsail for a Swan 50 squeezed in a vacuum bag and a massive downwind reaching sail for a 60-footer.

Building 1 is where 3Di sails are molded, cured, finished, and shipped, but the real magic of late is found in Building No. 2, down the road a few miles, two rights and a left, past the Public Restroom Company, which builds “state-of-the-art, prefabricated public restrooms and buildings.” Over yonder is Starbuck’s third largest roasting plant, as well other tech companies that are making it more difficult for the sailmaker to recruit and retain employees these days.


“You can tell the wind direction when you step outside the office,” says Andersson. “If it’s from the east, it’s coffee. If it’s horse shit, that’s the westerly.”

Inside Building No. 2, you finally get the signature whiff of resin when entering the room identified by a big white banner that reads “pregger” in large blue letters. This room is where 3Di starts. Spools of polyester, aramids, and carbon yarns are mounted on rows of pegs, illuminated under bright lights, as the yarns are pulled into a resin bath that forcibly pushes the yarn’s filaments apart—to the scale of human hair.

From the goopy bath of “extended chain polymers” inside the industrial strength pregger (“the secret sauce,” says Pearson. “No pictures, please.”) the coated filaments adhere to a white release paper, which runs through a degassing chamber before being fed onto a roller. These rolls, cut into a variety of tape widths, are barcoded and stored in refrigeration units. The shelf life for the tapes is about 91 days, says Pearson, but they try to use them within 20 to 25 days.

Out on the floor of Building No. 2 are low wooden surfaces covered in light blue mylar sheets. Steel gantries hang over every floor, with one “tape head” machine the size of a lawn mower engine block hanging from each of the gantries.

On one floor, a tape head moves robotically dispensing the first runs of white polyester 3Di tapes that will eventually be a mainsail for the classic 12-Meter Vim.

A young ponytailed woman starts the tape head from a computer, yells “coming out!” and walks ahead of the tape head, spraying tack adhesive, before returning to the computers to program the next run. I ask her if these white tapes are more challenging to lay than the black ones (the polyester tapes can stretch a minute amount during the laying process, causing a host of problems). “These ones are a little bit different,” she says, “but it’s only my second day on this tape head. I just earned my Level 2 yesterday.”

Another journalist, overhearing our conversation, asks her how many levels there are.

“Two,” she says.

What makes this sail stand out among others in Building No. 1, is its whiteness. Original 3Di offerings used the more exotic choices of the fiber world: carbon, aramids, and dyneema, fibers with incredibly high breaking strengths and low stretch. “That’s called modulus, says Pearson. “Sailmaking is the quest for no stretch.”

The selling point of 3Di, well championed after so many years in use, is the strength and stretch resistance in the sail without the parasitic weight of a laminate (as it was with 3DL). Strength and modulus are all baked into the tapes, which are then oriented by the tape heads such that there’s the right amount of material in the high-load parts of the sail and less where it doesn’t need to be. Durability is the North salesman’s other 3Di guarantee, as well. With 3Di Endurance, a protective scrim is added for a 10-percent weight gain. Customers don’t order the same surface protection with 3Di RAW, which is less of an issue for grand-prix teams with sail inventory turnover.

Initial 3Di offerings catered well to the top end of sailing’s food chain, but Pearson says it didn’t take long for he and others to realize the potential of their technology in cruising sails. It was simply (or so they thought, initially) a matter of replacing the exotics with good old-fashioned polyester. Using the pregger, they could get the fiber to its filament form and make a cruising sail a heck of a lot stronger and lighter. Enter 3Di NORDAC.

Now a full year after the NORDAC launch, they are interested in expanding its application beyond the small-boat cruising market, and into racing classes that are biased toward Dacron fiber, and eventually to tap a broader base of one-design classes that require woven Dacron (as class rules permit), with what they’re calling 3Di RAW 360 and RAW 300 (available by the end of 2018). RAW 300 will be a white polyester offering and RAW 360, for club racers and one-designs, will be a black blend of Aramid (roughly 30 percent) and polyester. The same weight sail, says Pearson, with better modulus.

Should RAW 360 and 330 catch on, it’ll be a good problem for North Sails Minden and the company’s much larger operation in Sri Lanka (which Andersson says has a workforce of more than 1,300 and the appearance of a small city unto itself). The challenge today is they barely have enough room in their Minden outpost for current demands, especially when a superyacht sail swallows available floorspace.

They can’t build up, says Anderson, because of building-height restrictions with the nearby airport, and they just can’t keep adding to the building. All they can do, it seems, is to continue to explore new applications and markets, find efficiencies in every step of the process (during our visit they were experimenting with a faster way of setting up the vacuum bag suction attachments) and just keep up with demand.

With Minden running 24/7 these days, the lights are never off, with the exception of those days in Pearson’s and Andersson’s offices when there’s a big dump of the white stuff, and we’re not talking spools of polyester.