A Conversation with Legendary American Sailor Ken Read
Prior to this interview I had never spoken to Ken Read, but as an avid sailor myself had admired him from afar for years. I’m not the only one: When I told a prominent person in the sailing world I was writing about Read, he told me, “Ken is good for the sport.” Beyond being arguably the best sailor in America, he’s president of North Sails and mentors young people in his home of Newport, R.I., introducing them to the sport. On a recent trip to Newport, I spoke to Read about his sailing background, his work with North Sails and his commitment to bringing the sport of sailing to all.
When Ken Read was given command of the 100-foot Comanche, one of the most technically advanced racing boats in the world, I knew others shared my opinion of his near spiritual intuition, technical mastery and tactical brilliance needed to campaign a boat like Comanche. I wasn’t the only one who considered him one of the best sailors in American history.
Over coffee in a trendy Bristol, R.I., café, I shamelessly rattled off some of his sailing accomplishments: U.S. Rolex Yachtsman of the Year in 1985 and 1995, three time collegiate All-American and ICSA College Sailor of the year 1982, 50 different world, North American and national championships in a variety of classes, skipper of two America’s Cup campaigns, skipper of two Volvo Ocean Race campaigns in the 2008-2009 and 2011-2012 editions, skipper for the behemoth J-yacht Hanuman and the aforementioned SuperMaxi race boat Comanche.
Read’s response? “Not bad for a milkman’s son.”
His climb to the top came win by win. From collegiate champion and one-design victories (races in which all the boats are the same class), he drew the attention of world-famous sailor Dennis Conner, who gave Read a chance on his America’s Cup Stars and Stripes campaign in New Zealand in 2003. “When Conner phoned,” Read told me, “I thought it was a crank call from one of my practical joker friends.”
The sailing accomplishments continue. This summer, Read won the 12 Metre World Championship regatta as tactician aboard Challenge 12 in his home waters of Newport. Read led the 13-man team in a tough race in the modern division. “These boats are pure sailing. There is nothing like it in the world.”
Newport was abuzz at Ken’s victory—the celebrations went on into the night because historically, the 12s won more America’s Cups in Newport than any other class.
Part of what makes Read so impressive is his range: He wins in small one-designs and super yachts. For non-sailors, that’s like winning both go-kart races and Formula One championships. According to Ken, he does this is by “surrounding myself with the absolute best people I can find. Winning is often a team effort, and by not pigeon-holing people and putting them in a slot they are not comfortable in, you get the very best out of everyone.”
In addition to sailing, Read is president of North Sails and group VP of North Technology Group (the umbrella group North Sails functions under), which in turn is a division of Oakley Capital, a global holding company. North Technology Group is the nautically focused division that makes sails, rigging and boats. Some of their holdings are Edgewater Boats, Future Fibers, Hall Spars and Southern Spars. They even own a kiteboarding company.
North Sails, a high-end sailmaker, employs more than 2,000 people and has facilities as far flung as Sri Lanka and as close to home as Nevada. “I’m in the entertainment business,” Read says. “I need to know what makes every boater happy. Yachting is luxury, something you spend money on because you enjoy it.”
At headline regattas like St Barth’s Bucket or Palma de Mallorca’s Superyacht, North Sails will have a 75 to 80 percent share of the market. “We are successful because we deliver a product that is absolute cutting-edge and that often outlasts the competition,” Read says. “Never in the history of sail making has a sail been light, strong and long lasting. Typically, light meant exactly the opposite.”
He views his time on the water as an extension of his North job. “There is a direct correlation between my sailing and North’s sales results. Winning regattas is the best advertisement for our products.”
From all reports the entire NTG is doing well, expanding and continuing to look for more acquisitions. To this end, Ken has several meetings a month with prospective sellers of nautical brands. He believes he has a good sense of where the boating market is heading and how best to acquire companies that fit into that future.
Ken is committed and passionate about giving back to the sailing community in order to draw adolescents into the sport and to “give young people some of the opportunities I have had.” He has spoken at hundreds of sailing events and conferences and is a fervent supporter of the U.S. Olympic sailing teams.
Through Sail Newport, he’s introducing others to his love of sailing—and it’s a family affair, because his brother is its director. “Sail Newport reaches out to the entire community and makes sure everyone has the ability to sail,” he says. “It builds skills and personal growth.” In so many diverse ways, it is clear Ken Read is good for the sport.