A Career in Sails


America's Cup legend Tom Whidden, who once raced dinghies at Colby, has reached the pinnacle of sailing and the sail business

By Stephen Collins '74
Photography by Daniel Forster

Tom Whidden
Tom Whidden ’70, America’s Cup Hall of Fame sailor and head of North Marine. North makes sails and rigging used on the world’s most sophisticated racing yachts and items for NASA and Boeing.
After the 223-foot tall sailing behemoth BMW-Oracle squeezed inside defending Alinghi 5 at the first buoy to take the lead for good in February’s America’s Cup final, Tom Whidden ’70 had nothing but kudos for the U.S. boat’s tactician. “John Kostecki did a very nice job calling something called the lay line,” said Whidden, who attended the races in Spain. “He did a great job with that. He made the decision for the other boat very difficult. ... The nuances of it are more subtle than most people realize.”

He should know. One of the most experienced America’s Cup sailors ever, Whidden is the veteran of eight America’s Cup campaigns including three victorious turns as tactician on Dennis Conner’s boats. And his company, North Marine, makes most of the high-tech sails for these races.

Inducted into the America’s Cup Hall of Fame in 2004 for “his brilliance as a tactical advisor, his soundness as a crew organizer, and his mastery of winning in difficult boats under the most demanding conditions,” Whidden’s profile as a businessman is equally imposing. He’s taken sailmaker North Sails sailing through the ceiling as president and CEO of North’s parent company, North Marine.

Not surprising, perhaps, he finds some of the same skills that took him to the pinnacle of competitive sailing helped build his company into the world’s leader, by far. Knowing how to exploit innovative technology, how to assemble good people, and how to lead a team paid off in both arenas, he said. And finding a balance between confidence and hubris is as important in the front office as it is on deck.

So how successful does North Sails have to be to match three America’s Cup victories? How about a 70-percent market share. That’s where Forbes put North six years ago. “If you take our six or seven or eight next biggest competitors and you add them together, they’re probably about our size,” Whidden said this spring. With its subsidiaries, the North empire has about $325 million in annual sales now, he said.

North sails were used on both boats in this year’s match between BMW-Oracle and Alinghi. The previous America’s Cup saw North sails on 11 of 12 boats, and in 2003 all nine teams raced under North sails. Given the level of competition, servicing competing teams requires sworn secrecy and impervious firewalls between different in-house design teams, Whidden said.

The downside to such market dominance? “You have to make sure that you don’t become complacent,” said Whidden.

Whidden started sailing in Long Island Sound as a 10-year-old, and by high school he had three goals: “To get to be a sailmaker, to try for the Olympics, and try for the America’s Cup.”

He maintained that focus while earning a degree in psychology at Colby—and learning valuable organizational skills, he says—and he spent summers and Jan Plans working for Alcort, the company that made Sunfish sailboats. He raced a Finn dinghy while at Colby and made it to the final pre-Olympic trial race before being beaten.

Tom Whidden 2
Tom Whidden ’70, third from left, aboard Stars & Stripes, in the 2002 Louis Vuitton Cup race. At left is the Italian boat, Mascalzone Latino. Whidden was tactician for Dennis Conner in six different America’s Cup campaigns. In the photo the boats are maneuvering for position before the start of the race.
His subsequent career as a sailmaker, a vocation chosen in part to allow him to sail competitively back before one could make a career out of sailing alone, exceeded his wildest expectations. “It all sort of snowballed and turned into something pretty cool,” he said of his business success. “I used to think doing a million dollars would have been the greatest thing I could ever accomplish in my life.”

North Sails had $25 million in sales when he took over the company in 1987, he said, and now it’s doing 13 times that volume. “We make sails all around the world. We make masts in Auckland, New Zealand; Cape Town, South Africa; and Sri Lanka. And we make rigging in Sri Lanka and in Newport, Rhode Island.”

The rigging that North sells is state-of-the-art carbon, as high-tech as the company’s patented one-piece composite membrane sails. “We don’t stitch ’em, any more,” Whidden said. “Sailmaking’s changed a lot.”

And the technology has applications beyond sailing. North built all the soft storage for the Space Shuttle and the prototype of the machine that lays down carbon fiber for the fuselage of the Boeing 787. “We’re working with NASA right now on a balloon that they’re planning on trying to land on Mars,” Whidden said, noting that North also had a hand in surveillance balloons used by the Department of Homeland Security.

“You know the artist Christo? We did the umbrella project with him.”

Big-time stuff. But for all of his accolades, bestowed at the White House, the America’s Cup Hall of Fame, and beyond, Whidden says one of the most meaningful was an honor handed down at Colby. First among Whidden’s Colby mentors was athletic trainer Carl Nelson, now retired, who cared for Colby students and, in 1972 and 1976, for U.S. Winter Olympians. In 1989 Whidden received the first-ever Carl Nelson Award, for achievement in the world of athletics.

“That just stuck with me, because he had always been a role model for me and he was a good guy and competent and cared about everybody,” Whidden said. “Of all the things I got over the years, that was one of the nicest.”
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  • On September 2, 2010, Rob Anderson wrote:
    Feel the same way about Carl Nelson. Hard to put into words his fundamental goodness. Mr. Whidden said it well.
  • On November 20, 2010, Chuck French wrote:
    I've had the pleasure of skiing with Mr. Whidden, and can assure you, he's one of the nicest, low key gentlemen I've had the pleasure to meet.