Sailmaker's log

Olympic sailing monopolies, part 2

Posted by Mikko Brummer on Thu, Oct 15, 2020@ 01:59 PM

In part 1, we looked at the two different one-design approaches, single manufacturer one-design SMOD and the measurement controlled MCOD. In this part 2 we look at how the opening of single manufacturer classes could be conducted, with benefits to the sailors in mind.



Lasers at the Rio Olympics 2016. The quality of the sails is unacceptable. It is due to the poor sailcloth, as much as design.

Earlier, we looked at the two different one-design approaches, single manufacturer one-design SMOD and the measurement controlled MCOD. We assume that World Sailing will open the manufacturing of sails (and other parts), according to their FRAND, and look at the options of how to execute this.

There are two ways to go forward with the sailmaking licensing:

(1) A Provided Cut-file approach

Licensed sailmakers are given a unique CAD file for cutting all panels and pieces from which the sail is assembled. The objective would be to produce absolutely identical, one-design sails.

(2) A Free design approach

This is the traditional way of sailmaking, with outline measurements only, limiting the size and outline of the sail, but not the shape. It leaves to the sailmaker to design the detailed shape and fullness of the sail.

(1) Provided Cut-file approach

Let's look at the cut-file approach first. It is the one used currently for Laser (presumably), with three sailmakers (North, Hyde & Neil Pryde) producing the sails from identical cut files. While this approach might seem "the most one-design", it contains multiple problems which I'm tackling below. 

A CAD-file (Computer Assisted Design-file) is a list of coordinates, to be interpreted by a plotter/cutter shaping out the panels that form the sail. Different cutters interpret the same file differently, placing a curve through the points and giving running commands the x-y axis cut-head. Working with different cutters, this results in panels that are not identical, even if the original cut files are.

There are both software issues, the software driving the cutter, and mechanical problems, the motors driving the cutting head. Different makes of cutters produce slightly different panels, as do different software driving these cutters. At WB-Sails, we have two cutters of different make, and we cannot cross-use them for One-Design production since the panels they provide are not totally similar.


There is the possibility of tampering the digital cut-file. This is impossible to control, a sailmaker willing to cheat could use a tampered file for some customers and the original for others. Tampering would be easy, as simple as typing in a text file.


Cut panels on the vacuum table. By stretching the cloth unevenly on the table prior to cutting, the panels can be distorted at will. 

Another way of cheating with a given cut file would be to stretch the sailcloth unevenly while laid on the vacuum table. After the vacuum is released, the shape of the panel distorts itself, resulting in a differently shaped sail. Done with skill, this can make a big difference, and again would be impossible to control.

Even if we would assume we could get pre-cut panels that are absolutely identical, the sail can be altered in the assembly stage: A difference as little as 0,5 mm at the leech ends of a number of seams, when glueing/sewing the seams together, alters the performance of the sail. A little more experienced sailor feels the difference easily. The same applies for alterations in the luff curve of the sail: A change of 2 mm in the upper part, where the sail is narrower, makes a big difference. In the Finn, we do this regularly with Olympic level sailors, as part of tailoring their sails for their physical size and mast bending characteristics.

My conclusion from this is that the provided cut-file approach is not the way to go when licensing sailmaking. There will be issues with the similarity of the sails produced, breaches impossible to detect even through a strict measurement control. Currently, there is no external measurement control on SMOD sails. And of course, with no possibility to tailor the sails for differently sized sailors, the main argument for opening the manufacturing of sails, the weight range of the sailors will be more limited and discriminating.

(2) Free design approach

Measurement controlled one-designs have adopted this approach since long. The representatives of this method remaining in the current Olympic slate are the Finn and the 470. In this method the restricting outline measurements of the sail are given in class rules. The sailmaker is left with designing his sail so that those measurements are met, as defined in the Equipment Rules of Sailing (ERS).

From a sailor's point of view, an advantage is that the sail shape can be tailored to fit the sailor's morphology, weight, height, and even age or physical fitness. It allows a far wider range of competitive physique and sailing weights. This has been proven in the Finn Class, and earlier in the Europe class, when it was Olympic, compared to the Laser Standard or Radial.

Shape is impossible to measure

Another strong point for the free design approach is that it is pointless to have rules that cannot be controlled. With the free design, limits are set in the class rules, and precise control happens through measurement. As explained above, the shape of the sail cannot be controlled precisely. Therefore, the only sensible way is to allow freedom in the shape of the sail, as long as its dimensions are within given limits and tolerances.

Laser SMOD-desktop

A simple example of how measuring the shape of the sail is impossible. In these two designs, we have moved the maximum draft line from 35% (the white sail) to 55% (the yellow sail), taking care that the luff and the leech angles (entry & exit) remain the same. The two sails will measure exactly the same, not only in external dimensions but even if you lay the luff or the roach flat on the floor with a fold, the way sailmakers and measurers do. Also, as you can see, individual seam location and panels appear just the same. Yet, the two sails' performance on the water would be completely different.

Since the shape of a sail cannot be measured or controlled, it is better to leave it open at the will of the sailmaker. This is another reason for the free design approach when it comes to sails. The main reason is of course that by allowing to tailor the shape for the size of the sailor, a much broader range of competitive physique and sailing weights can be covered.

The advocates of SMOD say that with the measurement controlled, free design approach sail prices will go up. They might, but not much. When ordering direct from his local sailmaker, the sailor avoids the vendor costs associated with the single manufacturer procedure. The higher quality of the free market sails more than offsets the higher production cost, resulting in the best value for money for the sailor. We recently looked at the 49er sails. The retail price of a complete set is just under 5,000€ - we would have no problem meeting that price, with a higher quality product, if we can sell direct to the sailors. Considering 49er sails are currently mass-manufactured in Sri Lanka, the sailmaker should have a large profit margin if it weren't for designers fees and retailers who want their share. Not in the best interest of the sailor.

Sailcloth is critical

Another thing to consider is sailcloth. To comply with FRAND, there has to be more than one manufacturer here as well. The approach has to be similar to the Finn & 470, specifying a fibre (such as Polyester, Kevlar or Carbon), construction (woven or laminate), and minimum weight/thickness of the sail material.

Nimetön 2

Sailcloth is a critical factor in the quality of a sail. Years ago, we were presented five brand new Laser sails for stretch testing. The spread in the tests was 45%: The worst sail would stretch nearly twice as much as the best one. You could see when setting the sail in the boat park, that it was useless for racing purposes. Roughly 10% of all sailcloth manufactured is seconds: Its quality is so bad that it is often selling at 50% discount or more. For a single manufacturer, the temptation to use seconds quality cloth is there, as the sailors don't have a choice anyhow.

When it comes to durability & quantities, sails are different from hulls or other parts of the boat. A hull may last for 10 years, or hopefully more, while sails are "consumables". During the lifetime of a boat, the sailor will buy a myriad of sails. An often-quoted example of the longevity of hulls is the Finn of Sir Ben Ainslie: He won three Olympic gold medals with his boat Rita, in 12 years, used certainly numerous masts or rudders during those years, but hundreds of sails! Of course, Rita was not a single manufacturer boat, as the Finn is a measurement controlled, free-to-build class boat. So, while the sailor should have a choice as to his boat or mast builder, it's even more obvious when it comes to sails. If a hull costs 10,000€, during a four year Olympic period the sailor will spend rougly 40,000€ on sails. After the Olympics he can sell the boat with a little loss maybe, but the sails will be done. For the monopoly single manufacturer, the sails can actually be a more important business than the boat.


To conclude, in the opinion of WB-Sails, and sailmakers in general, all classes adhering to FRAND should go ahead with standardized measurement rules in the spirit of ERS, and start organizing a measurement process within each class. When it comes to sails, the current in-house certification is working well, with control at important international events. 



Sir Ben Ainslie's boat Rita, which he sailed to gold medals in three Olympics, now resides in the Maritime Museum in Cornwall.

More reading on the World Sailing EU-antitrust subject:

Richard Gladwell, ‘Anti-Trust probe could put 2024 Olympic classes on hold’, sail-, 2 Nov 2018.

World Sailing, ‘Anti-Trust Policy for Olympic Equipment’ 

European Commission: Competition laws-cartels-overview 

Topics: Finn, Olympic sailing, Olympiapurjehdus, Racing, Sail design