After a vastly successful & enduring career in the sailmaking business, most of it with North Sails, Chris Snow now moves on to pursue new challenges. Chris has been atop one-design leaderboards for decades without seeking the spotlight, and has always been both a thoughtful and innovative champion of one-design sailing.
So, S1D’s Taylor Penwell caught up with a living legend to go back to the future, and to reflect back on his years in the sailmaking business, and get his take on the present and future or our sport.
How old were you when you started sailing?
I was about ten years old when I started sailing in a town called Orleans, on Cape Cod in Massachusetts.
What type of boats did you learn how to sail on?
I learned how to sail on a boat called a “Turnabout.” It is a boat that is indigenous to New England. The cool think about it is that it can fit 2 or 3 junior sailors.
What other boats did you sail during your junior career?
I sailed boats that were available through a summer camp my stepfather owned called Camp Tonset (now closed), Beetlecats and Town Class (aka Townies) Another boat we sailed was called an O’Day Widgeon, they are still around and the yacht clubs on Cape Cod used them as junior sailing boats. Then I started sailing the boats that the adults sailed, which were the O’Day Daysailor. I also sailed Rhodes 19s, we didn’t have Optimists or Sabots.
Can you recall the moment that really “hooked” you into racing? – I really started sailing with my best friend growing up, his family was into sailing and my family wasn’t that much, but my best friend’s family was. So I ended up being his crew and we would pretty much go sailing all day every summer. Because we were sailing so much we got relatively good at it and we started beating many adults. I think the thing that really hooked me on it was we decided to go to the Daysailor North Americans which were in Marblehead, MA. We were not old enough to drive so my best friend’s mom drove us there. That whole experience of going to a true away regatta and competing against a lot of boats was very cool and I thought to myself that I would like to do more of this. We were pretty green in terms of the results at the regatta but that didn’t matter, what mattered was that it was really fun. The adults that were sailing thought it was neat that these two kids had made it “all the way” from Cape Cod up to sail with them.
How did you continue your sailing in high school and onto college? – I was lucky enough to attend Tabor Academy in Marion, MA for three of my four years of high school and they had a sailing team that trained and raced in the spring and I was able to be part of that. That was my first time being involved with an organized racing team. When it came time to go to college, I wanted to go to a school that had a sailing team. I graduated high school in 1978 and around that time URI was one of the best college teams and had recently won the National Championship and I thought that would be a pretty cool place to go to college. That is where I really learned how to race. We would practice almost everyday and the sailors were way better than the sailors I had sailed with before. I realized that I didn’t know quite as much as I had thought. We were a club team but one year we had a coach, his name was Mike Crowley, who was a graduate oceanography student. He had been an assistant coach a Navy. It was dream to have a guy that would work with us and coax us along. Before that we were basically going out each day and trying to beat each other’s brains out to see who would go the the events on the weekends.
What were your biggest takeaways from college sailing? – Because we sailed so much, it really ingrained in me the tactics, the repetition of starting, boat handling, etc. You’re doing it so repeatedly that you simply get better at it even if you were at a low level when you started, your level with training just rises. That, and then really being part of a team. Almost every person I’ve talked to about college sailing says that their best friends were also on the sailing team. My best friends were on the sailing team. We rented a house together on Great Salt Pond and hosted regattas out of the back of our yard. It was super fun. One of the biggest takeaways was the camaraderie of the whole thing, I mean those guys are still some of my closest buddies even though many live across the country in Rhode Island and whenever I go back I try to meet up and see them and it’s just kind of like we are picking up where we left off.
What are your thoughts about the current standing of college sailing and how its developed since your college years?
The level of sailing has risen dramatically. We have seen a big increase in teams with full time salaried coaches and varsity programs. These coaches are often very accomplished sailors in their own right which adds to the level of their coaching. Top schools also now compete between one another to hire these top coaches. Both of my kids sailed in college and I’ve been to the Nationals 5 different times just hanging out with them and you watch the team racing and it is incredibly fun to watch. The skill level of all the teams is really, really impressive. It is way better than it was twenty or thirty years ago. I think it is a huge positive and I’m not exactly sure what the numbers are the general participation is way higher than it used to be in terms of just numbers of people competing in college sailing.
One thing that could be addressed with college sailing is the disparity between the teams. It has been going on for many years now so it is nothing new. For the most part, it is the same teams in the top 20 each year. For a small program to break into the top end of teams and to make the Nationals seems to be getting harder and harder. I think its because the top schools are becoming even more organized and the coaches are professional. For sure the schools that can are identifying kids in high school and recruiting them to sail. I see it as a possible drawback with the college sailing system but at the same time every other sport is developing on a similar route with a growing disparity between many teams. For the overall the health of the sport sailing, we want to cast the net as wide we can and get as many people as possible introduced to the sport. College sailing is great for this and we need to encourage as many college sailors to continue on with the sport post college as possible. I worry that at the smaller less competitive schools, more people will drop out of the sport and the program will fall by the wayside. I’m not sure what or if there is a right way to address this, maybe it is to have two levels of college sailing. Like D1, 2 and three like in basketball, football,etc.
What did you do for work following graduating from URI?
While I was in college I took a semester off and I needed to make some money. I got this idea in my head that I wanted to work in a sail loft. So I went around to the sail lofts in Marblehead then down to Connecticut and finally I got down to Annapolis and there was a sail loft there that hired me to start working in the middle of January. I started at the very entry level of cutting sail numbers and sweeping the floors at what was then called, Ulmer sails. I worked there from January to the end of August. I was lucky enough to be asked to sail in the SORC, which was a big boat regatta that was a series of races that went from St. Petersburg, Florida, and eventually ended up in Nassau, Bahamas. There were 5-6 offshore races all around the bottom of Florida and races across the Gulf Stream over to the Bahamas. After that summer I went back to school, graduated with a degree in Economics, and spent a few months trying to find a position using my degree. My manager at the loft had told me before going back to school that if I ever needed a job, he had a position for me. So I called him up and said I would like to take that offer up and he hired me to be a salesman in Annapolis and I started in 1983. I worked there as salesman for about four years.
The owner of the sail loft was Jack Quinn and he was older and was looking to get out of the business. My Dad and I ended up buying the loft from him. It was a great decision looking back at it now. I was very young and hadn’t had much experience running a business, I can’t say that we did the world’s best job running the business but I got a lot of super good experience and had to make decisions, hire employees, create sales, make sails, the whole nine yards. Ulmer Sails morphed into UK Sails and we had the UK Sails, Mid-Atlantic loft.
How did you transition into working for North Sails?
Long story short, things with the UK loft didn’t work out the way we had wanted. Through sailing I had met this really nice girl who was living in Annapolis that was in the Navy, a girl who is now my wife Mary. Mary is a very accomplished sailor. She did an Olympic in the 470 in 1988. She had won both Womens and Coed College Nationals a number of times as a skipper for the US Naval Academy(racing against the boys) and was an All American, and was way more accomplished as a sailor then I was. Like I said, she was an officer in the Navy and she was transferred to San Diego. I really wanted to keep dating her, so I talked to the guys I knew at North Sails in Annapolis to see if there was a position in San Diego with them. After a few months I got the job and was hired to sell big boat sails in San Diego which I did for about a year. I had moved to a town where I didn’t really know anybody and I had a really hard time getting started selling big boat sails. Also my heart was really in working with and selling sail to One Design classes. I had a Snipe that I raced pretty much every weekend I could and went to a bunch of other one design regattas. A year or so after I started, Vince Brun, who was running North Sails One Design loft for North, asked if I was interested in working for him. I was very flattered and excited to work for Vince. He is such an accomplished sailor and sailmaker, plus I had proven wasn’t particularly good at selling big sails! So I started to go to One Design regattas representing North and it was fantastic. Two weeks after I started, I got to go to Australia for the 5.5 Meter Worlds. I didn’t even know what a 5.5 Meter looked like! That’s how I got started with North, where I worked in various different roles for the past 30 years.
Over those 30 years that I was with North One Design, the company grew 5 times over. We ended up acquiring a number of sail lofts such as Melges Sails in Wisconsin, we hired Greg Fisher, who was a huge asset and we had a great group of people passionate about growing the North brand.
How were you involved with the selling of the sails?
About 5 years after I started, we shifted the manufacturing of the sails overseas to Sri Lanka. This freed me up to worry more about selling and servicing our clients. Somewhere during this time I was assigned to manage the selling of not only One Design sails with our San Diego team but also to help the rest of the salespeople within North in North America to sell all One Design sails. Our goal was to make to so you could walk into any North loft anywhere and have the person you met with the have a basic knowledge of all the One Design products we were selling.
How has the shift from sails being produced in the US to now overseas impacted the industry?
It has forced the sailmaking companies that have done this shift (pretty much everyone) to be way more organized than in the past. Back when we were making all sails domestically, you could call up on a Wednesday and say, “I need a J24 Genoa by Friday,” and we would start making the sail first thing Thursday morning and have it ready at 4pm when the UPS truck showed up. With the shift to overseas manufacturing the “lofts” around the world are now acting as distributors. This has resulted in the need to forecast production. You now need to project out how many of each model sail for each boat you will sell in a particular month, and forecast that out at least 9 months in advance. At North, we would send that to Sri Lanka and then they would estimate how much fabric they needed to make all the sails forecast, and then send that to the various cloth suppliers. You end up with a huge supply chain puzzle that you are trying to solve. What you don’t want to do is have to ship the cloth to Sri Lanka via air freight, you want to ship it by sea freight, and once the sails are built you want to ship it to the distribution sites via sea freight to maintain your margins. This shift was painful for many people in the industry used to doing it the old way, but it has brought in a completely new level of organization to the various sail making companies.
The other big shift this forced was in the way we made sails. Any current or past sailmaker will appreciate this. In the past the way to make a sail was often based “institutional knowledge”. So say you are the guy that puts all the luff tapes on the sails in the finishing process, and you know that on a J24 Genoa you pull the luff tape to 25 pounds of tension. You’ve done it so many times that you just know and don’t need to look at a manual or any documentation. The shift overseas made the industry require high quality documentation of every little step along the process of building a sail. The people in Sri Lanka (China, Phillipines, etc.) don’t know anything about sails or sailing and so you must have really good documentation and information for them to make the sails well. I was proud that after a while of operating with this industry shift, you couldn’t tell if a North One Design sail was made in Sri Lanka or here in the US, proving that the decision to move production overseas had worked.
When managing, what were some things you aimed to do?
We tried to give everyone a lot of room to be creative. So if someone had an idea about how to make a better sail, we would listen seriously to their ideas and give them a lot of rope. Many people who work at North are excellent sailors and they have good knowledge about what makes a boat go fast. As management, it was really important to nurture their ability to express themselves, be creative and allow them try to make a better product all the time. I’m proud that we were able to keep that going. As you might suspect it gets tougher with the longer lead times involved overseas.
We also spent a lot of money to send people to regattas. On the surface, one could argue it was a big waste of money but it really isn’t. For starters, to sell sails, you have to be present at the regattas with the customers. The people who are selling the sales have to believe in the product and believe that it is the best. If they are not out there in the field using it and testing it, and getting feedback on it firsthand, it is very difficult to know whether the product is the best or not.
One thing that has changed in the world of sailing since I’ve started is how sailmakers interact with the customers. Now you have professional sailors whose job is to worry about sailing full time. They figure out how to make a boat go fast and win regattas for the people who are paying them. From a sailmakers perspective you now might have two clients, one the owner who is paying the bill for the sails and two, the pro onboard who is using the sails! Most pros who are worth paying know as much or more about how to make a particular boat go fast as any sailmaker so their input is super important to the sailmaker. At many events the sailmakers are present to service client but may not be sailing. 20 plus years ago the sailmakers were the professionals onboard but that has changed since.
What are some of your proudest moments while with North for over three decades?
Lots of proud moments, but I think the best are when you come in on a Monday and get a call from a client who used his or her new sail for the first time that weekend and is just calling to report back that the sail actually made their boat go faster. I get asked many times, “will a new sail actually make my boat go faster?” My answer is usually yes because it is true. In almost every case a new sail is better than one that has been used. But, sailing has so many variables and vagaries that it might not always be obvious that the sail you just spend your hard earned money on is faster. When the client can see that it is very satisfying and you feel like you have done your job well.
What are some of the biggest changes you have seen in the sailing industry? – People are really strapped for time now. Sailing is a very time-intensive sport and a typical weekend regatta starts on Friday afternoon and doesn’t end until late Sunday, then everyone needs to be back at work on Monday. People nowadays have so many things on their plate and with the advent of technology, you can kind of be working 24/7. Its harder and harder for people to go away and participate in regattas. This is one of the reasons we are seeing sailing kind of stagnating and not growing. This is a type of change that the leaders of the sailing industry worldwide certainly need to look at. The effects all the sailing related businesses. Businesses that are not growing do not allow people within them to move up and it is harder to attract younger people to start careers in these businesses.
On the positive side of this, I’ve seen more young people than ever before getting involved in starting sailing. Take high school sailing for example, it has just gone off the charts with participation. Junior sailing programs attendance has also gone off the charts. These have been very positive for the sport and we need to figure out a way to translate that participation on from the junior and youth level to growth at the young adult and adult level.
From a personal level, my kids were involved with high school sailing here in San Diego and many kids on their sailing teams had never been exposed to sailing. They started by crewing in a FJ and now they are crewing on a college team. Sadly after graduating college, many don’t stay involved with sailing. The sport as a whole needs to figure out a way to capture these types of sailors to make it affordable, approachable, and less time consuming. The format of the two or three day regatta that you travel to by towing your boat on a trailer to might not be a good way to grow the sport.
Another viable idea for re-energizing this group of sailors would be One Design classes that can be easily and cheaply moved in containers. People could pay a subscription to the class and with that the boats would be on site, rigged and ready to go. You sign up for certain events and there is less of a commitment in terms of having to own a boat outright, find a place to store it, etc..
When I was growing up sailing, adult racing was going on concurrently with us at the same regattas. As youth sailors, we were exposed and encouraged to participate with the adults at a pretty young age. So in a way the path was obvious to us how we would progress onto future boats. It was a good way to keep the continuum going. Now I look at the explosion of youth sailing, which is amazing, but because the boats are boats that only youth sail, these young sailors often don’t get exposed to “lifelong” type of boats until their entire youth career is over and then it might be too late.
Tell us about your involvement with the Wounded Warrior Sailing
It was something I had wanted to do for a long time but I didn’t have a lot of time to do it the past few years. Recently with this new chapter starting, I was able to get involved and it is amazing. The program is a complete introduction to sailing for people who have never been on the water It is specifically for military veterans who have been injured in one way or another, whether it is physical or mental. They can apply to the Warrior Sailing Program, which is supported by the Merchant Marine Academy foundation and the VA. The program brings veterans, all expenses paid, to sail and I was lucky to be one of the volunteer coaches. It was so much fun to see how excited these guys and girls were. They loved it, they couldn’t get enough of it. I am getting a lot of text messages asking, “when can we go sailing again?!” For me it is a nice way to give something back to the men and women who have sacrificed so much to defend our country. It’s a truly fantastic program. If anyone out there can support it please go to https://warriorsailing.org/donate/ for more information.
What experience do you have with junior sailing advisory?
A number of years ago when my children were in junior programs at the San Diego Yacht Club and I found helping out to be an incredibly rewarding experience. It was great to help our the club figure out what it wanted to do and accomplish with its junior program, even though it has a long history. We came to understand the need to build the pyramid, with beginners being the biggest group and flowing up to the most advanced racing programs at the very top. We made sure to try to get as many new sailors as we could at the bottom of that pyramid and make sure that they are having fun first and foremost.
Often times we see programs with too much of a focus solely on racing and the competitiveness of everything. When the kids don’t finish well, the kids get frustrated and then the parents start complaining to and about the coaches and directors and so on and so forth. Sailing then can really lose its fun factor and kids and families drop out of the sport. I really enjoyed helping the Junior Director and Board of Directors at the yacht club figure out how to address this. We made sure that our junior program has adult advisors, and when there is a problem with a parent, it’s not the job of the Junior Director to deal with the parent, but instead the advisors job. This way the interaction is parent-to-parent instead of parent-to-employee. We saw this help diffuse and take a lot of unwarranted pressure off the Director. Never get between a mother bear and its cub right?
Where do you see the sport moving in the coming years?
I don’t see a lot of sweeping changes ahead unless we make changes to the accessibility of the sport and so more people get involved. For participation in the US, something like a US team winning the next America’s Cup would have a very positive impact on the sport, and make more of the public aware or our sport.. Same with the US doing well at the Olympics. That would also have a good impact on sailing here. Both the America’s Cup and the Olympics transcend the sailing community.
Boats are going to keep improving and getting more exciting which will help get people more interested. We will soon have foiling type boats for the average person. Seeing more sailing on TV will be good, but sailing looks incredibly hard to do on TV, we are still at the total mercy of nature! I would really like to see a true professional sailing circuit, like what Sail GP is attempting to do, in which the circuit is a commercially viable enterprise that will attract advertisers and sponsors who feel they are getting a good return on their investment. Also where the athletes are paid well. Once we get something like this, where sailors are with one program and are making a real living, it will start to change the dynamic. This would be a good change from the model of professional sailing now with pros moving from gig to gig and boat to boat at each regatta. It will create a more consistent pro sailing scene and a path for people that want to sail as a career to aspire to.
How would you capture college sailing alumni into sailing more?
One idea is to have more team sailing events. It has the potential to bring a lot of people together, have a lot of races, and people don’t have to sail every race, similar to collegiate sailing. Use a 2 person boat and have 4 people on your team. You take turns sailing like you do in college. Half of the time when you are at the regatta, you are hanging out on shore, watching the racing and chatting with other friends and teams, socializing. The cost is also dramatically less. You share the burden the boat, getting the boat there, and the regatta costs. Take example the Mission Bay Yacht Club in San Diego, racing starts around 10, the sailing area is close, come in and have lunch on the deck looking out over Mission Bay, go back out and have three more races and be done by 3pm and you can still leave and do something else with the rest of your day. I think formats like this could be very appealing.
What is next for you?
I am still working on that! Sailing is my life and I plan to keep at it and keep racing until I can no longer physically do it. The coolest thing about sailing is you literally learn something new each time you go out. So I do plan to keep racing and now have more time to prepare my own and other’s programs well.
I think that the sailing lifestyle has a way to transform people into happier human beings. Happier people are good for the world! You can go sailing for two hours on a Wednesday night and that will get you through weeks! Ideally I can work my way into a position to help get more people out on the water and the people who are already participating sailing more and getting more from their participation. Maybe that is by coaching, running a program or something else.
Chris can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org