Doyle Sails | Seven to Seventy: Robbie Doyle’s lifetime in sailing

Seven to Seventy: Robbie Doyle’s lifetime in sailing

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Written by Justin Chisholm

Doyle Sails founder Robbie Doyle was seven years old when he first set foot in a sailboat at Mystic Lakes in Massachusetts. He was there because his father had enrolled him and his five siblings at a sailing school in an effort to distract his older brother from contact sports because of a back injury sustained as a baby. “Neither of my parents were sailors but after my older brother fell out of his crib and cracked a vertebra, the doctors were concerned that he really should never play contact sports,” recalls Doyle, who will turn 70 this year.

“My father was of the mind that you don't tell a kid what not to do, rather you find something that he wants to do and let him go that direction. He was a doctor and he had a friend at the hospital who was big into sailing who told him that when it comes to kids and sailing, you can’t get them involved too soon. “So that was it. He went off to a boat show and ended up signing the whole family up for sailing lessons.”

We know now that being introduced to the sport of sailing was a genuine life changing moment for Doyle – he has after all established one of the world’s best known sailmaking businesses and become a household name in the yacht racing world – and yet, he does not recall any special ‘magic moment’ about experiencing sailing for the first time. “There was nothing like that,” he says. “It was just another fun game I tried to win.”

After some introductory lessons the family bought a $200 plywood dinghy which the Doyle children and their mother spent ages rigging in preparation for their first ever family sail. “it took about five hours but we finally got everything connected and sailed out,” Doyle recalls. “Basically we all thought we were going to tip over and die so we came back to the dock five minutes later in a total panic.”

Mystic Lake
Upper Mystic Lake, Massachusetts where Robbe Doyle first learned to sail with his family © Tufts Alumni /Flickr

Despite this somewhat inauspicious start to his sailing career the young Robbie Doyle persevered and by the time he was in his teens he was beginning to make a name for himself on the sailing scene. He won two junior national championship titles at ages 14 and 15 but missed out on a chance to win a record breaking third after suffering equipment failure when he opted to fly a spinnaker while leading a race in windy conditions at the regional qualifier. We were way ahead,” Doyle said. “Then the hiking stick broke and the boat wiped out and we lost the championship. I asked for break down points because they were borrowed boats and the judges said no because they thought it was an irresponsible act to be leading and setting a spinnaker in those conditions. Doyle didn’t think much of their decision but neither did he argue. “That's just the way I sail,” he said simply.

Doyle had set his heart on representing the United States at the Olympics and after ruling out swimming and basketball – both sports where he excelled – he decided to try his hand in the Finn Class, despite at the age of 17 not really having the ideal physique. “I was all of 145 lbs and an ideal weight was 200 lbs to sail a Finn,” Doyle said. “I realised there was no limit on how much wet clothing you could wear. My girlfriend at the time, Janet – who is now my wife – would make up weight jackets from sweatshirts. We would take the sleeves off and sew them to the back of the shoulders so I could get the weight as far out as possible. I ended up sailing around with 150 pounds of wet sweat clothing on my 145-pound body. That way I was competitive in all conditions.”

Doyle missed out on qualifying for the Olympics by a fraction of a point but had impressed the selectors enough for them to send him as a reserve sailor and tune up partner for the US Sailing Team in 1968. “I got to sail Star boats, Flying Dutchmen and Dragons and, because I was the alternate/tune up skipper for all these guys, I got to know them all pretty well,” Doyle said. “We trained for two weeks before we went down to Mexico. It was all quite an experience.” In Mexico Doyle sailed a practice race in the Finn where he and US representative Carl van Duyne dominated. “We had put the time in and we were quick, perhaps even the fastest Finn sailors in the world at that point,” Doyle said.

“I was sure Carl was going to win gold but in the first race he hit a mark. Back then that meant disqualification and despite the fact that nobody saw the infraction and nobody was protesting, he pulled out of the race and his medal hopes were over. They changed the rule the next time around to allow people to re-round if they hit a buoy.”

Doyle had planned to follow his father into medicine but after studying applied physics as part of his pre-med courses at Harvard he was recruited by Ted Hood to work as his right-hand man on research and development at Hood Sails.

Robbie Pants
Robbie Doyle and Ted Hood at Hood Sailmakers in 1976

“The physics and fluid dynamics I was studying had been dovetailing nicely with my sailing,” Doyle remembers. “The whole idea of sailing being a science was very appealing to me. “I did many of my courses at MIT where I was working with people like Jerry Milgram and Damon Cummings who were basically among the leading thinkers in the science of fluid dynamics.”

Doyle had told himself that his sojourn into the world of sailmaking would not last more than a year, but when his 12 months was up he found himself having to choose between beginning his medical training or accepting an offer to challenge for the America’s Cup with Ted Turner. Ultimately the lure of the America’s Cup was too strong to resist and Doyle joined Turner’s campaign aboard the 12-metre Mariner.

“Initially the plan was for me and Dennis Conner to be co-tacticians,” Doyle said. “But we pretty soon worked out that with that boat it didn’t matter who was calling tactics, we still weren’t going to win a sailboat race.”

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Dennis Conner (left) Robbie Doyle (centre) and Ted Turner on board Mariner - 1974 America’s Cup © Paul Darling Photography Maritime Productions

Smartly, Doyle stepped into the role of sail trimmer and although, as expected, Mariner failed to shine in the Defender trials, for the Cup itself Connor and Doyle were brought on board the team of the American defender – Ted Hood’s Courageous.

“I was asked to bring the sails I had designed and work with the Courageous sail and sail trimming program, which of course I did,” Doyle said. “Courageous went on to win the Cup and that gave me a lot of recognition within the sailmaking world.”

“After this, as general manager of Hood Sailmakers,” Doyle said. “I got involved with a Dutch sailor, Cornelis “Conny” van Rietschoten, who used our sails to win the 1977-78 Whitbread Round the World Race. Part of the work Doyle Sails did with the pioneering van Rietschoten led to the development of the first hydraulic mast step. “We needed to have a way to get the rig out of the boat even if it was light air in South Africa,” Doyle explains. “So over a bunch of beers and after lots of thinking we came up with a hydraulic mast step – and that soon became a staple.”

Around the same time Ted Turner decided to give the America’s Cup another shot and recruited Doyle for his victory against the Australians in 1977. “It was a golden time back then,” Doyle recalls. “We were winning around the world races and America's Cups and plenty of other one design and offshore races.”

In 1977, Ted Turner successfully defended the America's Cup onboard 'Courageous'. Robbie and Janet Doyle pictured to the left in the cockpit.
The winning 'Courageous' crew in 1977 (Photo credit: courtesy of Gary Jobson)

Things were going well but after a European investor bought the business Doyle decided it was time to move on. Doyle Sailmakers was started in the summer of 1982, 300 yards down the street from Hood. Searching for a way to distinguish Doyle sails from the competition Doyle decided to play to his personal strengths by making investments in technology.

“I didn’t think we should be building sails in the 21st century the same way they had been built in the 18th and 19th centuries,” he said. “So we bought a laser cutter almost straight away and we went completely over to computer design.” Doyle Sailmakers original marketing slogan was: ‘the high-tech sailmaker' which provoked an angry rebuttal from North Sails who believed that mantle already belong to them. “Of course that was just perfect for us,” Doyle says. “To have them to start a dialogue in the press about us like that couldn't have been better marketing for us as a new business.” Backing up the marketing hype Doyle sails quickly built a reputation as a company that was changing sailmaking from a dark and mysterious art to a solid and well documented science.

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Doyle Sails Inc, Marblehead, MA in 1986. L to R: Lexi Gahagan, Jud Smith, Robbie Doyle, Jack Slattery, Tom Whitmore & Steve Cruse

The company began making in-roads into the highly active Southern Ocean Racing Conference (SORC) fleets in the United States, building sails for successful boats such as the maxis Windward Passage and Ondine, as well as others like the well-known 50-footer Fujimo which immediately started to outperform with Doyle sails on board.

Doyle’s break into the world of super yachts came somewhat fortuitously when in the mid-eighties he found himself sitting on a flight next to the legendary American venture capitalist and avid yachtsman, Tom Perkins. After spotting the various sail plans Doyle had on his tray table, Perkins engaged Doyle in a conversation about sailing which culminated with Perkins explaining that he had commissioned a 43-metre ketch called Andromeda la Dea from an Italian boatyard called Perini Navi. “He told me the sails had become a big problem and then asked if I could design sails for a boat that size,” Doyle recalls. “So I did what any entrepreneur would do and said: ‘Yes! Absolutely!’

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Tom Perkins' 43-metre ketch called 'Andromeda la Dea' © Cory Silken

The sails for Andromeda were a success and this led to Doyle working with Perkins on his next boat – the revolutionary 88-metre three-masted Maltese Falcon.

In 1986 Doyle Sails also made the sails for sails a new 125-foot Sparkman and Stevens yacht called Freedom which had been commissioned for long distance cruising by William E. Simon – a former US Secretary of the Treasury. According to Doyle Freedom relaunched the world of super yachts in the United States. “There hadn't been 100-foot plus sailboat built in a while,” he says. “They did an around the world trip and those sails worked out very, very well and got us a lot of credibility with Sparkman and Stevens. As they started building more and more of those boats we got many of those sail orders.”

Meanwhile Perini Navi had been impressed with Tom Perkin’s sails that they made Doyle Sailmakers their preferred sailmaker. “That was a big deal because Perini Navi liked to do everything in-house – they even owned a local sailmaker that was building their original sails,” Doyle explained. “So it’s fair to say that we were a little bit of a stretch for them but more and more of their customers started asking for us and that part of our business got roaring along.”

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Tom Perkins sought out Robbie Doyle to build the sails for 2nd yacht the 88-metre, three-masted 'Maltese Falcon'

News of Doyle Sailmakers ongoing success soon spread internationally, triggering a steady stream of enquiries from sailmaking businesses around the world looking to be a part of the Doyle brand. “We had lofts from England, Italy, Austria, New Zealand and Australia contacting us, Doyle says. “I didn't have any capital to buy them so we created a licensing system so that all these businesses all over the world became licensees of Doyle Sails.”

In 2017 Robbie made the decision to sell the Doyle brand to a group from Doyle Sails New Zealand led by renowned yachtsman Mike Sanderson. “It was time to have some younger people run the company” Doyle explains. “I'd gotten to know Mike Sanderson a bit competing against him on the Maxi 72 circuit when he was on Bella Mente and I was on Proteus. The more we talked, the more I was convinced it was a good fit and the right move for the company.” Robbie remains active at the Doyle loft located in Salem, Massachusetts.

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Robbie Doyle and Mike Sanderson shake hands at the 2017 America's Cup - signifying the brand hand over

In recent years Doyle has been closely involved with two revolutionary projects - to build the colossal sails for the three-masted 183-metre Sailing Yacht A, and for the 107-metre Black Pearl.

This year his large-scale sailmaking expertise was called upon to design and build a very large set of furling acoustic panels to be installed at an innovative new cultural venue in New York City called the Shed at Hudson Yards.

The Shed   Complete 48206488176
The Shed (formerly known as Culture Shed and Hudson Yards Cultural Shed) is a cultural center in Hudson Yards, Manhattan, New York City. Opened on April 5, 2019, the Shed commissions, produces, and presents a wide range of activities in performing arts, visual arts, and pop culture.

Beyond the day to day projects that keep him occupied Robbie also continues to give thought to how sail power could be used to reduce or eliminate the pollution caused by ocean going tankers. “There are some sailing ship projects we're involved in where the idea is to go all green,” he says. “The technology we have developed over the years with sailboats could be what will make these ideas a reality. “I just was sailing on Perseus^3 (a 60-metre Perini Navi super yacht) at the St. Barths Bucket,” he said. “That boat weighs over a million pounds and, under the world’s biggest sail, we were sailing along at 17 or 18 knots at times. “That's a lot of horsepower required to drive that boat at those speeds and the fact that efficient sails can generate that type of horse power could, I think, serve the world in a lot of good ways.”

Stay tuned. Doyle has always risen to the engineering challenges of our changing world. Engineering expertise is becoming more sought after and Doyle has the manpower to do revolutionary projects in and out of the sailmaking field.

A huge congratulations to Robbie Doyle and his family for a lifetime of sailing achievements and for his well-deserved induction into the National Sailing Hall of Fame this month. Here's to many more exciting years to come!


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