Neil Mackley, director of North Sails, chats to Sue Pelling about his passion for sailmaking, particularly at events such as Antigua Sailing Week

For Neil Mackley, director of North Sails, competing at Antigua Sailing Week is ‘just another day in the office’. Mackley, aka in the business as ‘Strapper’, has probably had one of his best seasons yet having competed in every Caribbean regatta to date this year including St Martin, St Thomas, the BVI Spring Regatta and now Antigua.

Mackley’s primary involvement within his business is in sales, marketing and development which is why it is so important he attends most of the major regattas usually with a position aboard one of the competing yachts.

Chatting about his role Mackley commented: “It’s a bit of a busman’s holiday in a way. Our customers spend a lot of money on their sails and they want to ensure they get the best from them. They pay for us to come out here, to look at the sails, check them out and adjust if necessary.”

For Antigua Sailing Week Mackley is aboard Zingala, a new Swan 56 which was launched last September. She then spent the winter in the Caribbean on charter and for this event she’s been chartered by Barry Polley from the UK. Mackley continued: “The reason I’m out here on this occasion is a bit of a strange one. The owner unfortunately couldn’t make it so he’s chartered the boat to Polley and in this instance I’ve become part of the charter of the boat. He has his usual crew onboard but I’m here as the owner’s representative – part of the package. My job is looking at the sails and making sure they work. Looking after the owner’s interest to make sure the product is right. If anything needs fixing I’m the one who’ll spend the night in the sail loft.

“My position on the boat is main trimmer and my role is basically boatspeed making sure the boat’s going fast at all times while David Bedford, doing the tactics, keeps us going fast in the right direction. Other members of the crew include, Terry Parker, Scott Moody and Ian Brown from Quantum Sails.”

Commenting in the fact that there are two sailmakers on board, and there would have been three had Jeremy Robinson from Sobstad been onboard instead of Bedford, Mackley said: “Having two sailmakers on board from different lofts is a bit strange but Ian Brown from Quantum Sails is an old friend of Barry’s. It could be a bit difficult but at the end of the day we’re both sailmakers and listen to what each other has to say. In general terms Brown’s here on holiday whereas I’m here working on behalf of the owner who’s bought the sails.”

Despite being her first time on the racetrack, Zingala has every chance of some top results. She’s basically a development of Lolita that has won Antigua for the last three years. Mackley continued: “She has similar, proven layout which makes her easy to sail but there is however, only so much you can do to a multi-role boat (racer-cruiser/cruiser-racer) like this. Whatever you do, there’s no getting away from the fact she comes complete with all of her creature comforts down below as opposed to the stripped out one-off boats.”

Catching up back in the office after such a regatta takes several days. As well as the day-to-day tasks one of the most important is downloading the images taken during sailing. Mackley continued: “We take 100s of photos of the sails in action and then translate them into a programme that digitises them. This allows us to relate the sails back in terms of their flying shape to their design shape so we can then further develop. Basically the owner will buy the sails, use them and we’ll modify them if need be. The reason we need to be on the water is to continually develop and improve. A lot of the changes we make you won’t see for two or three months, other changes are instant.”

So it’s back in the office next Tuesday but before then Mackley has to fly back to the UK on Friday and on Saturday morning head straight to Falmouth for the launch of a Dubois 96. In two week’s time he’s off to the Med to sail aboard the 76ft Enigma, a new boat which, with Mackley aboard, won the Fastnet last year.

And does he enjoy his job? Mackley concludes: “Sitting on the beach under a classic Caribbean sunset I’d be misleading you if I said no but despite all the glamour which goes with these regattas I still have my sales targets to meet at the end of the day – also a weekend off occasionally would be good!”