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January 26, 2005:


Kristen Heissenbuttel ’99 has built the world’s largest mainsail for the world’s largest single-masted, privately owned yacht, the 245-foot-long Mirabella V. (Courtesy Kristen Heissenbuttel ’99)

The engineering of wind
Kristen Heissenbuttel ’99 designs sails

Having grown up sailing Flying Scots with her family on Long Island Sound near her hometown of Ridgefield, Conn., Kristen Heissenbuttel ’99 was fascinated by the similarities she saw between the mechanics of wind moving over a sail and the gases and fluids moving through the pipes in her fluid-mechanics classes at Princeton. A chemical-engineering major, she had dreamed of eventually combining her engineering background with her love of sailing, but she wasn’t sure how to do it.

After graduation and a one-year Project 55 fellowship in New York overseeing the finances of a nonprofit organization, she hit upon sail-making. She wrote to the presidents of several sail manufacturers but wondered whether they would respond because she hadn’t been a competitive sailor like most people in the industry, and she lacked hands-on sail-making skills.

She need not have worried. Just four weeks after Robbie Doyle, founder of Doyle Sailmakers, Inc., received her letter, Heissenbuttel started her first day on the job at the company’s headquarters in Marblehead, Mass. One of her first assignments was to design and build the world’s largest mainsail and headsail for what would be the world’s largest single-masted, privately owned yacht, the 245-foot-long Mirabella V. Her non-traditional background was a perfect fit for the project, which required the designers to think about sail-making in new ways. “I had a different skill set than most of the people,” explains Heissenbuttel, who was the head engineer and project manager for the groundbreaking Mirabella V sails.

Heissenbuttel drafted the design and construction specifications using a computer-aided design program. She determined the final dimensions of the sails (too large and the boat will be overpowered by the wind; too small and the boat won’t go fast enough), the range of wind speed where the boat would be sailed, the load — or wind pressure — on the sail, and the hardware connecting the sail to the boat.

With Mirabella V, there was no sailcloth commercially available that was light enough and strong enough to withstand the load. So for two years Heissenbuttel worked with a fabric mill to develop a new, lightweight sailcloth made from high-tech synthetic fiber.

Her unconventional career has yielded some choice perks. At the end of projects, she takes her sails for test runs on the boats to see how the designs work. Regular trips to England, Monaco, and France to check on her projects are a plus, and Heissenbuttel has warmed to the small-town life in Marblehead. Novelist Ben Sherwood, who bases his stories on close-knit communities, even used her as an inspiration for a character in his most recent novel, The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud.

Heissenbuttel sees her life as serendipitous. She says, “You never know unless you try, and the worst that can happen is you fail and you start over.”

By Kathryn Beaumont ’96