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Elite sail maker changes tack to produce medical gowns for race against coronavirus

States, hospitals still scrambling for supplies
States, hospitals still scrambling for suppli... 13:45

Tokyo — When Junichiro Shiraishi heard the coronavirus pandemic was leaving doctors and nurses desperately short of medical gowns, it took him just a few days to sew up a solution. Shiraishi is the chief adviser for North Sails Japan, which designs and produces sails for some of the world's fastest competitive vessels.

In every Summer Olympics since the 1996 Atlanta Games, the Yokohama-based outfit has supplied sails to gold medalists. Worldwide, 80% of the sails used in the "470 class," Olympic-level, two-person dinghies have come off North Sails' factory line. 

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Workers in the North Sails Japan factory make medical gowns using sailcloth at their factory in Yokohama.  Handout/North Sails Japan

Shiraishi is a champion sailor himself, but medical equipment manufacturing represented uncharted waters. With the Olympics and every major regatta on hold, the Yokohama assembly line had been left high and dry. But Shiraishi saw a way to keep his 30 workers occupied, while also joining the fight against COVID-19.

North Sails Japan is just the latest in a vast, global migration of firms enlisting in the war on the coronavirus. Around the world, health care workers are being imperiled by a dearth of masks, face shields and other personal protective equipment (PPE), and a wide array of industries — from apparel to automotive and electronics, and even chocolate makers — have stepped up and re-tooled their factories and supply chains in a worldwide "pivot to PPE."

Water-resistant and designed to block airflow, North Sails Japan's coated polyester sailcloth seemed ideal for shielding frontline medical staff from infectious disease. Engineered to make boats speed as fast as possible without adding superfluous weight, high-performance sailcloth meant for elite competition is super-thin and lightweight; Shiraishi said a meter of the fabric weighs less than one ounce. A spinnaker sail's-worth of fabric can yield seven medical gowns. 

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A model shows one of North Sails Japan's medical gowns, made from sailcloth at the company's Yokohama factory. Handout/North Sails Japan

Sailcloth gowns aren't without their downsides; they can be uncomfortably steamy in warm weather and they're not flame-retardant. "But conventional hazmat suits are also hot to wear," he noted to CBS News. "There's a tradeoff between safety and comfort." 

Japanese Health Ministry guidelines recommend PPE be discarded after each use. But one of Shiraishi's clients, a doctor and yachting enthusiast, gave the prototype a thumbs-up, so this week, North Sails began taking orders.

At ¥7,000 (about $65) each, the sail-gowns are several times more expensive than many disposable versions - but they can be washed and reused. 

At a full clip, the Yokohama factory can make only about 100 gowns per day, a drop in the ocean of need, Shiraishi concedes, but a way to lend a hand. 

"In order to be able to sail again, and for the Olympics to happen next year, the virus must be contained," he told the Asahi newspaper.  "If we can contribute, we want to do our best."

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